Like most travellers particularly between Zambia and Botswana I have always found crossing the Zambezi River by pontoon at Kazungula a terrifying experience because of many accidents in which hundreds of people, including former Southern Province Minister Maimbolwa Sakubita, lost their lives when the pontoon capsised in the 1970s.
Not only that about 15 more people mostly Zambians that included women and children perished when a South African heavy-duty truck tipped over, throwing passengers on board the pontoon into the crocodile-infested and fast-flowing Zambezi River some years later.
For the commercial transporter inordinate delays at Kazungula border crossing, where vehicles ferrying cargo to and from various countries in the region and beyond, are and could be marooned for days if not weeks, translate into huge financial losses and turn-around times.
While the adventurous tourist may often find crossing by pontoon pleasurable, the not-so-brave traveller is forced to cross the river by using the Livingstone-Victoria Falls Town (Zimbabwe)-Kazungula-Kasane route or Lusaka-Chirundu-Harare route and vice-versa.
So every stakeholder was elated in 2005 when it was announced that the Zambian and Botswana governments had agreed to jointly construct a permanent bridge to link the two countries.
Following the announcement I filed a news story from Gaborone and sent it to the late Human Rights Commissioner Arnold Kapelembi (who was still the News Editor at the time I left the Times of Zambia newspaper in 1992) in his elevated capacity as Times Printpak Managing Director) based in Lusaka.
Titled 'Botswana, Zambia agree to build Kazugula bridge' the report, which I reproduce here for the benefit of readers of this column, said:
'Good news to all Kazungula pontoon users - the Botswana and Zambian governments have finally agreed to construct a permanent bridge across the Zambezi/Chobe Rivers to link the two SADC countries.'
It went on: 'Inviting tenders for the project, which is regarded as a giant leap forward and a stimulus to regional economic integration, the Zambia National Tender Board (ZNTB) says the two governments have agreed to promote 'free and unobstructed movement of both cargo and people by 'providing an appropriate bridge structure across the Zambezi River and border control facilities at Kazungula border between the two countries.
Viewed by regional watchers as probably Africa's first step on the road to hosting, for the first time, the FIFA World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the governments of Zambia and Botswana, through the Ministry of Works and Supply (Zambia) and the Ministry of Works and Transport (Botswana) have approved the development of the bridge project using Build-Operate Transfer (BOT) method.
ZNTB says BOT is one of the modern methods of financing and administering public infrastructure services through Public-Private Partnership initiatives (PPPs). According to ZNTB advertisement (which appeared) in the government-owned Botswana Daily News, this method has been successfully used in developed countries and some parts of Africa.
As a result, the Ministry of Works and Supply, for Zambia, and Works and Transport, for Botswana, intend to carry out design and construction of the following structures at Kazungula:
Road bridge, approximately 800m, and approach roads with high embankments at bridge approaches; and Border control facilities.
ZNTB, on behalf of the Ministry of Works and Supply, for Zambia, and Works and Transport (Botswana) 'now invites eligible consortiums' having proven track record in similar works involving modern techniques to submit their 'express interest'.
The consortium would normally comprise financial institutions, engineers, construction experts, and qualified/experienced concession operators. It says successful BOT bidders will be expected to carry out intensive technical and financial studies in collaboration with the ministries of the two countries, who are the executing agencies,' the article concluded.
However, the project ran into unexpected difficulties when Zimbabwe, which was reeling under economic sanctions imposed by most Western countries (following the controversial 2007 presidential election run-off that President Robert Mugabe won against MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai) but on whose territory part of the Bridge Project was to be constructed, objected unless Harare was guaranteed a stake as one of the major participating countries.
The project was further delayed by 2008 political changes that took place in the two principal cooperating countries - Botswana saw the retirement of President Festus Mogae and accession to power of Lieutenant-General Seretse Khama Ian Khama; and in Zambia - the death of President Levy Mwanawasa and his replacement by former vice president Rupiah Banda.
Although both governments remained stoutly committed to getting the project off the ground, progress was slow in that in Zambia president Banda, who had been elected to finish off Dr Mwanawasa's two years of his five-year term, lost his bid for what would have become his first five-year term to President Michael Sata whose Patriotic Front (PF) scooped the 2011 general election.
The project suffered another setback as President Sata, who initiated unprecedented infrastructural development projects across the country, died in November 2014 - and like Dr Mwanawasa - after only three years in office. But before his demise in a London hospital he had been receiving treatment, however, President Sata and Lt. Gen Khama had dispatched their respective Vice presidents Dr Guy Scott and Dr Ponatshego Kedikilwe (who has since retired) to Kazungula for the ground-breaking ceremony to mark the beginning of the construction of the road and rail bridge in August, 2014.
This was after the project had gone through tender and three companies out of the 26 that had expressed interest had been short-listed in March to undertake construction works. The companies were China Major Bridge Engineering Corporation, Shimizu- Stefanuti Joint Venture and Daewoo E & R of South Korea. A South African bidding company that felt marginalised, if my recollection is correct, protested prompting some would-be sponsors to threaten pulling out.
So, the arrival on the scene of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) was greeted with a great sigh of relief by government officials, transporters and travellers like myself because their move ensured that the US $60 million financing gap that the project faced would no longer be a hindrance.
I do recall that upon his return to Gaborone, former Lusaka-based civil engineer Herbert Murray, who, according to him, was among the engineers that were pivotal in the construction of the Ndola-Kitwe Dual Carriageway in the 80s, told me he was in Kasane on private business when the Botswana-Zambia Joint Steering Committee met in the tourist resort town, to tie up a few loose ends.
Zambian officials had indicated that their target date for commissioning of the project that should benefit rural communities in senior chiefs Sekute's and Mukuni's chiefdoms, was August 13, 2014.
The bridge across the Zambezi River at the point where the borders of Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia meet has been the vital missing link on Sub-Saharan Africa's North-South Trade Corridor.
The plan is for the construction of a 923-metre long and 18.5-metre wide bridge with provisions for both rail and road transport. Two one-stop border facilities-one at each end - and access roads will also be built at an estimated total cost of US$259 million, according to initial estimates.
When he visited Zambia at the end of June last year AfDB president Dr Kaberuka pledged that his financial lending institution would work closely with the Botswana and Zambian governments to accelerate construction and that his bank would also accelerate financing procedures because the project was not only important to the economies of Zambia and Botswana but to Africa as a whole.