Ticad V being held in Japan

All roads from Africa this week led to Yokohama, Japan, where the fifth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad V) kicks off tomorrow, with the host country pledging a US$4,3 billion package over the next five years to support various development projects on the continent.

Report by Itai Masuku

Ticad aims to promote high level policy dialogue between African leaders and their partners and to mobilise support for African-owned development initiatives.

It is co-hosted by the government of Japan, the African Union Commission, the United Nations Office of the special advisor on Africa, the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank.

An estimated 50 African heads of state, including President Robert Mugabe, and their entourages are expected to have arrived in Yokohama by today, one of the Japan’s foremost industrial hubs, just a stone’s throw from the capital, Tokyo.

In what may be coined the second scramble for Africa, but this time without the guns and bloodshed, Japan has joined Europe, United States, China and fellow ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) in the fray by seeking to establish more permanent relationships with Africa, and not just through trade and aid.

The game-changer in the scramble is evidently China, with its huge appetite for Africa’s minerals and other resources to support its steamrolling economy.

Not having the advantage of presence that Europe and America have in Africa through colonialism nor the political ties that China enjoys with the continent which were built during Africa’s struggle to rid itself of colonialism, Japan is putting economic development, particularly infrastructure development, as its best foot forward.

“Japanese businessmen are very interested in doing business with Africa and Zimbabwe in particular. For instance, there is still a lot of interest in investing in railways here and in the development of the Beitbridge-Chirundu highway,” Hideki Igawa, first secretary, political section of the Japanese embassy in Zimbabwe said.

However, he quickly pointed out that political instability in Zimbabwe has kept such potential investments from Japan, which could reach several billions of US dollars, at bay.

The country has already shown its commitment to the Beitrbridge-Chirundu link, which it views as crucial to the economic development of not only Zimbabwe but also the Sadc region, by financing the construction of a dual carriageway bridge across the Zambezi River at Chirundu border post as well as infrastructure on both the Zimbabwean and Zambian border posts for seamless customs clearance.

While there have over the years been several suitors for Zimbabwe’s dilapidated railways system, including some from Sweden, Japan’s interest mostly shows the signiffcance of this sector to the economy more than a century after Cecil Rhodes’ vision of a Cape to Cairo railway link. It is not just the trunk railway links that has attracted the attention of foreign investors, including the Japanese, but also the urban commuter railway system that presents significant investment opportunities.

Zimbabwe’s urban population, particularly in the greater Harare area that now include the capital’s surrounding areas such as Ruwa in the east, Domboshava in the west, Mazowe and the north and Harare’s traditional dormitory town of Chitungwiza in the south, has ballooned as millions have trekked to the capital in search of jobs and better lives.

This growing wave of both rural-urban migration as well as urban-urban migration has put a strain on the city’s infrastructure and services, particularly the transport sector and water reticulation system. Town planning experts say a population above two million, which greater Harare exceeds, justifies a commuter rail system.

While NRZ’s own initiative at commuter trains suffered a stillbirth, Japan, renowned for its Shinkansen or bullet train system, ranked the best in the world, believes it could more than positively impact on Zimbabwe’s railways.

But the world’s second largest economy for more than three decades — until it was overtaken by China recently — is not only interested in economic ties with the world’s resource-rich yet poorest continent. With 54 countries set for economic growth and transformation, Africa is slowly asserting itself as a political force at international fora, particularly within the UN.

“In the UN General Assembly, the African vote is very substantial, 54 votes (out of 200) and we would also like the Africans to vote with us on key issues, while we also give them our support,” Igawa explains. Pressed to be specific on some of the issues, second secretary, Masa Iida was reluctant, but tongue in cheek hints at Japan’s lobbying for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

“But we definitely need Africa’s support in our bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games,” Iida firmly states. In this respect, the tsunami that hit the eastern parts of Japan last year has been a thorn in the flesh, but the Japanese have since moved on in reconstruction and heightening disaster detection and response measures. Given that the 1 000 or so islands that form the Japanese archipelago are anchored where plate tectonic movements manifest, Japan experiences mini earthquakes almost on a daily basis.