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Zaire Table of Contents




Figure 11. Transportation System, 1993


Ferry on the Congo River, Équateur Region


Maréchal Mobutu Bridge over the Congo River near Matadi
Courtesy Agence Zaïre Presse

Zaire's severely dilapidated transportation infrastructure is perhaps the major constraint on the country's economic development. The country's large size and the physical limitations imposed by its topography are major factors in the underdevelopment of the transportation system, but poor management by inefficient parastatals and corruption are primarily responsible for the sector's daunting deficiencies. During colonial times, the transportation system was well developed to transport food products from Kivu and minerals from Shaba (then Katanga Province) to the Atlantic Coast for export. The transportation infrastructure has been neglected since independence, however.

Roads traditionally played a secondary role in the Zairian transportation network, behind railroads and waterways. A network of approximately 145,000 kilometers of roads exists in Zaire, although the country's vast interior is virtually devoid of roads (see fig. 11). Only 2,500 kilometers are paved, originally including the 350-kilometer Kinshasa-Matadi link, which is nearly thirty years old and was not built for the heavy loads it carries. By 1992 there were reports that only about forty kilometers of the Kinshasa-Matadi road were still paved. The road from Kikwit to Kinshasa and the links among the mineral centers of Lubumbashi, Kolwezi, and Likasi in Shaba also are paved. In the early 1990s, the entire road network had slipped into a state of serious disrepair; a journey of 150 kilometers could take up to twenty-four hours.

The situation has obvious implications for the movement of both passengers and in particular freight, 80 percent of which reportedly moved by private road transport in 1988. This vital service is, however, in jeopardy in the early 1990s. Trucks, spare parts, and fuel are in short supply, and the condition of most roads (especially secondary and rural roads) ranges from appalling to unusable. Local residents and entrepreneurs, religious groups, and some large companies have attempted to maintain some roads but with limited success nationwide.

Official passenger transport services in Kinshasa are also inadequate, but their unofficial, mostly unlicensed suppliers have been able to fill much of the gap. Deploying an armada of pickup trucks, covered trucks, and taxibuses, they provide half the city's public transportation, offering better service at a lower cost to the city's workers and residents.

Zaire has 5,138 kilometers of railroad in three discontinuous lines. A 366-kilometer standard-gauge (1.067 meter) line links Kinshasa with Zaire's main port of Matadi. Over 1,100 kilometers of narrow-gauge (1 meter and 0.6 meter) rail connect towns in northeast Zaire. The bulk of the system, however, consists of a network of standard-gauge lines in southeast Zaire used primarily to export minerals. International connections exist with Angola's Benguela Railway (not operating in the early 1990s), with the Zambian and South African rail systems, and with Tanzania's rail lines via a ferry across Lake Tanganyika.

The Zairian National Railroad Company (Société Nationale de Chemins de Fer Zaïrois--SNCZ) is headquartered in Lubumbashi, the regional capital of Shaba. Since 1974 SNCZ has been a state-owned company, responsible for the operation and maintenance of the rail line between Lubumbashi and Ilebo on the Kasai River. The National Transport Board of Zaire (Office National des Transports au Zaïre-- Onatra) manages the Matadi-Kinshasa line as well as transport on the Congo River.

The railroads, too, are in desperate need of repair. Train transport is slow, cumbersome, and unreliable. Little attention has been paid the railroads since independence. The railroads are suffering from a lack of working locomotives and rolling stock as well as deteriorating railbeds. In the late 1980s, SNCZ undertook a US$75 million rehabilitation effort financed by the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and the governments of Belgium, France, and West Germany. By 1989 the project was at the half-way point in terms of committed funding. It sought to refurbish 263 kilometers of the Kinshasa-Matadi and Lubumbashi-Ilebo links. Track beds were rebuilt and new rail and cross ties installed. The plan called for the overhaul of twenty diesel locomotives and thirty- eight electric locomotives as well as for the purchase of new rolling stock and material to manufacture rail cars locally. Most of the project had been set for completion in the early 1990s, but little if any progress was expected in light of the prevailing economic chaos.

