Could Aka be TAZARA’ saviour?

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Founder member of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, has used his dogged, expressive style to ingrain himself on Zambia’s political and social conscience. Now he is head of TAZARA and promising more according to KALI MULUZI & FLOLICS KASUMBALESA

 You don’t get small talk with Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika. The long time Zambian technocrat fashions himself as a man with a great deal of both idealism  and practicality. In private briefings, as in press interviews, he exudes intense focus. 

An avowed pan-Africanist, Mbikusita- Lewanika belongs to one of Zambia’s most  renowned families, and is of royal lineage from the Western province. With four academic degrees to his name, he is among other things, one of the crafters of Zambia’s ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy  (MMD), a former cabinet minister, and until recently was President Rupiah Banda’s political advisor at State House.

Now he is managing director of the Tanzania-Zambia Railways Authority (TAZARA),  an assignment he was handed earlier this year. In his first sit-in interview  since taking office, he speaks in passionate tones about the company’s  current situation, its development strategy and the role of the railway  in developing trade in the region.  “I am very excited, very  confident about my assignment here,” he says. “This project is extremely important to Tanzania and Zambia”. 

He speaks as one with a sense of urgency, which is understandable. He wants to  remake the troubled railway, historically steeped in controversy, into  an operation more relevant in today’s regional matrix. At the time  the project of a railway linking the two countries was conceived, orthodox  thinking was that it was not viable because of low economic activity  to justify it.
“It’s now quite obvious that such assumptions have been disproved over the years,” says Mbikusita-Lewanika who is widely called ‘Aka’ in Zambia; a shortened version of his first name.  “The economic demand for TAZARA is higher than ever imagined and is  way above the railway’s current capacity”. 

Therein lies the problem. Cargo importers and exporters have long cried out for TAZARA to increase its capacity and get its notoriously late trains to start  running on time. A more fluid railway would clearly benefit Tanzania and Zambia. More significantly, its advantages would be a huge boon to other countries in east and southern Africa. “I’m confident that given the political will of the Tanzania, Zambia and Chinese governments,  TAZARA can move significantly towards achieving its original mandate,”  says Mbikusita-Lewanika. 

Under his watch, he says, TAZARA will strive to be a guarantor of fluid regional  movement of cargo among countries in the region. But to do that, it  desperately needs to be an agile railway system.

This notion is, however, nothing new and has been repeated ad nauseam ever since the rail tracks,  which run from Tanzania’s port city of Dar es Salaam to Kapiri-Mposhi  in central Zambia, were laid by a combined team of Chinese, Tanzanian,  Zambian and constructors in the 1970s.   The accord between Tanzania and Zambia was that the post of chief executive would  be held by a Zambian, with other managerial positions shared among nationals  of the two countries. The managing director’s seat has since been occupied by various functionaries including career civil servants, politicians, and a military general. Mbikusita-Lewanika is the first cabinet minister to assume the brief. “The challenge,” he told TANZANIAINVEST shortly after moving to the head office  in Dar “is to transform TAZARA”. 

Indeed, ‘Aka’ seems to understand that if the struggling railway system does not act on calls for it to weed out inefficiency, it will not succeed.

He is clear  about the immediate issues that need tackling in the attempt to make  TAZARA a success story. One obvious challenge is the three-fold factor concerning the power of the locomotives, the capacity of the wagons,  and the dire need to get the trains running on schedule. “There is a great deficiency in the number of locomotives and wagons that we have,” he concedes. 

Even with its present antiquated infrastructure, he believes, TAZARA would serve  disaffected cargo exporters and importers better by simply increasing  its number of locomotives and wagons. Currently, the company has 1,853 commercial wagons. But only 988 – or 53 percent of these – are operating.  The other 865 are defective, although 500 can be salvaged. The Chinese government has pledged more assistance through the 14 th protocol signed over TAZARA, which would see infusion of capital at  some stage soon. “Until then, we will focus our minds on doing the best we can with what we have,” he says. 

