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China’s Partition of Africa: Will US Intervention Slow Down the New Silk Road?

11 min read. A letter from 16 US Senators raises questions about Chinese debt-trap imperialism – and Washington’s role (via the IMF) in bailing out distressed countries. As Africa’s leaders are offered new sweeteners by Beijing, the continent becomes the stage for a new geopolitical contest between the 21st century’s Great Powers. By MARY SERUMAGA.

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China’s Partition of Africa: Will US Intervention Slow Down the New Silk Road?
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The just ended Forum of Chinese–African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing may prove to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the United States, long irritated by Africa’s relationship with an Asian country as powerful as itself. The 2018 forum was attended by more African leaders than attended the last AU Summit. Only six heads of state did not show up; Tanzania, Burundi, DRC, Eritrea and Algeria and were represented by vice presidents and prime ministers. Swaziland alone had nothing at all to do with FOCAC.

On 3 August, the day FOCAC 2018 opened, sixteen US senators wrote to Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and Michael Pompeo, Secretary of the Department of State demanding to know what the Administration proposes to do to stop China’s attempt to dominate the global economy. First signatory is Senator David Perdue, described as ‘Donald Trump’s Man in the Senate’. The letter is therefore guaranteed to get attention.

The senators point out that 23 of the 68 countries hosting Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects are at risk of debt distress. Eight countries with future BRI infrastructure investments are also at risk of debt distress. China is accused by the Senators of ‘predatory lending’,’weaponizing’ capital and holding poor countries to ransom when they fail to repay.

On 3 August, the day FOCAC 2018 opened, sixteen US senators wrote to Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury and Michael Pompeo, Secretary of the Department of State demanding to know what the Administration proposes to do to stop China’s attempt to dominate the global economy.

This is not to say that the West has not weaponized capital as a matter of course. Sometimes literally. For example, International Lending Institutions will lend to countries that suppress political opposition. Such oppression means citizens cannot fulfil their right and duty to oppose unsustainable debt through democratic processes. In Uganda, electoral violence prevents the citizenry from freely campaigning for elections. Knowing this, Western sovereign lenders provide the means of repression by arming, for example, Uganda’s Special Forces Command while lending to the perpetrators of violence.

The core of the argument the US Senators are preparing against China’s BRI is this: countries in debt distress caused by BRI projects are also in debt to the IMF and turn to the IMF for bailouts. The US is the IMF’s biggest shareholder. As such, IMF bailouts to countries in debt-distress from Chinese loans would be transferring US taxpayers’ money to China. Sri Lanka’s bailout in 2016 did not prevent the loss of Hambantota Port.

However the major immediate cause of concern is Pakistan, reportedly planning to apply for an IMF bailout after her BRI indebtedness under the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor put Gwadar Port at risk. Djibouti whose debt to China is equivalent to 75% of her GDP (its total foreign debt to GDP ratio is 85%) is said to be at risk of losing Doraleh Container Terminal to China, an asset strategically important to the United States.

Uganda is not mentioned but is likely one of the other countries alluded to. Uganda’s debt–distress has been on the horizon for at least two years. The Auditor General signaled it in 2016. A recent attempt to increase tax revenues led to the #ThisTaxMustGo movement, an outcry from a public that sees little in the way of public services, and more recently, the disruption of a tax policy conference attended by donors.

What is important to Uganda is the questions put by the senators to the American Administration;

“As the largest contributor to the IMF, how can the United States use its influence to ensure that bailout terms prevent the continuation of ongoing BRI projects, or the start of new BRI projects?”

An understanding appears to have been reached with Kenya which this year applied for a bailout and simultaneously suspended all new infrastructure projects apparently in return for assistance.

The senators also require the Treasury and the State Department to investigate: i) which other countries are likely to require bailouts; ii) how BRI countries in debt distress can be assisted to repay their loans; and iii) alternative sources of infrastructure funding.”

The closing paragraph of the senators’ letter indicates that another proxy war is about to be fought on the African continent. It is clear the senators want the United States to disrupt Chinese–African cooperation:

“In his speech to the 19th Party Congress, President Xi declared, ‘China’s development does not pose a threat to any other country. No matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion.’ It is apparent that this statement is fundamentally false, and the goal of BRI is the creation of an economic world order ultimately dominated by China. It is imperative that the United States counters [emphasis mine] China’s attempts to hold other countries financially hostage and force ransoms that further its geostrategic goals.”

African leaders attending FOCAC have been promised $60 billion in development assistance. It will be made up of grants and more importantly, loans from Chinese financial institutions. China in 2018 has promised to import more non–commodities (finished goods) from Africa. At FOCAC 2015, the same amount was promised. Given that several countries are already struggling to repay Chinese debt, which carries higher interest and is repayable over a shorter period than loans from other sources, the offer is not necessarily an altruistic gesture.

At the end of FOCAC 2015 held in Johannesburg, the dysfunctional relationship between Africa and China was already evident. The relief of the Chairman of the Africa Union as he welcomed the blandishments of President Xi Jinping was palpable. Probably remembering the Bandung Conference of 1955, in a quivering voice President Robert Mugabe (for it was he) delivered one of those lyrical declamations he was so good at, “Here is a man representing a country once called poor, a country which was never our coloniser. But there you are, he is doing what we expected those who colonised us yesterday to do.”

With the colonial and especially settler–state experience, and after the Continent has been all but disembowelled so that its endowment of natural resources has failed to translate to a decent standard of living as the norm, the current belief that China or anyone else is going to do the work, is astounding in its naïveté.

The relationship between China and Africa is said, over and again, to be rooted in friendship and equality. It is this that is expected to provide the impetus to begin to deliver on goals whose attainment is long overdue: industrialization, modernisation of agriculture, poverty reduction, technological capacity building and economic development. These are expected to be reached by means of Chinese capital, technology and personnel for the construction of roads and other infrastructure, investment and trade facilitation and environmental protection. Sino–sceptics recall the very same development goals were discussed at great length with Europe and America in the immediate post-independence period and beyond.

