By Lawrence Freeman, April 24, 2018

In 1943, after having flown over the Sahara Desert on his way to a Casablanca conference with Winston Churchill, President Franklin Roosevelt remarked to his son Elliott, that with the recreation of a lake in the depressed flats in North Africa, “The Sahara would bloom for hundreds of miles.” He also reminded his son of the rivers which arise in Atlas Mountains and disappear under the Desert. “Divert this water flow for irrigation purposes?  It’d make the Imperial Valley in California look like a cabbage patch!”

Later in the trip, FDR made Winston Churchill apoplectic by discussing plans for anti-imperialist development with the Sultan of Morocco, including mooting American aid in providing the resources to train indigenous scientists and engineers to develop the nation.

FDR’s American System vision for African development was not taken up in the post-war era, but his outlook was echoed by at least two prominent statesmen of the next generation from very different backgrounds—Kwame Nkrumah and President John F. Kennedy. It was no mere coincidence that twenty years later, when Ghanaian President Nkrumah addressed the Organization of African Unity, he would also speak about the “possibility for the Sahara to bloom.” Nkrumah’s vision also would be temporarily crushed.

But today, finally, FDR’s and Nkrumah’s dream is beginning to be realized. A giant step toward greening the desert, and defeating the miserable living conditions which go with it, was taken this February, when a meeting of several African heads of state decided to go ahead with a massive project of water engineering called Transaqua. Although proceeding without American government backing, this project is truly in the spirit of American System development, a long-term investment in transforming the physical environment for the benefit of the general welfare.

It is with that in mind that we present this report by an American who does understand the American System, and has worked persistently for several decades to bring its benefits to Africa.—Nancy Spannaus

The Abuja Conference

After two months, the deliberations from the “International Conference on Saving Lake Chad” held in Abuja, Nigeria from February 26-28, 2018 are still reverberating, and will continue to do so. This historic conference, the first of its kind to be convened on the African continent, was initiated and sponsored by the Nigerian government in conjunction with the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC), and supported by the United Nations. It has already begun to change the thinking of what is possible for Africa’s future.

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
Lake Chad Conference host Nigerian President Buhari (center) with the new (Amb. Nuhu Mamman on the left) and former (Sanusi Abdullahi on the right) executive secretaries of the LCBC. (Lawrence Freeman)

From across the globe, hundreds of water experts, hydrologists, scientists, political leaders, advocates for Lake Chad, the African Union, the Africa Development Bank, and the World Bank, joined the heads of state of the Lake Chad Basin nations for three days of deliberation on the best policy to recharge the contracting Lake Chad. Having served as an advisor to the LCBC and participated in several discussions with the Nigerian government on the necessity for an inter-basin water transfer project to recharge Lake Chad, this author was given a prominent role throughout the entire proceeding, addressing the gathering several times in various capacities. ( Written remarks by me were also circulated at the conference and to the press.)

If action is not taken, Lake Chad may disappear, endangering the livelihoods of over 30 million farmers and fisherman dependent on the lake. Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, expressed the urgency of this crisis in his address to the conference:

I am convinced this conference will not be another ‘talk shop’…Let Abuja be the starting point of this commitment and we will call this “Abuja Declaration” … We must treat the issues of the Lake Chad with the urgency they deserve and show the needed commitment towards reviving the Lake…Together let us share this mission of rescuing Lake Chad with a renewed vigor, determination, and international collaboration…The time to restore Lake Chad is now.

Transaqua: The Preferred Solution

In the conclusion of his keynote address, Sanusi Abdullahi, Executive Secretary of the LCBC, set the tone for the conference:

There no is solution to the shrinking of the Lake Chad that does not involve recharging the Lake with water from outside the basin….Therefore, inter-basin water transfer is not an option; but a necessity, otherwise we are faced with possibility of Lake Chad  disappearing and that would be catastrophic for the entire African continent.” (emphasis added)

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
The shrinkage of Lake Chad. Gray shows the original size of the Lake.

Transaqua is an inter-basin water project to transfer a sufficient flow of water from the tributaries of the Congo River to restore Lake Chad from its current diminutive size of 1500-2500 square kilometers to its 1963 level of 25,000 square kilometers. The Transaqua design is to create a navigable 2,400-kilometer canal that by gravity will deliver between 50 to 100 billion cubic meters of water to the Chari River in the Central African Republic, which is the primary tributary to Lake Chad. The channel will be created through a series of dams of the tributaries to the right of the Congo River.

Transaqua, the brainchild of Dr. Marcello Vichi of the Italian Bonifica engineering firm, was first proposed almost 40 years ago. Its unique feature lies beyond refurbishing Lake Chad, in restoring economic growth to the poor people living in the Lake Chad Basin This mega-project will create a super economic zone of trade and commerce between all the nation of the Congo river and Lake Chad Basins; potentially affecting one third of the entire African continent. In addition to the generation of desperately needed hydro-electric power, new roads will be built, new manufacturing-agricultural centers will be created, new fisheries will develop, and food production will expand with an additional 40,000 hectares of irrigated land.

