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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic

9 min read.

In the beginning was a fiction – that the Chinese railway would freight 22 million tonnes a year, and in so doing, replace the trucking business. Turns out – and this from the government’s own internal assessments – that the maximum amount of annual freight on the SGR is 8.76 million tonnes, almost a third of what was promised. Interest alone on the $3 billion debt is in US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) per year, which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Contrary to official assurances, explains DAVID NDII, the railway will require both State coercion and a massive public subsidy to stay in business.

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SGR by the Numbers: Some Unpleasant Arithmetic
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“Unpleasant arithmetic” is a popular economists phrase coined by Thomas Sargent, the 2011 economics Nobel Prize laureate and Neil Wallace in an influential 1981 paper simply titled “Some unpleasant monetarist arithmetic” that sought to demonstrate that monetary policy is a useless anti-inflation tool. The deadpan title had a double meaning, the truly horrendous math and the unsettling policy implications. The good news is that Kenya’s standard gauge railway (SGR) arithmetic turns out to be unpleasant only in one dimension. The bad news is that it is the money end of the business, not the math.

It is helpful to start by putting the scale of the project in perspective.

UK’s Crossrail project, an expansion of the London commuter rail system has been billed as Europe’s most expensive infrastructure project, with a price tag of US$ 23 billion, five times the cost of the Mombasa-Naivasha SGR. But the project amounts to less than one percent of UK’s $2.6 trillion dollar economy (37 times Kenya’s), and 3.5 percent of government revenue. The UK borrows long term domestically at between 1.5—2.5 percent per year. If we take the higher figure, the interest cost of financing the Crossrail project is about 0.1 percent of government revenue. The most expensive infrastructure project in Europe increases the UK’s public debt by less than one percent of GDP and puts no pressure on the government budget.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue. If we were to finance it from floating international bonds, the interest cost on the $4.5 billion dollars we’ve borrowed already would translate to 2.5 percent of government revenue, 28 times the cost of Crossrail’s debt burden on UK’s taxpayers.

But the Chinese bank loans have a higher revenue burden than bonds since we have to pay both interest and principal. We now know that the cost is in the order of KSh 50 billion per year currently, equivalent to four percent of revenue. That translates to 45 times CrossRail’s debt burden on UK taxpayers. Moreover, as noted, the UK borrows domestically, with no currency risk. The shilling has depreciated 18 percent since we borrowed, raising the interest cost by KSh 3 billion a year.

When it was starting in 2014, the $3 billion outlay for the Mombasa-Nairobi segment amounted to 5.4 percent of GDP and 11 percent of government revenue. The cost to completion (Mombasa to Malaba), estimated at US$8 billion at the time, was in the order of 15 percent of GDP and 73 percent of government revenue.

To contemplate a project of that scale, you need a very high degree of certainty of its viability. It is otherwise reckless.

The key selling point of the SGR project is that it would get the huge trucks off the road. It would also be cheaper and faster. The public was told that it would haul 22 million tonnes of freight a year. As this column pointed out then, this was always doubtful.

A typical locomotive hauls of between 3000 and 4000 tonnes of freight. We now know that the SGR locomotives’ capacity is 3000 tonnes. The 22-million ton target works out to 20 trains a day, a train every 80 minutes. But the government has also marketed passenger services, which brings you down to a train an hour. It matters that over 90 percent of the freight is imports. If it was equally divided between imports and exports, you would need half the departures. But with virtually all freight going one way, a departure every hour both ways on a single track is a stretch.

We now know courtesy of a study by government policy think tank, KIPPRA, that the operational capacity of the railway in terms of the rolling stock already acquired and configuration of the line (e.g. provisions for trains to pass each other), is twelve trains a day, with provision for four passenger and eight freight trains a day, with a capacity of 8.7 million tonnes a year.

Besides falling far short of the so called design capacity, this raises a serious question about the viability of extending the railway to Uganda. Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The railway has been sold as a commercially viable project, that is, it would pay for itself. This column challenged this claim from the outset. In the first of many columns, I maintained that the railway could not pay, and that the debt would be paid from the public purse. This has now come to pass.