For his part, President Museveni expressed the hope in Beijing 2018, that the relationship with China would allow Africa to, “more easily work with our friends in the EU and the USA on the basis of win-win arrangements, not the win–lose arrangements of the last 500 years […] many African countries and the former colonizers can put to good use the historical relations with the British Commonwealth or the French Community. What was previously negative could become much more positive than it has been hitherto.”

The relationship between China and Africa is said, over and again, to be rooted in friendship and equality. It is this that is expected to provide the impetus to begin to deliver on goals whose attainment is long overdue: industrialization, modernisation of agriculture, poverty reduction, technological capacity building and economic development…Sino–sceptics recall the very same development goals were discussed at great length with Europe and America in the immediate post-independence period and beyond.

In the interim, raw materials have continued to dominate African exports. Structural Adjustment Programmes led to deindustrialisation on a grand scale. Despite mineral and other endowments dwarfing anything available in the West or the East, African countries continue to occupy the lower rungs of the Human Development Index.

Listening to Xi Jinping’s address at FOCAC 2015, one would have thought China has no needs of her own – they were not mentioned either by China or her African hosts – and that China is in it for purely altruistic reasons. Mugabe, the AU chairman, claimed that the -Sino-African relationship goes far deeper than mineral extraction. The 50,000 elephants we lose to poachers every year did not feature either.

Pro–FOCAC leaders no doubt recall the heady days of Bandung and the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, when there was an Afro–Asian bloc at the UN General Assembly. Back then, African countries were proactive and saw themselves as actors on the world stage rather than as mere props in other people’s scripts and proxies in their wars. An episode that occurred during the Cold War illustrates this. The US sought to bar China from membership of the UN General Assembly and African leaders were lobbied by high-level American officials to vote against China. Just a week after Nigeria gained independence in October 1960, Prime Minister Balewa called on President Eisenhower. Having assured Eisenhower that he was not a Communist, Balewa made a request for bilateral aid and was assured aid would be available through the UN Special Fund. He was advised that the United States preferred making loans to giving grants.

Later in the conversation in answer to a question from Prime Minister Balewa, President Eisenhower said that a vote by Nigeria in favour of Red Chinese representation at the UN would “constitute such a repudiation of the U.S. that we would be in a hard fix indeed.” [i] Balewa in turn expressed surprise that a nation of 650 million should be excluded from representation at the world body. In the event, Nigeria voted against the U.S. position on the Chinese delegation.

Nowadays things are different. Uganda abstained from the historic UN General Assembly vote against the United States’ endorsement of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem when Washington announced that the US was moving her Embassy there. Kenya dodged the vote altogether. In an earlier resolution (December 2016) against, among other things, Israel changing the status of internationally recognized Palestinian territory via settlements, Uganda abstained.

FOCAC 2015 provided US$5 billion in grants as a sweetener and US$ 55 billion in loans. In 2018 a further $60 billion has been pledged. Going on precedent, the majority of these funds will not reach their intended beneficiaries, for easily understandable reasons. Apart from the bureaucracy surrounding the loan applications, most African countries lack a strong regulatory framework. The result: massive waste and theft of public funds. Uganda, for example, has spent billions of dollars of tax revenues and loans on civil service reform, and millions on programmes to deepen democracy yet an enabling environment for sustainable development continues to elude her citizens. State brutality is on the increase.

Uganda’s allegiance to China does not require her to address failures in deepening democracy and inclusive development even for public relations purposes. Although the Western development industry too has tolerated what it calls ‘democratic deficits’ their leaders can be called to account because unlike China, they continually profess democratic values. What follows below is a brief run-through of recent examples of kleprocracy and incompetence supported in Uganda:

The National Roads Authority (UNRA) was established in 2006 to make road construction more efficient than it was under the Ministry of Transport. With its large budget, the UNRA quickly became known for some of the country’s more colourful corruption scandals. In 2015 UNRA excelled itself when the country lost in the region of UGX 24.7 billion (US$ 6.5 million at current rates) in the Mukono–Katosi road scam. The Inspector General of Government found that the Minister for Transport, Abraham Byandala, abused his office by inducing the supposedly independent UNRA to give a contract to one Eutaw, a firm claiming to be related to an American firm of a similar name. The firm, which turned out to have no relation to its American ‘parent company’, was paid advances for work it was unable to complete. Byandala was acquitted in August 2018, for insufficient evidence.

Uganda’s allegiance to China does not require her to address failures in deepening democracy and inclusive development even for public relations purposes. Although the Western development industry too has tolerated what it calls ‘democratic deficits’ their leaders can be called to account because unlike China, they continually profess democratic values.

Meanwhile in the south, the brand new highway to Rwanda literally split in two with one half sliding down the hill. The much–praised Northern By–pass in Kampala was closed as the swamp through which it was built began to reclaim it in the March rains. The Roads Authority is slated to be disbanded by presidential decree as a waste of resources.

The Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), was established in 1983, “to enforce standards for protection of public health and safety and the environment against dangerous, counterfeit and substandard products; ensuring fairness in trade and precision in industry; strengthening Uganda’s economy….” Given that the disposal of disused short–life cheap goods imported from China is becoming an environmental hazard and counterfeit drugs a health hazard, UNBS and other specialised quality assurance agencies would need to be much stronger if the goals of green development, health and prosperity are to be attained.

The CEO of UNBS was suspended in 2015 with various management weaknesses cited as the reason. In 2018, the situation has deteriorated to the degree that foods have been found to be adulterated, notably meat preserved with formaldehyde.

The judiciary (Justice Law and Order Sector) is at once a source of hope and a constant source of disappointment. Sovereign debt has legal and constitutional ramifications. For example, Uganda’s constitution requires the state and its citizens to ‘defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda’ and to build national strength in political, economic and social spheres to avoid undue dependence on other countries and institutions.’ This is meant to be done mainly through Parliament which approves or rejects debt. Clearly unsustainable debt flies in the face of independence.

Other indebted countries too have fallen into debt in contravention of the law. Mozambique’s $2 billion secret loans (one from a Russian bank) were taken out by the finance minister who was not authorised to do so. He later admitted that he was unaware when he signed the guarantee that he gave the creditors sovereign powers over all Mozambican assets until the debt was repaid.

