The pace of Zimbabwe’s road infrastructure decay has reached alarming levels which call for a policy change by the government. The country’s major highways and urban roads have become a living hazard to motorists and cargo due to successive years of neglect and underinvestment.
Over the past 40 years the government has failed to maintain or expand the existing road network, let alone construct any significant new roads. The sorry state of most roads has made some parts of the country inaccessible, while increasing the cost of accessing certain parts of the local market. Zimbabwe boasts of a road network just under 90 000km of which over 9 500km are bitumen surfaced state highways and urban roads, while most rural roads are unpaved/dust roads. However, most of the bitumen surfaced roads have outlived their lifespan of 15-20 years as most were constructed before independence in 1980 when traffic was low, and the population was below seven million (now over 15 million).
A 2019 report by the African Development Bank (AfDB) pointed out that Zimbabwe needs over US$34 billion in the next 10 years to upgrade its infrastructure so as to achieve sustainable levels of economic growth. This means that the country would need to invest US$3,4 billion each year (From 2020 up to 2030) in order to keep pace with developments on the continent especially with fast developing peers in the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) region. Sadly, the country has limited resources to close this gap or even maintain the existing infrastructure. The African Union (AU) Declaration stipulates that African governments must spend 9,6% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on infrastructure to keep pace with the demands from population and economic growth.
Zimbabwe’s main roads have borne the brunt of heavy tonnage (due to railway infrastructure collapse), incessant damage from seasonal rains, and increase in traffic numbers especially in urban areas. However, policy lapses have also contributed to the decay and lack of investment. The government has rarely given deserved priority to infrastructure funding, while institutional decay and corruption has deterred any serious private sector investment in the absence of binding legal frameworks.
Blurred PPP framework
Currently, Zimbabwe has no binding Public-Private Partnership (PPP) framework that guides investment in infrastructure projects at local government or national level. A clear PPP Act ensures equity in the treatment for private investors, legal recourse in terms of default, transparency and accountability in large infrastructure projects, competitiveness in bidding and efficient management of public infrastructure under contract provisions.
In 2004, the government developed the PPP Policy and Guidelines, but this did not translate into a clear legal framework. Without such a regulation, investors and financial institutions cannot take risks to finance PPP projects locally considering the monetary and public policy inconsistencies, institutional decay (property rights flaws & tainted rule of law), bureaucracy and high levels of corruption in government.
The AfDB (2018) report explicitly points that inappropriate regulatory framework limits private sector participation in infrastructure funding in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe must borrow models from other Sadc countries such as Botswana, Mozambique, Zambia, South Africa and Tanzania which have clear PPP legal frameworks.
Urban roads management
Since independence, vehicle licensing fees (which were the major source of funding for urban road maintenance and development) were collected by Urban Councils where most motorists reside and ply their routes.
The coming into effect of the Roads Act in 2001 made the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (Zinara) the sole custodian of such funds where disbursement is heavily skewed against major cities and towns. As a result, urban councils can no longer repair and maintain urban roads at the pace of population growth. To address this, the government needs to revert to the structure where urban councils collect vehicle license fees paid in their towns while smaller towns and rural councils (which have limited traffic) get allocations from fuel levy and road access fees. Rural trunk roads can continue to be developed and maintained by the critical District Development Fund (DDF).
To ensure transparency in the utilisation of vehicle licenses and curb abuse of funds on unrelated council overheads, collected license funds should be audited against completed road projects. Currently, Zinara collects vehicle license fees, highway toll fees, cross border transit fees, road access fees, new Limpopo Bridge fees, fuel levy, abnormal and axle overload fees which amounted to over US$20 million per month in 2018.
To ensure sustainability of urban roads (Critically Harare), the government needs to tender for the construction and management of Harare Metro Railway project which can link Harare to various suburbs and dormitory towns such as Chitungwiza, Bindura, Marondera, Kadoma-Chegutu, Chinhoyi and Marondera with daily commuter trains.
Highways rehab, maintenance
The state of the country’s major highways bears a sad story of how the country has regressed over the years. The government has inadequate funds to efficiently rehabilitate or expand these highways in line with local and regional demands or standards. The country’s busiest highway, the 971km Beitbridge to Chirundu Highway is currently being rehabilitated and upgraded.
However, it has taken close to three years to get the first 100km (10% of the road) complete due to inadequate funds. This means that by the time the entire highway is complete in (probably in 10 years’ time), various patches will need resurfacing and the road will wear out differently. Millions of transit fees and business would have been lost with 60% of the South-North Corridor cargo now utilising the completed Kazungula Bridge route.
The model adopted by government to award tenders to local contractors can be applauded, however the funding mechanism cannot deliver the project in the desired timeline and in the best quality. The government needs to push for a Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) model with potential financiers (undeniably foreign) who can fund the project while ensuring local contractors get the lion’s share of the project as was the case with the US$206 million Plumtree to Mutare highway project funded by the Development Bank of South Africa (DBSA) in 2014.
The model should be urgently applied to all major highways that can easily self-finance through Toll Fees. Treasury does not need to fund all public infrastructure development projects especially those that users can pay to access. The limited tax revenues can better be allocated on unrelenting needs such as disaster management, non-self-financing infrastructure projects, social safety nets and improving public service delivery among other pressing demands.
Upgrading the railway network
The country’s major roads can only last their planned lifetime if the country’s railway network is rehabilitated and upgraded to connect all major towns and cities. This would also mean capacitating the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) with new trains and wagons to meet demand. This will effectively mean that heavy tonnage can be transported competitively for production purposes between towns, thus reducing production costs which burden local producers. This too does not need treasury funding. This rehabilitation can only be efficient with private capital and deregulation of the country’s rail industry.
NRZ does not necessarily need to be the only rail transport provider in Zimbabwe, the sector should be opened to a few other private operators. Critically, a 760km railway linking Beitbridge (Connecting from Rutenga junction) to Chirundu through Harare will sustainably reduce the heavy traffic in the main highway.
The state of the country’s road network and its rate of decay justify the need for a policy change. The consistent damage caused by heavy rains and heavy-duty trucks mean that government resources can never keep pace with the demands of the roads. Without a policy change and private sector investment through PPPs, the country will forever be identified with potholed roads.
Bhoroma is an economic analyst and holds an MBA from the University of Zimbabwe. — firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @VictorBhoroma1.