Former Finance minister Tendai Biti is famed for using dramatic language to drive home a point whenever he speaks about Zimbabwe’s decay and Zanu PF’s role in the tragedy, but this time government might agree with his assessment of the state of the country’s roads.
After weeks of heavy rainfall, the country’s poorly maintained road network deteriorated to shocking levels and jolted President Robert Mugabe’s government into action.
Last week the government declared Harare’s potholed roads a national disaster in a desperate move to raise funds for their rehabilitation and Biti — now the leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) — said it was too little too late.
He said it was not only Harare’s roads that needed attention but the whole country’s infrastructure was “now a disaster.”
“This government can’t pay salaries for its workers and expecting them to secure money to fix the country’s national road network was expecting too much from them,” he told The Standard.
“Declaring the roads a state of national disaster is just theoretical, the roads are a disaster and the country now qualifies to be a pothole capital of the world.
“Just like the [Democratic Republic of Congo] DRC, which has the worst road network, Zimbabwe is a failed state.”
Biti said during his tenure as Finance minister, it was established that Zimbabwe needed $14 billion to rehabilitate the road network, which was three times the country’s budget.
Of that amount, about $5 billion would be used to rehabilitate major trunk roads.
The PDP leader said naturally, a declaration of state of disaster would attract donors and international financers to fund the rehabilitation of roads, but Zimbabwe had become unattractive for capital.
“This is the huge prize the country is paying for running a corrupt government,” he said.
“The Lima process [that involved Zimbabwe’s reengagement with major donors] has failed and money cannot be accessed from international monetary institutions, including the African Development Bank.
“Only a new government with credibility can get foreign funds.
“This government has failed to build the Tokwe-Mukosi Dam in 37 years, what can they achieve today?”
For decades, the government has neglected maintenance of the road network inherited from the colonial government.
The majority of the roads have outlived their life-span and there has been little investment on infrastructure.
The Beitbridge-Harare road, which links Zimbabwe and Zambia to the county’s biggest trading partner, South Africa, has deteriorated over the years, causing many otherwise avoidable accidents that have resulted in thousands of deaths.
Most motorists have lost tyres to potholes while the patching of roads have been done poorly, denying the heavily taxed motorists comfortable rides.
The rail network has not been spared either and the National Railways of Zimbabwe’s operations are almost at a standstill.
This has piled pressure on the road network as haulage trucks are filling the void left by the disappearance of goods trains.
In 2014, when Obert Mpofu was appointed Transport minister, he doubled toll fees and increased the number of toll plazas, claiming he was doing so to increase revenue for road rehabilitation.
At the time, Mpofu said the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration (Zinara) was collecting $40 million annually in toll fees, which he said was only enough to tar 30km.
He said relying on Zinara’s collections would take the country 100 years to repair its 80 000 km road network.
But despite the promise, the roads deteriorated under Mpofu’s watch while reports of corruption continued to rock Zinara, with some bosses at the road authority becoming targets of Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission raids.
Conflicting statements have been issued by ministers on how much Zinara has been getting through toll fees, with Transport minister Jorum Gumbo last week revealing that the road fund was collecting $200 million annually.
In the rural areas, the gravel roads are a sorry sight. Perennial neglect has seen some of the roads disappearing as the District Development Fund has failed to cope with maintenance requirements due to poor funding from government.
Bridges have collapsed while grass has closed in on the roads, most of which have been reduced to mere foot paths. Some roads constructed by the colonial regime have been reduced to strip roads.
However, the biggest disaster has been in cities, including the capital Harare whose 5 000km road network is now infested with potholes.
The Combined Harare Residents Association (CHRA) said while it believed that the deterioration of the road network was due to council’s failure to maintain them, Zinara must return the management of licence fees to the local authority.
“We would, however, like to point out that the road problem in Harare has deteriorated over the last five years largely due to non-maintenance by the Harare City Council,” CHRA said on its Facebook page.
“We firmly believe that in order to find a lasting solution to the roads problem in Harare, you need to push for and support our call to return the management of vehicle license fees to the city council from the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration.”
Biti said the Zanu PF government had no capacity to raise funds to rehabilitate the roads because of its tainted record.
But Local Government minister Saviour Kasukuwere — who toured Harare’s roads before the declaration of the state of disaster — believes the move was the panacea for the mounting problems.
“We have agreed on a programme with the minister of Transport [to rehabilitate the roads],” he said.
“We will get the necessary and important support from government.”
Kasukuwere admitted that the government had no money to fix the roads but insisted that a way out would be found.
“It’s tough but we have to repair the road network. We will find the resources,” he said.
“Roads are key to communication and economic activity.
“It’s not going to be easy but with the initial support, the Ministry of Transport has set aside we will start [working the road]”.
During the tenure of the inclusive government, government secured a loan from the Development Bank of South African to rehabilitate the Mutare-Harare- Plumtree highway, raising hopes that the country would upgrade its national highways to international standards but it became the only major infrastructure project undertaken during the period.
Last month, the government signed an agreement with a Chinese company to rehabilitate the Beitbridge-Harare highway at a cost of $2 billion, but Biti said at most, the project must cost $700 million — $1 million per km, not $3 million.
“This is a result of corruption, figures are inflated,” he charged.
Zimbabwe’s neighbours Zambia, Botswana and South Africa have invested heavily in their road infrastructure and the country is now on the verge of losing its status as a transport hub in the region.