Sovereign debt has legal and constitutional ramifications. For example, Uganda’s constitution requires the state and its citizens to ‘defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Uganda’ and to build national strength in political, economic and social spheres to avoid undue dependence on other countries and institutions.’ This is meant to be done mainly through Parliament which approves or rejects debt.

This is what the US Senators refer to as ‘predatory lending.’ However, the same administrative weaknesses taken advantage of by Chinese and Russian lenders are relied on by Western lenders despite the claim that they operate under different standards.

It was expected that the Constitutional Court would strike down Parliament’s removal of presidential age limits further reducing the chance of removing the incumbent kleptocratic regime.. What came as a shock was the ruling on the invasion of Parliament by the Special Forces beating, torturing several Members of Parliament” physical assault on the elected representatives of the people by ‘security operatives’.

During the appeal against age limit removal, only one out of five judges ruled that state violence is unconstitutional in all circumstances and that it therefore rendered the Age Limit Act null and void. Justice Kenneth Kakuru said,

“The Constitution demands that citizens of this Country be treated with respect and dignity by all agencies of the State. Again I am constrained to refer to the maiden speech of President when in 1986 he promised Ugandans that no citizen would be beaten by the army (read or the Police) as it had been the norm in the past regimes.

The police in Uganda have no right to frog march Members of Parliament, beat them and humiliate them the way they now routinely do which this Court takes judicial notice of being a notorious fact [emphasis mine].”

The rest of the judges were of the view that the attack on Parliament did not nullify the Age Limit Act opening the way for President Museveni’s life tenure and also for assaults on members of parliament.

Many blame the constitutional court’s failure to condemn state violence for the subsequent attack on members of parliament and their supporters in the Arua by–election weeks later.

For two weeks beginning in Arua on 13 August 2018 the armed forces indulged in a wave of electoral violence that spread to other cities. At the time of writing, a high level press conference has just ended in Kampala. Briefing the media about the electoral violence, the Minister for Security said the armed forces acted with restraint and that had they not, casualties would have been more severe. In other words – be grateful we let you live. A further update: President Museveni addressing his party caucus warned them that he has the power to shut down Parliament.

Justice, law and order, health, education, immigration, infrastructural development and tax administration, are all sectors important for development which have exhibited persistent weaknesses. Neither debt nor grants (Chinese or Western) have removed precarity from the manner in which the country is governed or from the day–to–day existence of the majority of Ugandans. Increased debt and grants are not the answer.

*****

In any case, the Chinese project is about to receive major push–back from the United States. A decade ago, correspondence between the US Embassy in Kampala and Washington indicated concern about the manner in which China beats American firms in bids for oil concessions and infrastructure projects by bribing government officials. (Email-2011-10-19 07:38:18 From: gary@ocnus.net To: responses@stratfor.com. Source: Wikileaks). At some point, officials discussed (with the UK) but did not implement travel bans on the senior government officials taking bribes, possibly leaving room for negotiation. That era may have ended.

There are two possible outcomes for Africa. It is just possible that African, Asian and South American countries could become active negotiators this time around. If they were to engage regional blocs they would be able to come away with more profitable and transparent financial arrangements. The best case scenario would include repudiation of illegitimate debt; all monies recklessly loaned to kleptocrat administrations and all those used to perpetuate despots in power.

The best case scenario would include repudiation of illegitimate debt…Failing that China, Europe and the United States will simply agree to a second partition of Africa into new spheres of influence…The current crop of African leaders, noted mainly for bribe-taking and theft of public resources is more likely to cooperate in the second partition of Africa than to restructure the basis of the Continent’s relationship with the imperial powers.

Failing that China, Europe and the United States will simply agree to a second partition of Africa into new spheres of influence. Which brings us to the main ingredient lacking: leadership. The current crop of African leaders, noted mainly for bribe-taking and theft of public resources is more likely to cooperate in the second partition of Africa than to restructure the basis of the Continent’s relationship with the imperial powers.

[i] FRUS 1958-1960 v.14 Newly Independent States, Document 77, Memorandum of Conference with President Eisenhower, October 8, 1960.

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Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in Law from King's College, London, and attained an Msc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

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Who Is Afraid of Commuter Ride-Hailing Apps? Tech Meets Matatu, and Why Nairobi Does Not Need State-Run Public Transport

8 min read. DAVID NDII explores the disruptive power of ride-hailing apps on public transportation in Nairobi and why both the government and the matatu industry should be embracing the commuter ride-hailing apps instead of fighting them.

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Who Is Afraid of Commuter Ride-Hailing Apps? Tech Meets Matatu, and Why Nairobi Does Not Need State-Run Public Transport
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Technology platforms have become disruptors in unexpected places. They have over the years disrupted the music distribution business, the book trade, and even the hospitality industry, but none has been as turbulent as Uber’s disruption of public transportation.

A couple of days ago, the commuter ride-hailing app services Little Shuttle and SWVL announced that they were suspending their operations. Little Shuttle and Little Cab ride-hailing apps are products of technology company Craft Silicon. SWVL is an Egyptian start-up that has invested in the country to do this specific business. Launched seven months ago, SWVL is reported to have 150 buses serving 100 routes, and has raised Sh1.5 billion from investors to expand its operations.

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) subsequently issued a statement giving its reasons for the suspensions. The agency explained that the two companies had obtained the “wrong” licence—known as a Tour Service Licence (TSL)—which it deemed to be a violation of Passenger Service Vehicle (PSV) regulations. NTSA also accused the operators of failing to register their vehicles with the authority as required by Section 26 of the Transport and Safety Act No. 33 of 2012. “The two companies have never contacted the Authority to show any intention to operate as commuter service providers”, the NTSA avers.

Technology platforms have become disruptors in unexpected places. They have over the years disrupted the music distribution business, the book trade, and even the hospitality industry, but none has been as turbulent as Uber’s disruption of public transportation.

Section 26 of the Transport and Safety Act, the provision that NTSA claims has been violated, states that “[a] person shall not operate a motor vehicle whose tare weight exceeds three thousand and forty-eight kilogrammes for the carriage of goods or passengers for hire or reward unless the vehicle is licensed by the Authority in accordance with this Part and in such manner as the Cabinet Secretary may prescribe. Violating the provisions, i.e., operating a commercial vehicle without a prescribed licence is a criminal offence that can attract a fine of Ksh. 300,000 or imprisonment for a term of five years.”