In the conference communiqué, “Roadmap on Saving the Lake Chad,” Transaqua was the favored solution to reversing the diminishment of Lake Chad. It was endorsed by the following Presidents; Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Mahamadou Issofu of Niger, Idriss Deby of Chad, Faustin-Archange Touadera of the Central African Republic, and the Prime Minister of Cameroon, Philemon Yang.


Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
Map of the Transaqua Project by Bonifica.

In Section 3 of the Roadmap-Outcome from the Conference– the document states: “The Transaqua Project, which would take water from the right tributaries of the River Congo, conveying the water [along a] 2,000km channel to [the] Chari River is the preferred feasible option.” Immediately following is a detailed map of the “Transaqua Transfer Scheme,” reproduced from a power point presentation delivered by Bonifica to the Foreign Ministers earlier in the conference… The Roadmap then calls for: “The African Development Bank to facilitate the creation of the Lake Chad Fund of US $50 billion, to be sourced from African States and donations by Africa’s Development Partners to fund Lake Chad IBWT [inter-basin water transfer] and infrastructure projects.”

On the final day, the Italian ambassador to Nigeria announced to the conference that the Italian government will contribute 1.5 million Euros for a feasibility study of Transaqua. ChinaPower, which also participated in the conference and will partner with Bonifica on the feasibility study, will contribute an equal sum, thus providing roughly $3.6 million for the first-ever study of Transaqua. Truly an historic accomplishment for Africa, and long overdue, considering that Transaqua was first presented to the LCBC in 1984.

A Unique and Visionary Project for Africa.

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
Lawrence Freeman, on screen, addresses the Abuja conference.

In the final discussion of the conference, with Heads of State present, this author was asked to give his analysis of the proceedings:

We are at a very crucial moment, where we don’t have any choice, but to go ahead with the inter-basin water transfer program between the two basins. To not do it at this point will actually lead to the death of Lake Chad, which will be a strategic catastrophe for the African continent.

So, the question is how to move forward. I think the solution is where Mohamed Bila’s presentation ended, with the Transaqua concept. This brings a new capability of actually transforming a large section of the African continent. And doing it at the same time that African continent is undergoing its greatest infrastructure development with the help of China’s Silk Road. More railroads, more ports, more roads, are being built now, and Transaqua will be a complementary feature to the development Great Lake countries and those of the Lake Chad Basin, creating in addition to energy, and irrigation a new economic corridor for development.

I must say to those people who are critical, who say we don’t have the money, it’s too difficult, it will take too long; diplomatically I have to say they are wrong. We should have done this decades ago. We are suffering the consequences of not doing it. And as Sanusi Abdullahi explained in his presentation-we have no choice.  With 12 to 13 countries involved in the two basins working together, with allies from around the rest of the world, we can have a full-scale commitment to move this project forward.

This is the only way to relieve the poverty that exists not only in the Lake Chad Basin. But this project will go through the Central African Republic where people are dying, and part of the Congo where people are suffering. We talk about this bold, visionary, futuristic idea of infrastructure for inter-basin water transfer program. We should not listen to the critics, not listen to the people who say it can’t be done, not listen to the people who say we don’t have the money, but actually do something unique and visionary that will actually have a transformative effect on the entire continent of Africa.

Nkrumah’s Pan Africanism and Transaqua

The correspondence of the multi-nation Transaqua project with the Pan African concept of Africa’s “Founding Father” Kwame Nkrumah, was the leitmotif-recurrent theme that developed throughout the three-day conference. Sanusi Abdullahi began his Keynote address by reminding the audience that it was fifty-five years ago, on May 25, 1963, that the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed, and one year later on May 22, 1964 that the LCBC was created.

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
Kwame Nkrumah Memorial in Accra, Ghana.

The afternoon session of the first day was devoted to a presentation by Mohammed Bila, remote sensing expert and geologist of the LCBC. Bila rigorously demonstrated that the more well-known, but vastly inferior water transfer project from the Ubangi River, although feasible, would be totally insufficient; only increasing the depth of the lake by one meter, and barely doubling its area to 5,500 square kilometers.  This provided an opportunity for this author, who was a discussant, to explain the bold vision of Transaqua and its multifaceted benefits.