Currently, the volume of transit cargo coming through the port of Mombasa is close to eight million tons, just about the same capacity as the railway. Thus, the current operational capacity cannot serve both the domestic and transit cargo—it is one or the other. To serve both will require expanding the capacity on the completed section to at least double what it is, escalating the already exorbitant cost even further. In a decade or so, it will still come down to a question of domestic or transit freight. If the railway will have been extended, it will only make business sense to carry transit cargo, begging the question why Kenya would have borrowed so much money to build a railway for other countries.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). It is possible that the lenders could have conducted their own feasibility studies as other development financial institutions do, but if such exist, they are a closely guarded secret.

The CRBC feasibility study has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project. NPV is the current value of the future earnings of a project and should be higher than the cost of the project.

Be that as it may, the railway’s economic justification turns on cheap freight. The study asserts that the railway would turn a profit with a tariff of US$ 0.083 a ton per kilometre (8 US cents). Containers weigh between 20 and 30 tons, hence the study’s tariff at the time translated to between US$ 830 and US$ 1245 (Ksh. 70,000 to Ksh. 100,000) to freight containers from Mombasa to Nairobi. It puts road haulage cost at US$ 0.10 to US$ 0.12 (10 to 12 US cents), hence the proposed SGR tariff would have been 20 to 45 percent cheaper than trucking.

The only feasibility study I have seen was done by the contractor China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)…It has a chapter titled economic evaluation, though it is unlike any investment appraisal I have come across. It asserts that the project has “high profitability” and “financial accumulation ability”, but there are no cash flow projections to back this up. It presents Net Present Value (NPV) of three different configurations of US$ 2.0, 2.4 and 2.6 billion as evidence of viability, leaving one at a loss to understand how this justifies borrowing US$3.2 billion for the project.

According to the Economic Survey, the source of official statistics, in 2012, when the feasibility study is dated, railway freight revenue was Ksh. 4.40 a ton per kilometre, which works out to $0.052 cents. In effect, the SGR claimed that it would make freight cheaper, while in fact its break-even tariff was higher than the railway tariff prevailing at the time. Even the postulated tariff advantage over trucks is flawed because it covers freighting to the inland container depot (ICD) and does not include the additional cost of moving the containers from the ICD to the owners’ premises.

If the tariff advantage over road could be defended, the correct way to measure its economic benefits would be the cost savings, the difference between the “with and without” scenarios. We now know, courtesy of the KIPPRA study, that the actual operational capacity of the railway is 8.76 million tonnes. If we assume, heroically, trains operating at full capacity for the 25 years used in CRBC’s feasibility study and the maximum cost saving ($0.037 a ton per kilometre) we obtain an Internal Rate of Return of 2.4 percent, against a standard benchmark opportunity cost of capital for development projects of 12 percent.

More importantly, the returns are highly sensitive to the railway’s cost advantage over trucking. If we use the lower-bound trucking cost of $0.10 which reduces the cost advantage to $0.017, the project’s Internal Rate of Return (IRR) falls close to zero, the NPV drops to $580 million and the benefit cost ratio (BCR) to 0.2. The IRR is the discount rate at which the NPV of a project is zero and is used to compare a project’s return to the cost of capital. The BCR is simply the benefits over costs and should exceed one for a viable project. A BCR below one means that the project is an economic liability.

The parameters of the feasibility study have already been blown out of the water by exchange rate movements. The 12 US cents trucking tariff used in the study was KSh10.15 in 2012 (at Ksh 84.50 to the dollar). Today KSh 10.15 translates to 10 US cents which as we saw, makes the railway an economic liability. The problem with the SGR is that the bulk of its costs are in foreign currency— indeed, its approved tariffs are dollar-denominated. Trucking has less foreign currency exposure and it is indirect. If the shilling depreciates, the railway loses cost advantage. This is exactly what has happened. As of mid last year, trucks were charging between KSh 70,000 and 90,000 to transport a 40-foot container from Mombasa to Nairobi, which works out to between $0.05 and 0.07 a ton per kilometre compared to the feasibility study’s break-even rate of US$ 0.083.

