I use the term “Mahamism” in this article to express President John Mahama’s undergirding philosophy that only through an effective and efficient [transport] infrastructure can a truly egalitarian Ghana, with fair equality of opportunity for all, can be delivered. Our history lessons teach us that some of the legacies of our chequered history as they relate to our transportation subsector included a network of incomplete infrastructure and an over-emphasis on rail development (at the expense of other modes of transport) with the sole aim of facilitating the bulk movement of our natural resources.
Whether you look at this history in terms of the colonial era or the period just after independence, you are bound to reach once conclusion: our history bequeathed tremendous institutional and structural distortions that continue to shape the delivery of an effective transportation system today. For example, the colonialists’ overemphasis on the development of rail infrastructure [which were mostly built to very basic technical specifications which did not take into account the need for speed] meant that once we began building roads, the rail infrastructure just couldn’t compete in the time-sensitive passenger transport markets.
Similarly, the Marxist-Leninist socialist ideologies adopted by many African leaders post-independence, while aiming to deliver socially-just and equitable outcomes, indeed resulted in massive inefficiencies largely because these leaders had utopian visions of what could be achieved with state ownership or control.
A United Nations report notes that compared to any other part of the world, Africa has the highest inland transport costs. International transport costs faced by African countries is about 13% of the delivered value of exports. This is more than twice the world average of 6.1%. Indeed, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimates that in landlocked countries such as Mali, Rwanda, Malawi, and Niger, international transport costs are even higher with some standing at a whopping 56%.
Undoubtedly, these extremely high transport costs have serious implications on the volume and nature of international trade, commodity composition of trade and the organization of trade. This is especially true when examined against the backdrop of the increasing globalization of “just-in-time” methods. A result of the exceedingly high transport costs in Africa is a 20% reduction in trade.
A corollary question then is, what factors account for these high transport costs in Africa?
Africa’s transport costs are relatively high because of an amalgam of factors including inefficient clearance of customs and border-control systems, poor quality information technology systems, cumbersome and expensive shipment arrangement systems, incompetence among transport operators and customs brokers, failure of IT systems to track and trace shipments, and an inefficient network of infrastructure required to meet the demands of tightly organized international trade systems. While all the factors listed above are important, the most important, arguably, is the network of physical infrastructure. The need to build, build, and build more transport infrastructure in Ghana can, therefore, not be overemphasized.
This need cuts across all modes of transport – road, rail, marine, and aviation, for freight and passenger and across spatial divides. Like most of Africa, we have very serious deficits in each of these areas. In an increasingly globalizing world, transport infrastructure does not only facilitate trade, it also connects people to their jobs and helps to reduce the social exclusion of vulnerable population groups by allowing them to participate in the normal activities of life. By investing in the right type of infrastructure, it is possible to use transport as the conduit for helping protect the environment. For example, by rolling out a network of electric vehicle charging points (I know we are not there yet), people can be incentivized to use the more environmentally friendly alternative: electric cars. There are economic benefits too. People directly employed in the delivery of transport infrastructures such as transport planners, civil engineers, bricklayers, and labourers contribute to the economic prospects of the country. Indeed, infrastructure is so important that in Maslowian terms, it can easily sit within our “physiological needs” as a country.
From a transport planning perspective, I dare to argue that it is almost impossible to leapfrog to other policy instruments such as school/staff travel planning, personalized travel planning, road freight fleet management systems, real-time passenger information, and road user charging systems unless we get the infrastructure bit out of the way.
This is because no building can stand high and straight unless it is based on a solid foundation and supported by strong pillars.
Physical infrastructure such as roads and port-rail connections are the foundations of effective and efficient transportation without which the entire transport ‘edifice’ will come crumbling down. And that is why President John Mahama’s focus on infrastructure (Mahamism) ought to undergird all visions of a sustainable transportation system in Ghana.
By Dr Sheriff Adam
(The author is the Director of Delphi Transport Systems in the United Kingdom. He has a wide range of interests in transport planning and policy including the governance of transport systems, strategic planning, imagineering transport futures, and how transport might be used to deliver fair and equitable outcomes in pluralistic societies).