The current strategy is to ensure at least 14 locomotives are operating each day.  But the creaking railway system is strapped with a backlog of debt, weighed down by low capacity utilisation, and hobbled by serious liquidity  problems. Mbikusita-Lewanika has taken over a very sick company.

At best, TAZARA has been averaging a turnover of US$3 million each month,  which is inadequate to cover its daily operations. The new CEO’s target is to immediately boost that figure to at least US$5 million.

“I’m pushing to ensure available revenues go to areas of expenditure that  more greatly assure locomotive capacity and increase the number of wagons”.  ‘Aka’ appears to be already striving to come good on his promises. In June, the railway system commissioned its 28th newly upgraded wagon in Kapiri-Mposhi.  Mbikusita-Lewanika revealed that TAZARA aims to refurbish 500 wagons by the end of this year at a cost of K2.6 billion.  These 500 are those deemed repairable from the 865 defective wagons.  The rehabilitation project will be carried out simultaneously at TAZARA’s  workshops in Dar and Mpika, in the northern province of Zambia. 

So, in the foreseeable future, liquidity problems will continue to dog an ambitious  but troubled railway system. Its joint shareholders, the Tanzanian and  Zambian governments have been injecting capital into the company, yet  TAZARA is buckling amid the reality of the old story of low commercial  cargo, freight, and passenger numbers. In 2007 the Zambian government  gave the ailing railway system a K500 million (P83.3m) grant to  upgrade its operational communications. For every grant received during 2006 and 2007, the Tanzanian government has provided supporting grants  for works on the rail tracks. 

While he appears intent on his focus to revamp TAZARA, Mbikusita-Lewanika is  not blind to the mammoth task the company faces in settling historical  debts owed to the two countries’ tax collection authorities and to pension managers. Referring to this crippling debt, he displays a sense of realism in pointing out that it can only be settled by the two shareholding governments.
“It cannot be met from current and future  operational revenue,” he says in measured tones. 

Asked about his perception of the role of TAZARA in SADC regional development, he goes into his pan-Africanist mode.
TAZARA, he says, is not only strategic by virtue of its role in linking Tanzania and Zambia. Crucially it feeds into Zambia’s railway system, which links to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) railway system, which in turn  joins that of Angola (n the west). “So we anticipate good future prospects for a continuous railway link from the Atlantic Ocean in Angola to the  Indian Ocean at Dar – es – Salaam”. 

The linkage with Zambia further reaches out to Durban and Cape Town in South Africa  with the possibility of the connection fanning out to the railway network  in Namibia.

In that sense, he imagines, a fluid inter-connected regional railways system can crucially complement road infrastructure. This is important in the transportation of cargo like mining products that are  not suitable for road and air transport. “Therefore, TAZARA holds great prospects for being a crucial facilitator of enhanced and more mutually beneficial involvement of Africa in global trade”. 

Will China’s loan in the 14th protocol be enough to haul TAZARA back on  track? Mbikusita-Lewanika believes the loan is a major intervention  for the rehabilitation effort of TAZARA and can help to greatly enhance  operations. But that will only happen if everything that has been agreed  is implemented and materialises at the same time. “Then we would be operating to a capacity that TAZARA has never before been able to achieve,” he says. His concern is that the loan is “too spaced out”, presenting the risk to TAZARA of it being unable to optimise the use of its assets  and capacity. 

Mbikusita-Lewanika is a man who has passed through many stations in life. Apart from a political career, he was general manager of a state-owned company, Zambia Clay Industries in Kitwe on the Copperbelt, during the Kenneth Kaunda (KK) years.

So, he is not alien to boardroom politics. His new assignment at TAZARA will however require him to bring all his previous experiences and political acumen  to bear. Some hard work lies ahead for him in ensuring the limping railway  system becomes a profitable venture. We wait to see.

 (Sila Press Agency)

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