AT&T has picked the wrong place for a grandiose scheme, says Richard Dowden
In the past 150 years there have been many attempts by outsiders to change Africa. The latest is by AT&T, the American telecommunications company, which wants to encircle Africa with 33,600km of optic fibre cable to put the continent on the information superhighway.

AT&T points out that 12 per cent of the world's population live in Africa but it has only 2 per cent of the world's telephone lines. It does not say how many computers and telephones there are per head of population. AT&T is seeking investors for the project, entitled Africa One, and wants to establish 41 entry points around the continent.

William B Carter, president of AT&T Submarine Systems, said last week that the telecommunications infrastructure would boost Africa's economy and create trade and investment opportunities throughout the continent.

The enthusiasm for the plan is reminiscent of the 19th century's imperial plans to build railways all over the continent in the belief that it was a storehouse of riches that only needed transport to be unlocked. Cecil Rhodes planned a railway from the Cape to Cairo, but somehow Africa has always thwarted the plans of outsiders to bring instant development and wealth. Perhaps the most ambitious scheme was the Uganda Railway, built at the turn of the century, which runs from Mombasa to Kampala - nowadays only occasionally. Another was the French-built narrow gauge railway that runs up into the Ethiopian highlands from Djibouti on the Red Sea. These days it carries mostly passengers and only occasionally oil.

Relics of such schemes exist all over the continent, the most spectacular example being the great German-built baroque railway station at Swakopmund in Namibia, which was supposed to be a gateway to the continent. The track peters out a few hundred miles away.

Grandiose schemes were not limited to railways. Years earlier a Scottish engineer, Donald Mackenzie, drew up plans for a canal from the Atlantic coast of southern Morocco to Timbuktu, in order to cut out the camel caravans that brought gold, gum arabic and other goods across the Sahara desert to the Mediterranean ports.

Telecommunications have in fact improved enormously in Africa in the past few years, usually in inverse proportion to the state of the economy. In the mid-Eighties, shattered countries such as Uganda and Mozambique which tried to rebuild from scratch had large communities of donors living in their capitals who needed good communications. So often the first tranches of aid were spent on telephones. In contrast, middle-income countries such as Nigeria suffered from idiosyncratic and irregular telephone contact with the outside world.

Lagos, the third largest city in Africa, was so bad the business people found it cheaper and quicker to go there and visit every contact by taxi rather than try to get through on the telephone. As in many other African countries, the problem was blamed on thieves who dug up the telephone lines in order to steal the copper wire, which was melted down and sculptured into tourist knick-knacks. Baskets made of coloured telephone wire are another popular roadside commodity in many African countries.