The other ground for suspension is that the two operators have violated PSV regulations. To be licensed under these regulations, the operator is required to be a corporate body which may be a company, a cooperative society (SACCO) or other collective registered under the Societies Act, and have a minimum of 30 vehicles owned by the operator or under a franchise arrangement with the owners.

Regulation 7 (f) requires passengers to be “issued with receipts for fares paid, and as from 1st July 2014, operate a cashless fare system.” Another regulation requires “a transport safety management system based on ISO3900.” Obviously, these regulations are not enforced—and therein lies the paradox. The shuttle services that the NTSA has suspended were the closest thing to compliance with the spirit of these regulations that we have seen since the collapse of the Kenya Bus Service (KBS) franchise several years ago. It is in fact not apparent from my reading of these regulations that Little Shuttle and SWVL have violated these regulations in any substantive way.

The NTSA is disingenuous. Investors do not determine for themselves what licences they need. They go to the government and say, look, I want to run a business of the following nature, what do I need? The government then makes the determination and advises the investor accordingly. In the statement announcing the suspension of operations, Little Shuttle’s Chief Executive Officer disclosed that they were operating on the basis of a national Transport Licensing Board (TLB) licence—also issued by the NTSA—which does not restrict them to specific routes. Someone at the NTSA must have determined that a national TLB licence is what they required. Moreover, if it was deemed that there was no suitable licence, the Transport and Safety Act gives the Cabinet Secretary the power to “exempt any person or class of persons or any motor vehicle or class of motor vehicles from all or any of the provisions of this Act.” The NTSA could have advised the investors to apply for exemption.

In his statement, the Little Shuttle CEO alludes to cartels: “I am not sure if the decision to stop us was from the authorities or they were under pressure from the public transport cartels.” There is a whole range of actors that this could apply to, either working independently or in concert. There are the investors, that is, the vehicle owners, the crew who operate the vehicles and control the revenue, route cartels who control access to particular routes and the police extortion racket. The industry has also been associated with money-laundering syndicates. As one of the biggest cash businesses around, it is as close to the ideal laundromat as you can get.

A key challenge that bona fide investors in the matatu industry face is that they are hostage to crew and route cartels. Precisely because PSVs do not issue receipts as required by law, the owners have no way of keeping tabs on revenue. Moreover, even if they could do so, they would still be compelled to give the crew leeway to pay bribes. Students of economics may recognise this as a principal-agent problem. 

The principal-agent problem arises in contractual relationships where the principal (the vehicle owner) cannot observe whether poor performance by the agent (the crew) is because of external factors (e.g. poor market conditions) or lack of effort or dishonesty on the part of the agent. We say that the interests of the principal (maximum effort by the agent) and the incentives of the agent (maximum income for least effort) are not compatible.

To mitigate this problem the industry has come up with a fixed daily revenue target, which in essence changes the contract between the owner and crew from a wage to a vehicle lease. In economic theory, we call this the incentive-compatible contract. An incentive-compatible contract seeks to motivate the parties to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. This particular incentive-compatible contract has an extremely high social cost. 

Because the crew gets to keep the revenue above the daily target, they are motivated to maximise the number of passengers, and this they do at the expense of road and passenger safety. The cashless system the government sought to enforce would have gone some way towards resolving this problem, which is probably partly why it was resisted—not to mention the resistance by those others with vested interests in a cash business, notably the money-laundering syndicates and the police extortion cartel.

The ride-hailing apps portend a more robust solution to this problem; because of the ubiquity of mobile payments, they can easily combine revenue tracking and cashless payments. And since the revenue is tracked electronically, this makes it possible to enter into a wage contract between the owner and the crew. Crew on a wage contract have no incentive to compromise safety in order to maximise revenue.

That said, it is not evident that the commuter ride-hailing services are an immediate threat to the matatu industry. The two suspended services appear to be more of an alternative to personal cars than direct competitors for matatus. This can only be a good thing in terms of reducing congestion on the roads. Still, the development has caused sufficient concern somewhere, perhaps because the reputation of the disruption caused to the conventional taxi industry precedes Little Shuttle and SWVL. But it is also the case that sometimes these regulatory hurdles are extortion rackets that are intended to extract bribes or a share of the business.

The principal-agent problem arises in contractual relationships where the principal (the vehicle owner) cannot observe whether poor performance by the agent (the crew) is because of external factors (e.g. poor market conditions) or lack of effort or dishonesty on the part of the agent.

There is another vested-interest candidate—the government itself. It is now one and a half years since the government hastily painted some red lines on some of Nairobi’s thoroughfares and declared the lanes thus demarcated dedicated Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lanes. The red paint has since faded. It is said that the buses are being assembled in South Africa, after local samples failed to make the grade. But other than the now faded lines, there is no evidence of actual BRT infrastructure being built. A BRT system is a metro light rail on the cheap but it also costs. The first phase of the Dar es Salaam system covering 21 kilometres took three years to build at a cost of $140 million (Sh14 billion) while the second phase covering another 19 kilometres will cost $160 million (Sh16 billion).

Nairobi is one of several African cities that do not have municipal public transport. For all their notoriety, matatus, dala dala and tro tros manage to move the cities quite efficiently. They are accessible, responsive, affordable, flexible as well as colourful and entertaining. A number of surveys conducted in Nairobi over the last decade or so indicate that public transport—predominantly matatus—accounts for between 50 and 55 per cent of commutes in the city; 40 per cent of commuters walk, while between 8 and 12 per cent use private cars.

By way of comparison, London’s elaborate public transport system comprising of buses covers 35 per cent of the commutes. The iconic underground moves 10 per cent. For all the congestion hullabaloo, a recent paper titled Commuting in Urban Kenya: Unpacking Travel Demands in Large and Small Kenyan Cities, published in the academic journal Sustainability, observes that average commuting journeys in Nairobi are comparable to those of major cities in the United States such as New York and Los Angeles.

