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Delayed dreams: The slow march of Dar’s BRT project

If you have spent time in any developed nation, you might occasionally experience nostalgic flashbacks. It doesn’t take much—a rainy day reminding you of colder climates, well-maintained public squares, street lighting, or something that simply works well. For me, despite the bus rapid transit (BRT) operational chaos, Dar es Salaam’s BRT always evokes memories of efficient transport systems abroad.

Read: Dar es Salaam’s BRT: Why it has been a long bumpy

I often say that BRT is one of the best things to have happened to Dar. The idea of traversing the sprawling metropolis in just 60 minutes, regardless of the starting point, can be a game-changer for the city. This efficient system would save residents precious time and energy, boosting productivity across the board. However, the BRT’s rollout has been plagued by delays, casting a shadow over its initial promise.

The current implementation of BRT Phase 4, the 30.1 km dedicated lanes connecting the city centre with Boko and Mwenge, is a case in point. This phase envisioned to ease congestion at key commuter hubs like Tegeta, Mwenge, and Makumbusho, was slated to begin in September 2023 with an 18-month completion timeframe. Yet, despite initial groundwork along Sam Nujoma and Bagamoyo Roads, actual construction only commenced recently – a nine-month delay. At this sluggish pace, commuters will likely face years of waiting before reaping the benefits of the BRT.

Read: Tanzanians being taken for a ride in new Dart plan 

This pattern of delays is, unfortunately, a familiar refrain in Tanzania. Conceived in the early 2000s, Dar’s BRT was intended to be Africa’s pioneering system. However, other nations overtook Tanzania due to implementation hurdles. The first 20.1 km phase itself took a staggering 15 years to become operational. Today, despite the near completion of the 20.3 km Phase 2 to Mbagala to Gerezani, operations haven’t started. Millions of people along the route continue to bear the brunt of inefficient transportation options due to delays in procuring traffic lights and buses. It’s unacceptable that people continue to suffer especially after we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the new infrastructure.

Read: Dar’s BRT phase 2 done, but where are the buses?

A stark contrast to Dar’s sluggish progress can be found in South Korea, the country that President Samia Suluhu Hassan is visiting at the moment. During President Park Chung-hee’s transformative leadership (1961-1979), South Korea undertook the construction of the Seoul-Busan Highway, a project deemed “unfeasible” by the World Bank due to technological and economic concerns. Despite scepticism, President Park championed the project, initiating construction in February 1968 under his close supervision. Remarkably, within two and a half years, an 8-lane highway spanning 428 km with 305 bridges and six tunnels was completed. This crucial infrastructure played a pivotal role in South Korea’s economic modernisation.

Park’s vision of South Korea connected by efficient highways was inspired by his visit to West Germany in 1964 where he observed the crucial role that highways play in modern economies. South Korea was not wealthy then: Tanzania and South Korea had comparable GDP per capita. To realise his vision, though, Park engaged the private sector to invest money in the project and the army to provide human capacity to accelerate the project. The results were outstanding.

Compared to South Korea then, Tanzania today is relatively rich. Yet, while the South Koreans could deliver a challenging eight-lane highway rapidly, Dar’s residents might wait for years as the government dilly-dallies with the construction of a mere 30 km link that requires no land acquisition, fewer than a dozen bridges, and no tunnel to cross. It is unfortunate that while our officials visit developed nations often, they fail to grasp the underlying principles that drive progress. Like monkeys in a spacecraft, they watch uncomprehendingly at the marvellous exploits wrought by others’ ingenuity without drawing any lessons. No wonder we think it is okay for a multi-million dollar infrastructure to lie unused for over a year because we haven’t figured out the procurement of traffic lights.

Thankfully, President Samia is in South Korea. If the Tanzanian High Commissioner to South Korea, Togolani Mavura, will be so kind to arrange for her to visit the Seoul-Busan Highway, the tour might be a godsend for Tanzanians. I hope Madam President will see that what we usually offer are mere excuses and that everything is possible when there is a political will. When we wield considerable power to pursue economic development rather than political ends, we can demonstrably improve the lives of citizens and earn legitimate public trust. With strong leadership, there’s no reason why the Boko to Ubungo and Boko to Morocco BRT routes couldn’t be completed by the end of 2024.

When we think of development, developed nations often evoke a sense of nostalgia for those who have experienced their well-functioning systems. However, this longing shouldn’t overshadow the potential that we have within Tanzania. When implemented well, systems such as BRT can be a powerful driver of progress. We need to learn to prioritise people’s needs and hold leaders accountable for ensuring that public projects translate into tangible improvements in citizens’ lives. Nations such as South Korea can teach us a lot about the kind of commitment required to turn our dreams into reality.

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