Historisch overzicht van de spoorwegen in West-Afrika

Author Biography

Jan Van Criekinge, NCOS/ De Wereld Morgen Brussel


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Jan Van Criekinge (NCOS/ De Wereld Morgen Brussel)

Published Sep 22, 1989


The present day railway system in West Africa is the result of the transportpolicy developed by the colonial powers (France, Great Britain and Germany) at the end of the 19th century. lt is remarkable that no network of railways, like in Southern Africa, was brought about. The colonial railways in West Africa were built by the State or by a joint-stock company within the borders of one colony to export the raw materials from the production centres to the harbours. Nevertheless railways were built for more than economical grounds only, in West Africa they had to accomplish a strategic and military role by "opening Africa for the European civilization". Hargreaves calls railways the "heralds of new imperialism" and Baumgart speaks of the own dynamics of the railways, to push the European colonial powers further into Africa... The construction of a railway needed a very high capital investment and the European capitalists wouldn't like to take risks in areas that were not yet "pacified". It is remarkable how many projects to build a Transcontinental railway right across the Sahara desert largely remained on paper. Precisely because such plans did not materialize, however, the motive force they provided to such imperialist actions as political-territorial annexations can be traced all the more clearly.

The French built the first railway in West Africa, the Dakar - St-Louis line (Senegal), between 1879 and 1885. This line stimulated the production of ground-nuts, although the French colonial-military lobby has had other motives. The real motivation became very clear at the construction of the Kayes - Bamako railway. Great difficulties needed the military occupation of the region and the violent recruitment of thousands of black labourers, all over the region. The same problems transformed the building of the Kayes-Dakar line into a real hell. Afterwards the Sine Saloum region has been through a "agricultural revolution", when the local ground-nuts-producers have been able toproduce forforeign markets. The first British railways were built in Sierra Leone and the Gold Coast-colony (Ghana). In Nigeria railway construction stimulated the growth of Lagos as an harbour and administrative centre. Lugard had plans for the unification of Nigeria by railways. The old Hausa town of Kano flourished after the opening of the Northern Railway, for other towns a period of decline had begun. Harbour cities and interior railwayheads caused an influx of population from periphery regions, the phenomenon is called "port concentration". Also the imperial Germany built a few railwaylines in theirformer colony Togo, to avoid the traffic flow off to the British railways. If s quite remarkable that the harbours at the Gulf of Guinea-coast developed much later than the harbours of Senegal and Sierra Leone.

After the First World War only a few new railways were constructed, the revenues remained very low, so the (colonial) state had to take over many lines. The competition between railways and roadtransport demonstrated the first time in Nigeria, it was the beginning of the decline of railways as the most important transportsystems in West Africa. Only multinational companies built specific railways for the export of minerals (iron, ore and bauxite) after the Second World War, and the French completed the Abidjan - Ouaga-dougou railway (1956).

The consequences of railway construction in West Africa on economic, demographic and social sphere were not so far-reaching as in Southern Africa, but the labour migration and the first labour unions of railwaymen organized strikes in Senegal and the Ivory Coast mentioned the changing social situation.

The bibliography of the West African railways contains very useful studies about the financial policy of the railway companies and the governments, but only afew railways were already studied by economic historians.

KEY WORDS : bibliographical survey, colonial history, economic and demographic consequences, railway development, West Africa 

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