The rail and river transportation network between the copper- mining region of Shaba and the country's principal port of Matadi is called the National Route (Voie Nationale). This network is Zaire's lifeline, a 2,665-kilometer combination of railroad between Lubumbashi and Ilebo, river transport from Ilebo to Kinshasa, and rail once again between Kinshasa and the port of Matadi. (Because of rapids below Kinshasa, the river is not navigable between Kinshasa and Matadi.) It is the only route between the mining region and the ocean entirely within Zaire. This route became even more crucial after the 1,400-kilometer Benguela Railway linking Shaba to the sea via the Angolan port of Lobito was closed in 1975 because of the Angolan civil war. (In 1991 plans were underway to reopen this rail line following an agreement between Portugal and Belgium, but no further progress had been made by 1993.) Zaire once sent almost half of its exports via the Benguela Railway. Mineral shipments traveling via the National Route to Matadi can take as long as two months and average about forty-five days. Moreover, because the load on the route is limited, Zaire has been forced to rely heavily on South African rail lines for between 33 percent and 40 percent of its mineral exports.

Inland waterways have traditionally been an important mode of internal transportation, but in the early 1990s, river transport was limited because the marking of navigable channels had been neglected, and barges were both old and in short supply.

The Congo River is the most significant of the country's rivers, and both passenger and freight ships ply the navigable section between Kinshasa and Kisangani. In late 1993, however, there were reports that riverboats had ceased operating between Kisangani and Kinshasa because of lack of fuel and spare parts.

Ports are limited because Zaire, nearly landlocked, has only a tiny coastline of just forty kilometers. Matadi on the lower Congo River is Zaire's principal port and handles 90 percent of the country's nonmineral exports. Efficient cargo and passenger transportation at the Atlantic port of Boma, at Matadi, and between Ilebo on the Kasai River and Kinshasa are constrained by lack of equipment, the need for better charting and maintenance along the two rivers, and the fact that Matadi is a relatively shallow port and thus not accessible by large vessels. Donor countries have attempted to improve service at the ports of Kinshasa and Matadi, and a new deep-water port at Banana on the Atlantic also was at one time under consideration but has been abandoned given the economic situation prevailing in the early 1990s.

The cut-off of aid to Zaire and the deterioration of the economy in the early 1990s have halted economic development efforts, and shipping, like other forms of transport, is in serious disarray. According to one report, Zaire's maritime company has been forced to sell off all its boats.

Large distances between urban centers and a lack of modern ground transportation make air transport of particular importance, although domestic air services deteriorated substantially in the 1980s and 1990s. The number of airlines serving Zaire had increased significantly in the 1980s, and included the formation of at least two private Zairian airlines that competed with the state-owned national carrier, Air Zaïre. Both the number of destinations served within Zaire and the international links grew substantially in the wake of liberalization measures begun in 1983. Several European carriers as well as Air Zaïre and a private airline, Scibe Airlift, linked Kinshasa to places in Europe and the rest of Africa. But by 1992 most foreign airlines no longer landed at Kinshasa's airport, which was badly damaged by looting in late 1991. (Some flights resumed in late 1992.) People wishing to enter Zaire by air must land in Brazzaville in Congo and take a ferry across the Congo River to Zaire.

Air Zaïre has been under the management of the French airline, Air Transport Union (Union de Transports Aériens--UTA) since the fall of 1986, but became virtually bankrupt as a result of the country's economic crisis in the 1990s. Air Zaïre once operated four jets, but one was repossessed by Belgium and another by Israel for nonpayment of debts. Mobutu reportedly commandeered the other two to bring in newly printed bank notes from the printer in Germany.

The Postal and Telecommunications Board provides overseas telephone and domestic and overseas mail service. In 1984 the country had only 30,300 telephones, almost all of them in the capital. A new satellite ground station was installed at Matadi in 1985, which greatly improved the quality of international calls. Calling Brussels from Kinshasa, in fact, was reportedly far easier than making a connection to a city in the interior. An American company, in partnership with local business interests, established a cellular telephone system for Kinshasa in June 1991. In 1990 there were reported to be 32,000 telephones in Zaire, but by 1992 the telephone system as a whole was reported to be dysfunctional.

Broadcast facilities increased throughout the 1980s, and residents of most larger towns can now receive radio and television programming. Fourteen cities have television stations. There were an estimated 40,000 television sets and 3.7 million radio receivers in Zaire in 1990. The capital has one medium-wave amplitude- modulation (AM) radio station and one frequency-modulation (FM) station with programming in French; there are two other AM and two FM stations in other cities. Five shortwave stations transmit programming in French, Kiswahili, Lingala, and several other languages to listeners in more remote areas. All radio stations are government owned and part of the Voice of Zaire (Voix du Zaïre) network.

The state of telecommunications in the early 1990s was reported to be deplorable. The only reliable national radio network is said to be that of the Roman Catholic Church.

Data as of December 1993

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