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Real Railways for Road Rackets: Re-Imagining Kenya, One Year Into the SGR

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A bridge over the Likoni Channel? Unlikely (there’s a mafia in the ferry business). A railway line between Garissa and Isiolo? Unthinkable (we haven’t figured out how to eat from it). But we’re $6 billion in debt to an unnecessary American expressway and an overpriced Chinese railway, the logic of the first sabotaging the other. 120 years since the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway, RASNA WARAH counts the cost of missed opportunities and handshakes in Nairobi that build bridges to nowhere.     

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When Uhuru Kenyatta and his former rival, Raila Odinga, announced the “Building Bridges” initiative (ostensibly to promote peace and harmony in the country) following their famous touchy-feely handshake on the 9th of March, many people in Kenya’s coast region wondered when a bridge would be built at Likoni to ferry passengers to and from the mainland to Mombasa Island. Various suggestions appeared on Twitter, from retractable bridges of the type that are found on the Thames in London, to sky-high bridges that would allow ships to cross the Likoni Channel without hindrance. These suggestions, some of which were no doubt expressed by those who know a thing or two about how bridges are built, will most likely be ignored by the powers that be.

For years residents of Mombasa have wondered why the government has not built a bridge at a place that is crying out for such infrastructure. How long will local residents and tourists continue to rely on ferries to carry passengers and vehicles across the Likoni Channel? Are ferry cartels hindering the building of such a bridge? Who has the most to lose if such a bridge is built?

Conspiracy theories abound. Some say that powerful cartels have a monopoly on ferry purchases from abroad and so do not want to lose out on lucrative deals if more people start using the bridge rather than the ferry. Others speculate that the owners of certain airlines that have made a fortune from flying passengers from Nairobi to Ukunda’s pristine beaches in Diani will have the most to lose from a bridge at Likoni as tourists would be tempted to fly instead to Mombasa on a competitor’s airline and then take the road/bridge to Ukunda.

For years residents of Mombasa have wondered why the government has not built a bridge at a place that is crying out for such infrastructure…Conspiracy theories abound…powerful cartels have a monopoly on ferry purchases from abroad and so do not want to lose out on lucrative deals…Others speculate that the owners of certain airlines that have made a fortune from flying passengers from Nairobi to Ukunda’s pristine beaches in Diani will have the most to lose…

These theories might be true but it is equally true that our short-sighted policy makers have been unable to see the link between building actual bridges and prosperity. Bridges have linked people and made trade possible between different states and communities for centuries. Cities around the world have prospered and grown around bridges. Would Kolkata be a different kind of city without its landmark Howrah Bridge (now known as the Rabindra Setu Bridge)? And would Istanbul be the vibrant, cosmopolitan city it is today if the imposing Bosphorus Bridge linking Turkey’s Asia side to Europe had not been built? In some cases, bridges have become major tourist attractions. Imagine Paris without its delightful bridges across the Seine, London without the Tower Bridge or New York without the picturesque Brooklyn Bridge.

Death of a railway

As Kenyans marked the first anniversary of the controversial Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), dubbed the Madaraka Express – hailed as a success story by the Jubilee government despite the billions of shillings Kenyans now owe the Chinese who built it, and which may take decades to repay – another conversation regarding transport infrastructure emerged on Twitter. On one of those nights when you randomly wonder about the state of your nation, and worry about things like inflated electricity bills and why the price of Supaloaf bread has jumped so quickly from 27 shillings to 50 shillings, I asked my Twitter followers to imagine what it would be like to have a railway line that links Lamu to Malindi in the North coast, Mombasa and Kwale on the South coast. This tweet was prompted by a wedding invitation to Diani that I had declined because I don’t like driving on the Malindi-Mombasa highway and also because the prospect of catching the ferry from Mombasa to Likoni always fills me with dread.

The reaction was massive and instantaneous. Dozens of Twitter followers said that such a railway line would not only attract tourists but would also be a huge boost to the local economy as trade between different parts of the Coast increases and as more settlements emerge along the railway line, just as they did when the Uganda Railway was built more than a century ago. Some said that the Lamu-Kwale rail corridor would make coastal people more accessible to each other and would therefore help in “building bridges” between different communities.

The story of the decline of the Uganda Railway (later renamed variously as the Kenya and Uganda Railway, the East African Railways, the Kenya Railways and eventually Rift Valley Railways) is itself one of myopia on the part of policy makers. When the East African Community split in 1977, making East African Railways defunct, Kenya Railways became a fairly efficient parastatal that was tasked with running the country’s rail network. Up until the early 1990s, the parastatal ran a relatively reliable (but slow) daily passenger rail service from Nairobi to Mombasa and back. I remember the days when a night train journey on Kenya Railways was a romantic affair, complete with white linen bedding and silver cutlery.

However, by the mid-90s, the sleeping and dining experiences on this train had deteriorated considerably, but it was not as if it they could not be salvaged. The Mwai Kibaki administration made the mistake of first giving a concession for the management of the railway to a South African-led consortium, which killed what remained of the century-old railway, and later charging an Egyptian consortium with the impossible task of resurrecting it. In-fighting and complaints about the South African consortium’s lack of investment in the railway eventually led to the premature termination of the 25-year concession. Meanwhile, another Kibaki-initiated flagship transport corridor, the Lamu Port and South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET), has yet to take off.