Over the long haul, currencies adjust to the inflation difference between a country and its trading partners, which for the Kenya shilling translates to depreciating by five percent per year on average. So far the government is relying on coercion to put cargo on the train, even though it is charging what it is calling a discounted tariff. Raising prices is going to be a difficult proposition. We can also expect the prices and operational efficiency of trucks to continue improving, while the railway is stuck with its current locomotives for decades. The price advantage will continue moving in favour of trucking.

With the installed operational capacity of 8.76 million tonnes, interest on its debt which is in the order of US$200 million (KSh 20 billion) translates to 4.6 US cents a ton per kilometre which works out to KSh 45,000 – KSh 60,000 per container. Add operational costs, and it is readily apparent that there is no competitive tariff that would enable the railway to service its debt. Moreover, it is difficult for the railway to operate at full capacity all the time. In effect, the railway will require both coercion and a massive subsidy to stay in business.

We are now compelled to confront the question: what is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry? With cost advantage more or less out of the question, we are left with two arguments. One, that road haulage does not factor in the public costs of building and maintaining roads— including the disproportionate damage that heavy trucks inflict on the roads. The second is that road haulage cannot cope with the projected freight growth, in effect, that the railway line is a necessity, regardless of the cost. Let’s look at each in turn.

The contention that road haulage is implicitly subsidized is simply untrue. Freight trucks do exact a heavy wear and tear toll on the highway, but they also pay their fair share for it. The government is presently collecting KSh 18 per litre of fuel, which translates to Ksh 3,200 per Mombasa-Nairobi trip for a prime mover consuming 180 litres of diesel. Current freight container traffic on the road is at 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent (TEUs), we are talking fuel levy revenues in the order of KSh 3.5 billion a year. When you add other users, the Mombasa-Nairobi section is generating upwards of KSh 5 billion in fuel levy funds – KSh 10 million per kilometre. It is enough to maintain it. In fact, if the government were to leverage it (i.e. float a bond and pay interest from it), it would be able to finance a phased expansion into a dual carriageway.

What is the economic rationale of establishing a subsidized public monopoly to replace a competitive industry?

The other is that the road would not be able to cope with the growing freight volume and a railway. International evidence suggests otherwise. In the EU for instance, the rail’s share of freight has fallen from 60 percent in the 70s, to just under 20 percent today, despite determined efforts by governments to reverse it. Railways have struggled to offer the flexible logistical requirements of the distributed just-in-time supply chains of a globalized information age. It is, after all, a nineteenth-century technology. Which is why I get rather amused when I hear the building of the “standard gauge” rail (a “standard” established in 1886) being characterized as a giant technological leap into the future.

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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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Kenneth Kaunda: The Founding President of Zambia

Independence leader who fought white rule and helped shape postcolonial southern Africa

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda
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This piece was originally published in the Financial Times and is republished in the Elephant with the express permission of the author.

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president who has died aged 97, was a towering figure of African nationalism and the anti-colonial independence movement that swept the continent in the 20th century. For his 25 years in office he fought apartheid, yet was more a victim of southern Africa’s white minority regimes than an instrument of their collapse.

After taking office at independence in 1964, Kaunda banned all political parties except his United National Independence party in 1972. In 1991 he reluctantly conceded multi-party elections, in which he was soundly defeated. Nonetheless, Kaunda ruled Zambia with a rare benevolence in an era of dictatorships and systematic abuse of human rights. His Christian faith, together with socialist values, was at the heart of his doctrine of “Zambian humanism”.

At home, his policies were little short of disastrous economically. Zambia’s all-important copper mines were nationalised shortly before a fall in the commodity’s price, while industries were taken over by an administration short of managers — the country had only a dozen university graduates at independence in 1964 — and newly created state-owned farms proved a failure.