It was on the second day that the compatibility of the trans-national approach of Transaqua for Africa and Nkrumah’s Pan-African vision were explicitly discussed. The featured speaker, Francois Kalwele from the Ministry of the Environment of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, referenced Nkrumah’s understanding that Africa’s needs for hydro-electric power and fresh water could only be realized with the proper use its waterways, especially the powerful Congo River. As the moderator of this session, this author was able to expound on Nkrumah’s concept of a “United Africa,” committed to raising the standard of living of its population through science, technology, industry and infrastructure. Abubakar Bobboi Jauro, former Executive Secretary of the LCBC from 1988-2000, and intimately knowledgeable about history of the Transaqua proposal in Africa, further enriched the discussion by stating that the concept of “Transaqua developed by the Italian firm Bonifica was exactly in the spirit of Nkrumah’s vision.”

Development Must Follow Liberation

Kwame Nkrumah, who became Ghana’s first President on July 1, 1960, led the continent’s first successful liberation from British colonialism, and is considered the Founding Father of Africa.  He articulated a future vision for Africa that embodied the aspirations of a continent that had suffered from almost five hundred years of slavery and colonialism. He intended for African colonies to become independent and to use their enormous wealth in natural resources, water systems, and fertile land to develop into prosperous nations.

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
The Akosombo dam on the Volta River in Ghana, a prize project championed by Nkrumah.

In his speech at the inaugural ceremony of the founding of the OAU, Nkrumah outlined his vision for an independent Africa.

On this continent it has taken us long to discover that the struggle against colonialism does not end with the attainment of national independence. Independence is only the prelude to a new and more involved struggle for the right to conduct our own economic and social affairs; to construct our society according to our aspirations unhampered by crushing and humiliating neo-colonial controls and interference…

With capital controlled by our own banks, harnessed to our own true industrial and agricultural development, we shall make our advance. We shall accumulate machinery and establish steel works, iron foundries and factories; we shall link the various States of our continent with communications, we shall astound the world with our hydroelectric power. We shall drain marshes, clear areas, feed the under-nourished, and rid our people of parasites and disease. It is within the possibility to make even the Sahara bloom into a vast field with verdant vegetation for agriculture and industrial developments. We shall harness the radio, television, giant printing presses to lift our people from the dark recesses of illiteracy.            

In his book Africa Must Unite published in 1963, Nkrumah emphasized the importance of energy and transportation infrastructure.

All industries of any major significance require, as is a basic reality, a large and reliable source of power…Newer nations, like our own, which are determined to catch up, must have a plentiful supply of electricity, if they are to achieve any large-scale industrial advance.

What Africa really requires is a fully integrated transport system for the continent, properly planned by a central organization, which will examine the relative potentials and economic of road, rail, river, air and sea systems in correlation with an over-all plan for inter-African trade and progressive economic and social development.

Nkrumah Living in Franklin Roosevelt’s USA

It is well known that Nkrumah, unlike other African leaders, was not educated in the United Kingdom, but in the United States from 1935 to 1945. After graduating with a BA in Theology from Lincoln University, the first institution of higher learning for “negroes” in the U.S., he earned a Master’s Degree in Science at the University of Pennsylvania, and became an instructor in Greek and Negro history.  However, historians pay little attention to the fact that Nkrumah, during his nearly decade-long stay in the U.S., could observe the economic transformation under the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s understanding of the unique contribution of infrastructure as the “driver” for economic growth enabled him to lift the United States out of the Great Depression.  Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, a massive infrastructure project, encompassing portions of Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia. North Carolina, and Virginia, topologically transformed the central section of the U.S. This went along with other infrastructure projects, such as the Rural Electrification that provided farms with inexpensive electricity; and the Works Progress Administration which created productive work for millions of unemployed, building needed roads, hospitals, libraries, and hydroelectric dams; all of which restored stability and economic growth to the U.S.

Save Lake Chad with Transaqua: Nkrumah and FDR Would Concur
President Kennedy and President Nkrumah, during the African leader’s 1961 visit to the U.S.

Nkrumah, as a young man with an exceptionally fertile mind, would have certainly learned from the experience of living in Roosevelt’s U.S.A while it was undergoing radical structural economic change. Indeed, his grand Volta dam project evokes the image of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s transformative vision. President John F. Kennedy, who hosted Nkrumah as the first visiting foreign head of state after his inauguration, sought to aid Ghana in the Volta project with financing and engineering. Mattei’s Italy provided help as well. The Akosombo dam of the Volta Project carries a plaque honoring President Kennedy.

There is little doubt in my mind that both Roosevelt and Nkrumah would have enthusiastically endorsed and supported the implementation of Transaqua. We can only wonder if their spirits were present at the Abuja conference to help guide its outcome.

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa. In 2014 he was appointed Vice Chairman of the International Scientific Advisory Committee to the Lake Chad Basin Commission. He witnessed the March 2015 Nigerian elections, and was invited by President Buhari to attend his inauguration in May 2015. For over two decades he has been involved with Nigeria. His blog can be accessed here  .

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