Zambia: Controversy Surrounds Zambia’s Divided Highway Project

The contract to rebuild the Lusaka-Ndola road has been awarded to a Chinese consortium. However, the announcement that two Zambian pension funds would finance the multimillion-dollar project has raised eyebrows.

The Zambian government has announced plans to rebuild the 327-kilometer (203-mile) Lusaka-Ndola road into a divided highway, in a project expected to cost more than $577 million (Ꞓ528 million).

The plan, long in the works, was first conceptualized by former President Edgar Lungu for $1.2 billion. Lungu was heavily criticized for the exorbitant amount, and he was unable to realize it due to Zambia’s increasingly high external debt.

Last year, current President, Hakainde Hichilema canceled a $1.6-billion loan from Chinese banks after Zambia defaulted on its foreign debts. Funds to reconstruct the road were essentially part of the loan.

No external borrowing for road project

Instead, Zambia has now opted for a different financing model — a public-private partnership. “We are not going to borrow a cent for this road,” said Zambia’s Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane.

He later announced that the Chinese consortium Macro Ocean Investment had been awarded the contract to rebuild, manage and maintain the road.

The Macro Ocean Investment consortium includes equipment maker AVIC International Project Engineering, road-building specialist Zhejiang Communications Construction Group and China Railway Seventh Group.

Musokotwane also said that two Zambian pension funds would provide the funds to Macro Ocean Investment.

‘Main aorta’ of Zambia’s ‘economic engine’

The partnership is expected to recover its investments under a 22-year concession following a three-year construction period. The road is one of the landlocked country’s most important connections, carrying more than 10,000 vehicles daily and almost all of the mineral exports from the Copperbelt region to a seaport in Tanzania.

“We cannot underestimate its potential as the main aorta of the economic engine of this country,” said Transport Minister Frank Tayali.

Despite the long delay, many Zambians have welcomed the announcement. “I am even afraid to go that side because there are too many potholes to the Copperbelt,” Andrew Njobvu, a Lusaka resident originally from Ndola town, told DW.

When the highway is complete, the auto electrician said he will be the first to go and visit his mum in Ndola on the very first day. Njobvu hopes the divided highway will reduce congestion and fatal accidents once complete.

Road project marred by controversy

While Njobvu is one of the many people happy about the project, there is anger at the other end of the political spectrum. Many are asking why the contract was awarded to a foreign company when Zambian pension funds are paying for it.