Abroad, his influence never quite matched his rhetoric. He denounced white rule but was inhibited by landlocked Zambia’s dependence on trade through neighbouring Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Closure of the border with Rhodesia left his country dependent on a road to the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam for its fuel imports. A Chinese-built rail link opened in 1975, but the line never met its potential.

Born at Lubwa Mission on April 28 1924 in what was then Northern Rhodesia, Kenneth David Kaunda was the eighth child of teacher parents. After secondary school he too became a teacher, but in 1949 he gave up teaching to enter politics. By 1953 he was secretary-general of the country’s African National Congress party. Impatient and ambitious, he formed his own party in 1958, which was banned a year later.

In 1960 he took over the leadership of the United National Independence party. It swept to victory in the independence election of 1964, ending Zambia’s legal status as a British protectorate. Almost immediately, Kaunda was confronted by the white Rhodesian rebels’ unilateral declaration of independence on November 11 1965.

For the next 15 years his political life was dominated by the Rhodesian bush war, which spilled over into Zambia. He provided a base not only for Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union but South Africa’s own African National Congress, Namibia’s South West Africa People’s Organisation, the FNLA of Angola and Frelimo from Mozambique.

His frequent tearful warnings of regional cataclysm, invariably delivered while holding a freshly ironed white handkerchief, were heartfelt but ineffectual.

Historical and geographical realities left him with a weak hand.

His decision to keep the border with Rhodesia closed hurt Zambia far more than it did his neighbour, and its eventual reopening in 1973 was a humiliating climbdown. A meeting with John Vorster, prime minister of apartheid South Africa in 1975, achieved little, while his secret talks with Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s white minority leader, served only to sour relations with Nkomo’s rival, Robert Mugabe, who was to win the elections for an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.

Pro-independence events had also left Kaunda at a serious disadvantage. The huge Kariba hydroelectric dam was built on the Zambezi river that formed the boundary with Rhodesia. Its generator was on the south bank, leaving the latter in control of power supplies to Zambia’s copper mines.

Perhaps his finest hour came when he hosted the 1979 Commonwealth conference that helped pave the way to Rhodesia’s transition to an independent Zimbabwe. The highlight was a beaming Kaunda leading Margaret Thatcher around the dance floor.

Trade union-led pressure for an end to the country’s one-party system eventually became irresistible, and in 1991 he conceded to demands for the multi-party poll that led to his ousting.

One of his last public appearances was at the funeral of Nelson Mandela, where he attempted to get the crowd of mourners to join him in a rendition of “Tiyende Pamodzi” (let us pull together), a rousing Unip anthem sung at Unip rallies.

The response was an uncomprehending silence. Kaunda had become disconnected from the Africa that he, Mandela and others had worked to shape.

This piece was originally published in the Financial Times and is republished in the Elephant with the express permission of the author.

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Cherry-Picking of Judges Is a Great Affront to Judicial Independence

Uhuru Kenyatta’s refusal to fulfil his constitutional duty to appoint and gazette JSC-nominated judges is a tyranny against the judiciary.

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Cherry-Picking of Judges Is a Great Affront to Judicial Independence
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The 2010 constitution placed an onerous responsibility on the judiciary. That responsibility is to check that the exercise of public power is done in a manner that is compliant with the constitution. The constitution brought everyone, including the president – in both his capacities as the head of state and head of national executive – under the law. Hence, the judiciary has the final word when called upon to determine whether anything done or said to be done by anyone in the exercise of public power is constitutional.

To ensure that judges and magistrates can perform this task, the 2010 constitution created a strong architecture to secure judicial independence. In a nutshell, judicial independence simply means creating the necessary guardrails to ensure that judges and magistrates are and feel fully protected to make the right decision without fear of reprisal and that the judiciary has the facilities it needs to create an enabling environment to facilitate judges and magistrates’ abilities to undertake that core mandate. Ordinarily, the critical aspects of judicial independence include decisional, operational/administrative as well as financial independence.