This data is telling us that Nairobi is none the worse for lack of a municipal public transport system. Municipal systems are hugely expensive to build and to run, requiring operational subsidies. At £17.6 billion (Sh2.3 trillion) and counting, CrossRail—London’s new train system which has been under construction since 2009—is billed as the most expensive public infrastructure project in Europe. As observed, the Dar es Salaam BRT has already cost $300 million (Sh30 billion) and is nowhere near solving the city’s congestion problem.

There is, in fact, a parallel between what the commuter ride-hailing apps are trying to do and the story of mobile telephony in Africa. The phenomenal growth of mobile telephony in Africa is, to a large extent, a leapfrogging of the largely non-existent landline telephony. The same applies to the innovations around mobile telephony, notably mobile money, reflecting the poor reach of financial services referred to nowadays as financial exclusion. Mobile telephony systems and services are estimated to account for close to 9 per cent of Africa’s GDP, only marginally below manufacturing at 10 per cent, which is remarkable for a sector that is only two decades old.

To mitigate this problem the industry has come up with a fixed daily revenue target, which in essence changes the contract between the owner and crew from a wage to a vehicle lease. In economic theory, we call this the incentive-compatible contract

Like landline telephony, public urban transport systems are characterised by rigidity. Customers must go to the bus or train and follow fixed routes and timetables, just as in the old days when we used to have to go—sometimes for miles—to reach a telephone. To send money urgently, you went to the Post Office to send a telegraphic money order which was physically delivered to the recipient who in turn physically went to cash it at the Post Office.

The disruptive power of ride-hailing apps is what the Little Shuttle CEO refers to in his memo as “supply and demand software technology.” In plain English, this is about using customer ride request data—how many customers want to travel, when and where—to provide services that are responsive to demand in terms of capacity, routes, scheduling and pricing. But this is not entirely new; one of the reasons why matatus eclipsed scheduled bus services is precisely because they were more responsive.

As observed, between 8 and 12 per cent of Nairobi’s estimated three million commuters use private vehicles This works out to something in the order of 300,000 commuters and, assuming two people per car, 150,000 vehicles that spend eight hours or more hogging parking spaces—Sh150 billion worth of idle capital, over and above fuel, pollution and congestion costs.

Nairobi’s public transport imperative is to put more of these people on matatus and this seems to be precisely what the suspended ride-hailing services had set out to do. A smart government would be doing its best to make commuting by private vehicles costly. How so? For starters, the Nairobi County government needs to go back to a time tariff for street parking. Leaving a private car in a street parking all day should be extremely punitive. I would propose a rate of Sh100 per hour. We may also want to think about applying congestion charges on the city’s main arteries: Mombasa Road, Waiyaki Way, Thika Road, Jogoo Road, Ngong Road and Langata Road.

Assuming that each of the minibuses serves 40 commuters who would otherwise travel in private cars, we are talking of each bus displacing 20 private vehicles on the road. If only 20 per cent of driving commuters take to these services, we are talking of replacing 30,000 cars with only 1,500 minibuses. This would certainly have a discernible impact on de-congesting the roads. And the less congested the roads become, the faster the trips, the more attractive using public transportation becomes, and the more profitable the entire industry becomes. Far from fighting them, both the government and the matatu industry should be embracing the commuter ride-hailing apps.

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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?

10 min read. The proposed construction of a 61-storey building in Watamu has generated both hopes and fears among local residents, who view the project as either a white elephant with serious environmental consequences or a godsend that will bring much-needed jobs and prosperity to the coastal area. RASNA WARAH examines the pros and cons of this multi-million-dollar project.

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Should Africa’s Tallest Skyscraper Be Built in a Kenyan Village?
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If all goes according to plan, construction work on a 61-storey skyscraper – which is being mooted as the tallest structure in the whole of Africa – will soon start in Watamu, a sleepy fishing village and tourist resort about 20 kilometres south of Malindi along Kenya’s coastline.

But lack of clarity on how the developer managed to get approval for the Sh28 billion ($280 million) project is raising concerns about whether this is another white elephant or phantom project. Questions are also being raised about whether the building is economically feasible and environmentally sustainable.

On its website, Palm Exotjca is marketed as an exclusive development with “chic residential suites, premium commercial space, eclectic restaurants and a vibrant casino”. Three Italians are said to be managing the project: The chairman Giuseppe Moscarino is a veterinarian and neurosurgeon from Rome whose passions are “art, architecture and Africa’s extraordinary beauty”; the managing director is Oliver Nepomuceno, who is described as the manager of several commercial and investment companies and joint ventures; and Lorenzo Pagnini is listed as the lead architect.

The main investors in the project are said to be the Italian billionaire Franco Rosso, along with investors from Switzerland, Dubai and South Africa. According to the developers, an engineering firm in India will handle the structural design aspects of the building while a Chinese company will undertake the construction work. Local engineering and architectural firms will also contribute to various aspects of the construction phase.

When completed, the 370-metre-high building, whose shiny artistic exterior will resemble the trunk of a palm tree, will comprise 270 hotel rooms, 189 luxury suites and apartments and social amenities, such as a shopping mall, a business centre, a theatre, a cinema, a nightclub, a fitness centre, a wellness spa, a children’s play area and four swimming pools – all of which invoke images of Dubai or Las Vegas.

The problem is that Watamu is not Dubai or Las Vegas. This fishing village and beach resort with a population of 14,000 barely has the infrastructure to service a level 4 hospital, let alone a skyscraper of this size. MAWASCO, the water utility company, already has problems meeting the water demand in Watamu and there are no signs that it intends to increase supply during the construction phase of the project or when it is completed. The Kenya Power and Lighting Company has promised to upgrade the Kakuyuni sub-station with a 23 MVA transformer and 25 kilometres of an overhead line, but only on the condition that the developer pays for the upgrade, which will cost Sh161 million.

Moreover, Watamu is hardly a vibrant tourist destination and commercial hub along the lines of Rio de Janeiro or Miami. What were the developers thinking when they came up with the idea and how do they expect to fill up all these hotel rooms and apartments?

