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NEPAD Infrastructure Projects Behind Schedule
Delays hound East African submarine cable system
Zachary Ochieng (Zach)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-07 05:26 (KST)   
The continued delay of the implementation of the East African Submarine Cable System (Eassy) lends credence to allegations that the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad) cross-border infrastructure projects will never get off the ground smoothly.

Eassy, a noble initiative to connect countries of eastern and southern Africa via a high bandwidth fiber optic cable system to the rest of the world, is running several months behind schedule, mired in inexorable controversy. One of the six Information and Communication Technology (ICT) projects presented by the Nepad eAfrica Commission to the 6th meeting of the Nepad Heads of State Implementation Committee in March 2003 in Abuja, Eassy, like other infrastructure projects, has been dogged by squabbles revolving around ownership, management and implementation, some of which, ironically, have been fuelled by Nepad.

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Granted, projects of this magnitude and complexity entail thorough negotiations before a consensus is reached. But this is exactly where Nepad's failure began. Take for instance, the now controversial protocol for the establishment of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to own and manage the project. With the deadline of signing this protocol fixed at Nov. 30, so far only eleven countries out of the 23 involved in the project have signed the protocol.

At the first protocol signing ceremony in August in Kigali, Rwanda, only seven countries-- Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania signed. Although seven more countries were expected to join the list at another signing ceremony in October in Cape Town, South Africa, only two-Zimbabwe and Botswana signed. And at the recent meeting in Kigali on Nov. 30, only the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mauritius signed up. Among the countries that are yet to sign include Angola, Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Sudan and Swaziland.

The failure by most countries to sign the protocol points to one thing. There was no adequate consultation with all the stakeholders prior to the drafting of the protocol. Like the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), which is also running behind schedule in acceding AU member states due to lack of clear guidelines from Nepad and the APRM secretariat, the protocol is being forced down the throats of participating countries, with Nepad, propelled by South Africa, seeking to control the project at the exclusion of the Eassy parties (telecom companies led by Telkom Kenya, that had contracted the French company, Alcatel, to construct the cable) and who were the original project owners. It is for reasons like these that Kenya registered loud protests. For one, Kenya is right in declaring the protocol illegal as it commits the signatories to modify their regulatory framework to accommodate the provisions, thereby overriding national laws and overruling all regulatory agreements in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Again, it is unimaginable for a country like Kenya, which has fully liberalized its ICT sector over the last two years, to go back to the era of monopoly and controls. As Kenya's Information and Communications Permanent Secretary Dr. Bitange Ndemo argues, such a protocol would then put Kenya at the same level with Mozambique, which is still exercising monopoly in its ICT sector.

Although South African and Nepad officials seek to downplay South Africa's influence in the project, analysts have different views. Writing in the February 2006 issue of Openspace, a digest of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the University of Botswana, Console Tleane, head of the media and ICT program at South Africa's Freedom of Expression Institute, observed: "For some, the relationship that South Africa has with other SADC member states, and the continent as a whole, is that of self-imposing sub-imperial power which will stop at nothing to exert its influence and extract as many benefits from every relationship that it develops."

Nothing backs up this assertion better than the simmering tension between Kenya and South Africa. While Kenya is for universal and cheap access, as envisioned in the Eassy principles, some of the consortium operators, led by Telkom South Africa have been threatening to pull out if the return on investment does not prove to be sufficient. Besides, South Africa and group want the use of the cable limited to members only, mainly Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with international gateway licences.

Little wonder that by September Kenya's patience had run out. The cabinet gave a nod to the establishment of its own under-sea fibre optic cable--The East African Marine Systems (Teams)--connecting between Mombasa and Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. The $110 million project, a joint venture between the government and the private sector--is expected to connect East and Horn of African countries to the rest of the world. As a sign of good gesture, and in the spirit of the East African co-operation, Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni has hinted that though Uganda has signed the Eassy protocol, he would go for the Kenyan cable should it turn out to be cheaper. Besides, there is nothing wrong with Kenya having its own cable to run parallel to Eassy, for Eassy itself is meant to complement existing networks such as SAT-3.

What cannot be gainsaid is that the future looks bright for Kenya, given that Motorola, the world's leading vendor of the latest wireless technologies, is set to roll out its products namely CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) and WiFi (Wireless Fidelity). With these, the cost of making telephone calls and Internet connectivity is set to come down given the anticipated competition.

Still, Eassy's intended contribution cannot be wished away. Considered a milestone in the development of information infrastructure in the region, it is expected to reduce unit costs for global connectivity, leading to increased profitability and lower tariffs and charges for end users. Currently, it costs the continent about $400 million to route traffic internationally, representing a major capital flight out of Africa. Above all, Eassy is expected to facilitate inter-Africa trade owing to better communication in the region.

Sadly though, squabbles revolving around ownership, access and implementation have forced the project to run behind schedule. According to initial plans, the cable was to be completed by 2005. Indications are now that it may only take off in 2008. As Dr. Ndemo observed during a recent Wireless Broadband Conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, even those countries that have already signed the protocol are feeling frustrated and would like to pull out. "Even if Kenya signs up today, the project may not take off immediately as contentious issues have not been addressed," he observed.

Whereas Dr. Henry Chasia, the Executive Deputy Chairperson at the Nepad eAfrica Commission contends that Eassy can take off as soon as the critical mass is achieved, this will only aggravate the already volatile situation. According to him, the countries that have so far signed have enough resources to sustain the project. But unbeknown to him, the telecom companies that have already invested in the project will not take it lying down.

The only way out is for Nepad to move fast and resolve the contentious issues, if it is truly committed to bringing political and economic reforms on the continent. Otherwise Nepad will soon join the list of antecedent reform projects that came a cropper.
A previous story by the author on the same subject was carried by NewsfromAfrica and Highway Africa News Agency (HANA).
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Zachary Ochieng

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