Operational independence safeguards the ability of the judiciary to run its affairs without interference from other arms of government or from anyone else. Financial independence on the other hand ensures that the judiciary is well funded and fully in control of its funds so that its core duty (decision-making) is not frustrated by either lack of funds or the possibility of a carrot–and-stick approach where the executive dangles funding to extract the decisions it wants. In this regard, the constitution creates a judiciary fund and places it under the administration of the judiciary. Unfortunately, the national government and the treasury have continued to frustrate the full operationalisation of the judiciary fund.

Centrality of an individual judge’s independence

Importantly, the foundational rationale for judicial independence and its different facets is securing the decision maker’s (judge and magistrate) individual independence. This is commonly referred to as decisional independence. In the end, the judiciary exists for only one reason: to adjudicate disputes. In this regard, the person who is charged with decision making is the one who is the primary beneficiary of judicial independence. Of course, ultimately, everyone benefits from an independent judiciary.

Still, the constitution has specific and high expectation of the decision-maker, including that he or she makes decisions based only on an objective analysis of the law and the facts. The decision maker must not be mesmerised or cowed by power. He or she should never be beholden to power – in the present or the future. Simply put, under the constitution, a decision maker should never have to think about personal consequences that he or she may suffer for making a decision one way or another as long as that decision is based on an honest analysis of the law and the facts. Put a bit differently, the decision maker should never have to make (or even think of calibrating) his or her decision to please those in or with power – either within the judiciary or outside it – with the expectation that it will help him or her to obtain professional favours, promotion or to avoid reprisals.

And this is why Uhuru Kenyatta’s cherry-picking of who should or should not be appointed judge is the greatest threat to judicial independence in Kenya.

But first a quick word on what the constitution says about the process of selecting, appointing and disciplining judges.

Selection and disciplining of judges

Before 2010, the president played a controlling role in the selection of judges. This meant that the surest way to become and remain a judge was by being in the good books of the president and his handlers. The result was that the judiciary was largely an appendage of the executive – and could hardly restrain the abuse of public power by the president or other ruling elites. The 2010 constitutional provisions on the judiciary were deliberately designed to eliminate or highly diminish this vice.

The power to select judges was given to the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), a body representative of many interest groups, the president key among them. Constitutionally, the president directly appoints three of the 11 JSC members: the attorney general and two members representing the public. But with his usual ingenuity at subverting the constitution, Uhuru Kenyatta has added to this list a fourth – by telling the Public Service Commission (PSC) who should be its appointee. Regardless, while there are always endless wars to control the JSC especially by the executive, the many interests represented complicate a full takeover of the JSC by the executive or any other interests. And that is partly what the constitution intended to achieve. The law – which the court has clarified numerous times – is that once the JSC has nominated persons to be judges, the president’s role is purely ceremonial, and one that he performs in his capacity as head of state. He must formally appoint and gazette the appointment of the judges. No ifs, no buts.

This is why Uhuru Kenyatta’s cherry-picking of who should or should not be appointed judge is the greatest threat to judicial independence in Kenya.

In fact, the law further clarifies that not even the JSC can reconsider its recommendation once it has selected its nominees. There is a good reason for this unbendable procedure – it helps to insulate the process from manipulation especially once the JSC has publicly disclosed its judge-nominees. Still, the constitution preserves for the president, the JSC and citizens the option of pursuing a rogue nominee by providing the realistic possibility for the initiation of a disciplinary and removal process of a judge even after appointment if there are legitimate grounds for such action.

In this regard, the JSC also has the responsibility to discipline judges by considering every complaint made against a judge to determine whether there are grounds to start proceedings for removal. It is to be noted that the president has more substantive powers in relation to the removal of judges. This is because if the JSC determines that there are grounds for the removal of a judge, the president’s hand is mostly unrestrained with regards to whom he appoints to sit on the tribunal to consider whether a judge should be removed. Unfortunately, there is an emerging trend that indicates that Uhuru undertakes this task in a biased manner by subjectively selecting tribunal members who will “save” the judges he likes.