Other such projects, such as Flavio Briatore’s Billionaire Club in Malindi – which was marketed as “a club for the world’s richest” – also had ambitions to attract the wealthy from around the world, but Malindians have yet to see Bill Gates or the Saudi Prince Mohamed bin Salman check in. On the contrary, Briatore has threatened to sell his other hotel, Lion in the Sun, in Malindi because he says that the unattractive business environment and poor infrastructure in the town are keeping foreign tourists and investors away.

In an article published in Coastal Guide, Issue 20, July 2019, Damian Davies, the general manager of the Turtle Bay hotel in Watamu, questioned the viability of the Palm Exojca project and whether the investors will get a profitable return on their investment. “There are lots of properties for sale in Watamu that aren’t selling; who will buy an apartment in a tower some distance from the beach when no one is buying beautiful beach properties?” he asked. “We don’t want a start-up that for economic reasons isn’t finished: a partially completed skyscraper.”

Red flags

Malindi and Watamu are currently experiencing a slump in tourism. Hotels are either shutting down or scaling down.

Many Italian residents are selling their villas to go back to Europe or to move elsewhere. But there is simply no market for these properties. Those that do manage to sell their houses often do so at below-market rates, mainly to Kenyans from Nairobi looking for a holiday home.

Italian and other tourists are flocking to other destinations in East Africa, such as Zanzibar, which have not been tainted by the threat of terrorism, and which have more superior amenities and infrastructure. The idea that this luxury development will be the magnet that will pull in tourists and foreign investors could simply be wishful thinking.

At a public participation meeting organised by NEMA at the site of the building on 3 October, Mr Moscarino, the chairman of Palm Exojca, explained that this exclusive development will bring another type of high-end visitor to the area and is not competing with the hotels in the vicinity. He added that he was very proud to be associated with the tallest building in Africa.

However, let us say that the project is viable and there is a market for it, this question still remains: Why build such a tall structure in a village that is not a commercial hub and where most buildings are just one-storey tall? Wouldn’t it be incongruous with its surroundings? Wouldn’t it be like building a skyscraper in the middle of a desert? If you have to build the structure, why not build a scaled-down version?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that skyscrapers are more about ego and prestige than about economics. Very tall structures, such as the Petronas Towers in in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, are a kind of phallic symbol representing strength and virility. The skyscraper is to the modern world what the obelisk was to the ancient Egyptians – a monument that projects mystical power and status. But is this what Watamu needs?

Kilifi County has given the go-ahead to the project perhaps in the belief that it will generate jobs and stimulate the local economy, but Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, is not convinced that this is the kind of project that Watamu requires. He feels that a more suitable location for the project might have been Mombasa or Nairobi. He has also advised the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) not to approve the project. “That 61-storey skyscraper on a small plot in Watamu must not be built,” he is reported to have said.

What raises a red flag is the fact that the Palm Exotjca website lists its address as One World Trade Centre, Suite 8500, New York, but that address seems to be a virtual one intended to impress high-end clients. The other address is a plot number and P.O. Box number in Mombasa, but there is no email or phone number provided. The phone number listed on the website is a Washington DC number that goes unanswered. One concerned resident who has been following up on the matter said: “When we call the phone number listed on the website, no one answers it and has not for over a year. So why is it so difficult to find the real phone number if Palm Exotjca really wants to sell high-end apartments?”

According to residents’ associations and other concerned groups in and around Watamu who have raised their objections regarding the project with NEMA, Vitamefin Limited, the company that is listed as the owner of one of Palm Exojca’s plots in Watamu, was previously registered in the US Virgin Islands. However, the Virgin Islands Official Gazette, Volume XLIX, Number 78, shows that this company was struck off the register of companies on 1 May 2015 for non-payment of annual fees.

NEMA says that it has conducted an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) that shows no adverse environmental or social impacts related to the project. But Augustine K. Masinde, the National Director of Physical Planning in the Ministry of Lands and Physical Planning, disagrees. In a letter to the Director-General of NEMA dated 12 July 2019, he raised concerns about the conformity of the proposed development with physical planning laws and zoning regulations. He also said that certain issues, such as the environmental suitability of the parcel of land for the proposed development and availability and adequacy of requisite infrastructure and services, needed to be clarified. “In view of the foregoing, we advise that you suspend the approval of the proposed development to allow proper review and audit to establish its sustainability,” stated the letter.

A memo to NEMA – submitted on 21 July this year on behalf of the Watamu Association, the Kilifi Residents Association, the Kilifi County Alliance, Watamu Hoteliers, Local Ocean Trust, Watamu Marine Association, A Rocha Kenya, Watamu Against Crime, Watamu Property Managers and the Jiwe Leupe Community Association – lists several problems with the project, including:

  • The project is disproportionate in scope and scale, both technically and financially. The substrata along the Kenyan coast is highly unsuitable for very tall buildings.
  • There has been lack of meaningful public participation by the developers and the ESIA team.
  • Watamu lacks the skilled labour force to put up such a structure. The immigration of a large, well-paid skilled workers into Watamu has the potential for significant social, cultural, economic and moral hazards.
  • The area lacks the required infrastructure, including water and electricity supply, for such a large-scale project.

Lack of sufficient and meaningful public participation is of particular concern to the residents, as it was with the proposed coal-fired plant in Lamu. In the case of Lamu, lack of public participation was a key consideration in the National Environment Tribunal (NET)’s ruling. In its 26 June 2019 jugement, NET ordered Amu Power, the key player in the proposed Lamu coal project, to halt construction of the plant and to undertake a fresh ESIA for the project. It noted that the ESIA carried out for Amu Power was flawed in one key aspect: it did not involve public participation, which is a constitutional requirement. It noted that lack of public participation was “contemptuous of the people of Lamu”.

Mike Norton-Griffiths, the chairman of the Watamu Association, says that the major flaw in the project is in the planning. He says that nine completely independent projects are buried in the ESIA, each requiring an ESIA and planning permission, and each needing to be completed before the main project. Yet this has not been done.

There are also serious environmental concerns. Watamu is home to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest, the famous Gede ruins and a marine park that is the breeding ground for turtles and other marine life. There are concerns that improper handling of wastewater and sewage from the project – both during the construction phase and when it is completed – could negatively impact the biodiversity in the region.