The railway suffered another major blow after the Kibaki administration exited in 2013. Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee administration did not care to revive the dying railway and instead opted for the expensive SGR option funded by Chinese loans, even though a World Bank study had estimated that the upgrading and refurbishment of the existing railway line would have cost less than one-fifth of what the SGR was going to cost the Kenyan taxpayer. In addition, the upgrading of the existing railway could have been funded by levies from the cargo itself rather than through huge borrowing from foreign banks. Besides, if the country was going to borrow money to build a railway, could it not have borrowed it for building a new network in areas where there are no train services?

Interestingly, the government has also contracted a US construction company, Bechtel, to build an expressway from Nairobi to Mombasa, which will in essence undermine and negate the original reason given for building the SGR – to move larger amounts of cargo faster. As the economist David Ndii has pointed out, the combined national debt arising from the SGR and the new expressway is a whopping $6 billion, or about a third of the country’s total foreign debt. How long will it take Kenyans to repay this?

One also wonders why the existing rail network, which is of immense historical and sentimental value, was abandoned in favour of a completely new one. Countless books have been written about the “Lunatic Express” and the toll it took on those who built it. Stories of heroic British engineers, man-eating lions and resilient Indian coolies have been captured in several books and films.

Interestingly, the government has also contracted a US construction company, Bechtel, to build an expressway from Nairobi to Mombasa, which will in essence undermine and negate the original reason given for building the SGR – to move larger amounts of cargo faster.

The history of British colonialism and Indian settlement in Kenya would be quite different if the railway had not been built. In fact, Nairobi would not exist today if railway engineers had not stopped at what was then known as Mile 327 to contemplate the daunting task of ascending the Kikuyu Escarpment into the Rift Valley. Nairobi owes its existence to the railway line that completely transformed urbanisation patterns in Kenya and opened up the country for European settlement – and eventual colonisation.

Although initially intended as a colonial vehicle for the exploitation and export of the country’s raw materials, the railway eventually developed its own ecosystem sustained by an army of engine drivers, station masters, ticket agents, vendors, baggage and cargo handlers, cooks, stewards and passengers. A job in the railways was considered stable and prestigious as it came with other perks, like housing. (Kenyan lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee, whose grandfather worked as an engine driver on the Uganda Railway from 1903 till 1933, writes nostalgically about that era in his book, A Kenyan Journey.) Sadly, the railway staff quarters in Nairobi, like the railway itself, have been allowed to deteriorate or to become the victim of land grabs.

Things are different in India. The Indian government did not neglect the vast railway network that it inherited from the British. On the contrary, it strengthened and expanded it. India’s rail network, which reaches almost all parts of this huge country, is the fourth-largest rail network (half of it is electrified) in the world, covering some 121,407 kilometres. Indian Railways, which is managed by an entire government ministry – the Ministry of Railways – employs some 1.3 million people and generated $29 billion in revenues last year. It is considered by most Indians as the most reliable and affordable means of transport and is used by rich and poor alike.

Trains have a democratising influence on society. On roads it is easy to distinguish rich users from the less well-off ones, the former in their luxury cars and the latter in crowded buses and matatus. But travelling by rail is different. On the London Underground, which covers 270 stations across the city and its suburbs, it is not unusual to find the Mayor of London seated next to ordinary working class Londoners.

India’s rail network, which reaches almost all parts of this huge country, is the fourth-largest rail network in the world – half of it is electrified – covering some 121,407 kilometres. Indian Railways, which is managed by an entire government ministry – the Ministry of Railways – employs some 1.3 million people and generated $29 billion in revenues last year.

There is also something about being able to use a mode of transport that allows you to get up and stretch your legs or to read a book in comfort. Trains, especially of the electric kind, are also among the most environmentally sustainable forms of transport.

The questions that much of the country’s population that is not served by a railway line are asking are: what has prevented Kenya from expanding its rail network across the country? Why are the benefits of trains only viewed through the prism of cargo from the port of Mombasa and not passengers across the country? How long will it take before there is a rail service from Garissa to Isiolo or from Kisumu to Kakamega? Or how about one from Machakos to Thika? Or a light-rail service within the city of Nairobi itself that would ease road traffic? It may not happen in my lifetime, but imagine the possibilities if these scenarios were to become reality.

What has prevented Kenya from expanding its rail network across the country? Why are the benefits of trains only viewed through the prism of cargo from the port of Mombasa and not passengers across the country? How long will it take before there is a rail service from Garissa to Isiolo or from Kisumu to Kakamega? Or how about one from Machakos to Thika? Or a light-rail service within the city of Nairobi itself that would ease road traffic?

These are the kinds of bridges we need to build, not the hollow kind promised by Uhuru and Raila, which are premised on the lie that a handshake will end uneven development in the country.

Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.

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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo
Publisher

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