The injustice of cherry-picking

Now, back to the injustices of Uhuru’s cherry-picking of judges for appointment.

The injustice is horrific for both the appointed judges and those who are not appointed, especially those of the Court of Appeal. Under the 2010 constitution, you do not become a superior court judge by chance.. For High Court judges nominated to the Court of Appeal, this is earned through hard work, countless sleepless nights spent writing ground-breaking judgments and backbreaking days sitting in court (likely on poor quality furniture) graciously listening to litigants complain about their disputes all day, and then doing administrative work to help the judiciary keep going. All this while maintaining personal conduct that keeps one away from trouble – mostly of the moral kind. Magistrates or other judicial staff who move up the ranks to be nominated judges endure the same.

The injustice is horrific for both the appointed judges and those who are not appointed, especially those of the Court of Appeal

If ever there was a list of thankless jobs, those of judges and magistrate would rank high on the list. It is therefore completely unacceptable that a faceless presidential advisor –  probably sitting in a poorly lit room with depressing décor and a constantly failing wifi connection, and who likely has never met a judge – can just tell the president, “Let’s add so and so to the list of judges without ’integrity’. And by the way, from the last list, let’s remove judge A and add judge Z”. Utterly unfeeling and reckless. Worse, the judge is left to explain to the world what his/her integrity issues are when he or she knows nothing about them.

Psychological tyranny

Cherry-picking also creates a fundamental perception problem. Kenya’s Supreme Court has confirmed that perception independence is a critical element of independence. For litigants appearing before the judges who were appointed in cases involving the president or the executive, it will be hard to shake-off the stubborn but obviously unfair thought that the judge earned the appointment in order to be the executive’s gatekeeper. That is what minds do; they conjure up possibilities of endless, and at times, conspiracy-inspired thoughts. Similarly, those who appear before a judge who was left out will likely believe that the judge – who decides a case impartially but against the executive – is driven by the animus of non-appointment. And you can trust the president’s people to publicly say as much and even create a hashtag for it. Yet such perceptions (of a judge who is thought to favour or be anti-executive) are relevant because justice is both about substance and perception.

And that is the psychological tyranny of Uhuru’s unconstitutional action – for both the judges that have been appointed and to those who have not. It is, indeed, a tyranny against the judiciary and, in a smaller way, against all of us. Perhaps just as Uhuru intended it to be.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V

All vaccines come with medical risks and Kenyans are taking these risks for their protection and that of the wider community. They deserve compensation should they suffer for doing so.

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COVID-19 Vaccine Safety and Compensation: The Case of Sputnik V
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How effective is Kenya’s system for regulating new medicines and compensating citizens who suffer side-effects from taking them? Since March 2021, Kenya has been using the AstraZeneca vaccine supplied through  COVAX to inoculate its frontline workers and the older population. This is available to the public free of charge, according to a priority list drafted by the Ministry of Health (MOH). The Pharmacy and Poisons Board (PPB) also approved the importation of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia, which was initially available through private health facilities only at a cost of KSh8,000 per jab, before the MOH banned it altogether. However, there were reports in the media that the vaccine continued to be administered secretary even after the ban.

Although side effects are rare, we know that all vaccines come with certain medical risks. Kenyans taking vaccines run these risks not just for their own protection, but also for that of the wider community. The state has a responsibility to protect citizens by carefully controlling the distribution of vaccines and by ensuring that adequate and accessible compensation is available where risks materialise. These duties are enshrined in the constitution which guarantees the right to health (Article 43) and the rights of consumers (Article 46).

A system of quality control before the deployment and use of medicines is set out in the Pharmacy and Poisons Act the Standards Act, the Food, Drugs and Chemical Substances Act and the Consumer Protection Act. However, the controversy over Sputnik V in Kenya has cast doubt on the coherence and effectiveness of this patchwork system. Moreover, none of these Acts provides for comprehensive compensation after deployment and use of vaccines.