Simmering tensions

The above concerns were partially addressed on 3 October at the public participation meeting organised by NEMA, which I attended. A Kenyan engineer recruited by Palm Exojca made a detailed slide presentation explaining how the development will deal issues such as wastewater and even birds who could die accidentally by crashing into the tall shiny structure. (Much of this presentation was lost on the local communities attending the meeting, but that did not deter him from going on with the hour-long presentation.)

The meeting, which was attended by NEMA, county government officials, some representatives of residents associations, and a large group of people from the community, at times appeared stage-managed and intended to allay any fears that the project was unviable or environmentally unsustainable.

But what also came out loud and clear at the meeting was that the local residents view the project as a contest between the national government and the county government of Kilifi and between the (mostly British) expatriate community and the Italian investors. Speakers at the meeting emphasised that this was a project supported by the county government and that the national government should not interfere with it. “Those opposed to this project are enemies of devolution and enemies of the people,” said one very vocal community leader, whose statement was met with roaring applause from the audience.

Supporters of the project, including the governor of Kilifi County, Amoson Kingi, believe that the project will bring in much-needed jobs to the area and will boost tourism. Community members at the meeting repeatedly cited employment as the main benefit of the project. (The majority of the local residents will neither be able to afford the amenities offered at Palm Exojca, but they do hope to find low-paid and semi-skilled jobs in the luxury development.)

It is hard to argue with the sentiments of the majority of the local people, who have been marginalised for decades and who suffer from high levels of poverty and underdevelopment. (Kilfi County is among the six poorest counties in the country.) A project like this could change their fortunes in significant ways by generating hundreds of jobs both directly and indirectly. When you have not seen any real development in your area for years, despite the presence of a large numbers of beach hotels, a project like is hard to resist, even amid environmental concerns. As one speaker at the meeting pointed out, “Nobody talked about how the beach hotels in Watamu would affect turtles. So why should this development, which is not even on the beach (it is 366 metres from the ocean) be of concern?”

The project has also unveiled simmering tensions between the indigenous local residents and the largely British expatriate residents. Kilifi North MP Owen Baya, a vocal supporter of the project, claims that the British people living in Watamu are opposed to the project because it will “block their view of the ocean”. But he does not say how the influx of wealthy foreigners into Watamu when the building is completed will affect the local population. Will it give rise to other types of tensions?

There is also the issue of double standards. Someone I spoke with who did not want to be named told me that the Europeans living in Watamu live there only half the year; they spend the rest of the year in Europe. “These people can enjoy First World amenities, like theatres and nice roads and pavements, whenever they want to. But they want Watamu to remain a backwater whose unspoilt natural environment they can enjoy whenever it is convenient for them. But what about the locals who have never been to a cinema or even travelled outside their county? Don’t they deserve a taste of modernity?”

The locals clearly view the Italian investors as a godsend that will bring much-needed employment and development to the area. One MCA even referred to Mr. Moscarino as “our small God”.

“Even London began as a small village,” said another speaker. “We want Watamu to become a city like Dubai.”

Owen Baya, the Kilifi North MP, told the audience that until a hundred years ago even Nairobi was just a swamp, and wondered why there was so much resistance to this particular project.

At the meeting, Mr. Moscarino gained additional points with the locals when he sold the development as a social responsibility project. He told the cheering crowds that the developers will build a hospitality school and a secondary school in Watamu and that up to 2,000 local people will be hired as drivers, carpenters, construction workers and the like during the construction phase. It was obvious that he was exploiting the fact the majority of residents are too poor and illiterate to refuse such a generous offer. His statement was met with loud cheers.

As I left the NEMA meeting, I did wonder whether if, for any reason, the project is not completed – and the promised jobs and schools never materialise – what effect this will have on the local people. Will dashed hopes lead to even more resentment?

We can only wait and see if indeed the local people’s dreams will be realised in five years when the construction of Palm Exojca is expected to be completed. Palm Exojca could either be the catalyst that spurs development in Watamu or the Trojan horse that introduces vices that threaten to destroy a way of life. It could also be a case study in how economic opportunities often trump environmental concerns when it comes to “development”, especially in areas that are poor and marginalised.

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That Sinking Feeling 2.0: Who Is to Blame for Tanzanian’s Ferry Disasters?

5 min read. Systematic overloading of poorly maintained state-owned vessels, compounded by human error, explains why Tanzanian marine transport is so dangerous, but who is answerable for mass deaths on Tanzania’s lakes? nobody, it would appear writes BRIAN COOKSEY

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THAT SINKING FEELING: Who is to blame for the MV Nyerere ferry disaster?
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On the 20th of September 2018, the ferry MV Nyerere capsized in shallow water at the tiny port of Ukara Island on Lake Victoria. Nearly 230 men, women and children drowned, most of them trapped inside the upturned hull. About 40 people were rescued by small boats. The vessel had a capacity of 100 passengers. Many of the dead were buried on the lakeshore, identities unknown, victims of Tanzania’s shoddy, state-run ferry services. President John Pombe Magufuli immediately declared four days of national mourning and flags flew at half-mast on public buildings. “Negligence has cost us so many lives . . . children, mothers, students, old people”, he lamented, ordering the arrest of “all those involved in the ferry.” Three days later, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa set up a seven-person Commission of Enquiry led by the former Chief of the Defence Forces, General George Waitara, to establish the cause of the accident and bring those responsible to book. The commission was given a month to report. That was the last the public heard of it, for the commission has shown no signs of life in the twelve months since the accident, during which period the political opposition, media and civil society organisations have kept quiet on the issue of state accountability for the accident. For who else can be held accountable when a state-owned and state-managed boat capsizes? There was no stormy weather to blame. A few commentators, including the state-owned Daily News and commentator Nkwezi Mhango, went so far as to blame the victims for knowingly, recklessly, boarding an overloaded craft. Writing in The Nation, Professor Austin Bukenya recommended “discipline” among passengers who should know better than to clamber onto overcrowded ferries. Presumably, they should wait for the next (uncrowded?) one. . .