Vaccine approval and quality control

Subject to medical trials and in line with its mandate to protect global health, WHO has recommended specific COVID-19 vaccines to states. Generally, WHO recommendations are used as a form of quality control by domestic regulators who view them as a guarantee of safety and effectiveness. However, some countries rely exclusively on their domestic regulators, ignoring WHO recommendations. For instance, the UK approved and administered the Pfizer vaccine before it had received WHO approval.

The COVAX allocation system fails to take into account the fact that access to vaccines within countries depends on cost and income.

By contrast, many African states have relied wholly on the WHO Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety given their weak national drug regulators and the limited capacity of the Africa Centre for Disease Control (CDC). The Africa CDC itself deems vaccines safe for use by member states on the basis of WHO recommendations. Kenya has a three-tier approval system: PPB, Kenya Bureau of Standards and WHO. The PPB relies on the guidelines for emergency and compassionate use authorisation of health products and technologies. The guidelines are modelled on the WHO guidelines on regulatory preparedness for provision of marketing authorization of human pandemic Influenza vaccines in non-vaccine producing countries. However, prior to approval by PPB, pharmaceuticals must also comply with Kenya Bureau of Standards’  Pre-Export Verification of Conformity standards .

Vaccine indemnities and compensation 

To minimise liability and incentivise research and development, companies require states to indemnify them for harm caused by vaccines as a condition of supply. In other words, it is the government, and not manufacturers, who must compensate them or their families where required. Failure to put such schemes in place has undermined COVID-19 vaccine procurement negotiations in some countries such as Argentina.  Indemnities can be either “no-fault” or “fault”-based’.

No-fault compensation means that victims are not required to prove negligence in the manufacture or distribution of vaccines. This saves on the often huge legal costs associated with tort litigation. Such schemes have had a contested history and are more likely to be available in the Global North. By contrast citizens of countries in the Global South must rely on the general law, covering areas such as product liability, contract liability and consumer protection. These are usually fault-based, and require claimants to show that the vaccine maker or distributor fell below widely accepted best practice. Acquiring the evidence to prove this and finding experts in the sector willing to testify against the manufacturer can be very difficult.

By default, Kenya operates a fault-based system, with some exceptions. Admittedly, citizens have sometimes been successful in their claims, as in 2017 when the Busia County Government was ordered by the High Court to compensate victims of malaria vaccines. The High Court held that county medics were guilty of professional negligence, first by not assessing the children before administering the vaccines, and second by allowing unqualified medics to carry out the vaccination.

The problem is that the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy.

In recognition of these difficulties, and in order to ensure rapid vaccine development during a global pandemic, WHO and COVAX have committed to a one-year no-fault indemnity for AstraZeneca vaccines distributed in Kenya. This will allow victims to be compensated without litigation up to a maximum of US $40,000 (approx. KSh4 million). To secure compensation, the claimant has to fill an application form and submit it to the scheme’s administrator together with the relevant evidentiary documentation. According to COVAX, the scheme will end once the allocated resources have been exhausted. The scheme also runs toll-free telephone lines to provide assistance to applicants, although the ministries of health in the eligible countries are also mandated to help claimants file applications.

Beneficiaries of the no-fault COVAX compensation scheme are barred from pursuing compensation claims in court. However, it is anticipated that some victims of the COVAX vaccines may be unwilling to pursue the COVAX scheme.  At the same time, since the KSh4 million award under COVAX  is lower than some reliefs awarded by courts in Kenya, some claimants may avoid the restrictive COVAX compensation scheme and opt to go to court. Because such claimants may instead sue the manufacturer, COVAX requires countries to indemnify manufacturers against such lawsuits before receiving its vaccines.