Systematic overloading of poorly maintained state-owned vessels, compounded by human error, explains why Tanzanian marine transport is so dangerous. Unknown numbers die when small private vessels—mitumbwi (dug-out canoes) and ngalawa (canoes with sails and outriggers)—capsize. But the large steel boats run by the state are supposed to be orders of magnitude safer than the traditional modes of water transport.

Since the MV Bukoba capsized and sank in 1996, with the loss of an estimated 1,000 lives, Tanzanians have continued to die in large numbers in further ferry disasters, including two in Zanzibar waters within less than a year of each other claiming more than 1,800 lives. To date, no government official or private operator (the Zanzibar ferries were privately owned) has been held responsible for any of these disasters.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Overcrowding ferries is systematic and intentional. A 200-passenger ferry is allowed to carry, for example, 400 passengers. The 200 “official” passengers are recorded on the vessel’s manifest, the 200 “unofficial” ones are not recorded and their fare is pocketed by the officials responsible for the management and the safety of the ship. Income that should be used for maintenance and repairs is similarly pocketed, leading to regular breakdowns and the suspension of services, thus increasing the overcrowding problem. Those anonymous corpses buried on the beach at Ukara are the “collateral damage” caused by rent-seeking government officials. A ferry service that is privately-owned and managed would deprive these officials of their rents; that is why ferry services remain a state monopoly.

Large-scale accidents on Lake Victoria are therefore arguably the result of a state monopoly of formal ferry services which dates back to the colonial period when the East African Harbours Corporation provided ferry services for the three East African countries. President Magufuli is committed to the improvement of lake transport, but it is taken for granted that the state will run the show. Magufuli has commissioned four new ferries and ordered the rehabilitation of old ones.

Marine Services Company Ltd (MSCL) and Tanzania Electrical, Mechanical and Electronics Services Agency (TEMESA) are the two official agencies responsible for running cargo ship and ferry services on Tanzanian waters. Prior to its incorporation in 1997, MSCL was the marine division of Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC). The rationale for restructuring MSCL was to make it and other parts of TRC semi-independent “business units” to increase efficiency and profitability. According to its website, MSCL “operates ferries, cargo ships and tankers on Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa. It provides services to neighbouring Burundi, DR Congo, Zambia and Malawi.” Over the years, these services have steadily dwindled. While MSCL used to run nine sizeable passenger and cargo vessels, breakdowns and lack of maintenance have left the company with only two. Laid up since 2014, the MV Victoria and MV Butiama are finally being rehabilitated at a cost of Sh26 billion, or $11.4 million, but will not be operational before March 2020 according to MSCL project manager Abel Gwanafyo, quoted by the Citizen newspaper on 8 August. Since the “rehabilitation” is only partially complete (22.5 per cent in the case of MV Butiama) further delays may be expected. The rehabilitation is part of a Sh152 billion ($67 million) shipbuilding and infrastructure development project launched by the President in August last year. At the launching ceremony, Magufuli revealed that he once considered disbanding MSCL but changed his mind because of the “exemplary performance” of the company’s new CEO, Eric Hamissi, in beginning to turn the company around.

While MSCL runs larger ships over longer routes, TEMESA—which is an executive agency under the Ministry of Works—serves short river crossings as part of the road network. Established in 2005, TEMESA operates double- and single-ended Roll on-Roll Off (‘ro-ro’) car ferries, mainly in remote locations where traffic volumes do not justify the construction of bridges. TEMESA’s “mission” involves “running safe and reliable ferry services”, including the ill-fated MV Nyerere. As a result of last September’s disaster, the President summarily suspended TEMESA’s Director General Dr Musa Mgwatu and its advisory board.

Finally, after the MV Nyerere disaster Magufuli took to task the country’s transport regulator, the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (SUMATRA), summarily suspending its board of directors. In November 2017, the president signed the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Act which established the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Corporation (TSAC) to take over SUMATRA’s responsibility for marine transport regulation. According to lawyers Clyde and Company, TSAC was to become operational in February 2018. With a narrower scope than SUMATRA, it was hoped that the new agency would operate with greater efficiency and bring increased transparency to Tanzania mainland’s marine transport sector. The appointment of board members from the private sector as well as from government should, according to Clyde and Company, allow TSAC “to operate with an effective commercial approach.” It is unclear why SUMATRA rather than TSAC, was taken to task over the MV Nyerere accident.

The ferries the government commissions for service on Tanzanian lakes are mostly built by Songoro Marine Transport Ltd, owned by Mr Saleh Songoro and Sons of Mwanza. Mr Songoro bought the company—which was set up with aid from the Netherlands—when it was privatised in 1998. Songoro has a good working relationship with Dutch firm Damen Shipyards, one of the world’s largest builders of small ships. But a private shipbuilding monopoly serving monopoly state agencies is not going to solve the problem of inadequate and accident-prone transport services on Lake Victoria. The chronic shortage of lake transport is the maritime equivalent of poor urban public transport, which Dar es Salaam suffered during the days of the Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA) public transport monopoly. Private minibuses (daladala) were permitted in 1985, much to the relief of Dar es Salaam’s long-suffering citizens. The inhabitants of Lake Victoria’s shores are still waiting for their maritime daladala to come on stream.

Would Private Ferry Services Reduce the Death Toll?

Would privately owned, privately run ferry services be safer and more efficient than what we have now? It is possible that private services would be equally prone to rent-seeking and inefficiency in the absence of transparent and accountable contracting and regulation. On the other hand, private operators are more likely to maintain their vessels in order to maximise profit than state-run services, where all income flows are potentially vulnerable to self-destructive rent-seeking. They are also more likely to take safety issues more seriously than a state-run service, since private operators are more likely than civil servants to be held accountable in the event of a major accident. Since the ruling elite includes those who have little belief in or respect for the private sector, we could expect a more determined search for culprits and sanctions, especially if the boat-owners were Asians, Arabs or Caucasians.

President Magufuli has been widely praised for instilling discipline in government offices, hospitals and schools and sacking top officials deemed not to be performing and promoting those who are. But accountability is personal, not institutional, and the president clearly does not want to challenge all agencies equally. Since there is no public debate over privatising lake transport, we can expect Lake Victoria ferry passengers to continue being the potential victims of overcrowded and dangerous ferry services.

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