Sputnik V 

Sputnik V is different. Neither the WHO-based regulatory controls before use, nor the COVAX vaccine compensation scheme after use applies. Sputnik has not been approved by WHO or the Africa CDC. The PPB approved its importation in spite of the negative recommendation of Africa CDC, and in the face of opposition from the Kenya Medical Association. The rejection of Sputnik in countries like Kenya is partly due to the reluctance of Russia’s Gamaleya Institute to apply for WHO approval, partly because the manufacturer has not published sufficient trial data on the vaccine’s efficacy, and partly due to broader mistrust of the intentions of the Russian state. This may be changing as Africa CDC Regulatory Taskforce and European Medicines Agency are now reviewing the vaccine for approval while 50 countries across the globe have either approved its use- or are using it already. In Africa, Ghana  Djibouti, Congo and Angola have approved the use of Sputnik V with Russia promising to donate 300 million doses to the African Union. Such approvals have been hailed for providing an alternative supply chain and reducing overreliance on the West.

As regards compensation, Russia has indicated that it will provide a partial indemnity for all doses supplied. However, no clear framework has been set out on how this system will work. There has therefore been no further detail on the size of awards, and whether they will be no-fault or fault-based. This lack of legal specifics has added to the reluctance of countries around the world to adopt the vaccine.

As matters stand, therefore, the Kenyan government would not be able to indemnify private clinics importing and administering Sputnik V. The absence of a statutory framework on vaccine compensation by the state makes this possibility even less likely. Nor would compensation be available from the Gamaleya Institute. The only route then would be through affected citizens taking cases based on consumer protection legislation and tort law in the Kenyan courts. As we have noted, this is complex and costly. Claims might be possible in Russia, but these problems would be exacerbated by language barriers and differences between the legal systems, as well as the ambiguity of the Russian compensation promises.

The private sector can complement state vaccination efforts, but this must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and safety of citizens.

Although the importers obtained a KSh200 million insurance deal with AAR as a precondition for PPB authorisation, the amount per claimant was restricted to KSh1 million, which is well below the WHO rates and the average tort rates ordered by Kenyan courts.  As an alternative to claiming against the manufacturers and distributors, injured patients might sue the Kenyan government. Such a claim would allege state negligence and dereliction of statutory and constitutional duties for allowing the use of a vaccine that has not been approved by global regulators such as WHO, thus exposing its citizens to foreseeable risks. This would be particularly attractive to litigants given the difficulties in recovering from the Russian authorities and the risk that Kenyan commercial importers would not be able to meet all possible compensation claims. Ironically, the use of the Sputnik V vaccine in private facilities still exposes the government to lawsuits even if it didn’t facilitate the vaccine’s importation and distribution.

What the government needs to do

The acquisition of vaccines has been undermined by the self-interested “nationalism” of states in the Global North. Only after buying up the greater part of available vaccines have they been willing to offer donations to the rest of the world. These highly publicised commitments fall far short of what is required in the Global South. Kenya’s first task must be to intensify its diplomatic efforts to increase supply through bilateral engagement with vaccine manufacturing states and in multilateral fora like the World Trade Organization, acting in alliance with other African states. Such steps are only likely to bear fruit in the medium term, however. In the short term, it is certainly sensible to involve private companies in vaccine procurement and distribution in order to supplement the supplies available through COVAX. This is recognised in Kenyan and international law as an acceptable strategy for securing the right to health. But it must be done in a way that guarantees accessibility and the safety of citizens. Accordingly, Kenya should encourage Russia (and all vaccine manufacturers) to publish full trial data showing effectiveness and risks, and to seek WHO approval on this basis. It should require them to establish and publicise detailed indemnity frameworks to allow for comprehensive and accessible compensation. It should acknowledge that citizens accepting vaccines are not only protecting themselves, but also the wider national and global community. With adequate regulation before use, the risk of doing so can be minimised and made clearer. But some risk remains, and those who run it deserve to be compensated for doing so. It is therefore imperative for Kenya to establish its own no-fault indemnity scheme for all state-approved vaccines, including those imported by the private sector.

This article draws from COVID-19 in Kenya: Global Health, Human Rights and the State in a time of Pandemic, a collaborative project involving Cardiff Law and Global Justice, the African Population and Health Research Centre, and the Katiba Institute, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK).

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