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Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya

10 min read. In his first address as the group’s Kenyan operations leader, Ahmed Iman Ali declared the country darsh-al-harb – House of War. Four of the five Dusit attackers were Kenyan. Still, the reasons the group focuses on the country, and not others in the region, run contrary to conventional assumptions. By NGALA CHOME.

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Why Al-Shabaab Targets Kenya
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Al-Shabaab has claimed that its January 15 attack on the Dusit D2 Complex was revenge for President Donald Trump’s decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This is not the first time that a terrorist attack conducted on Kenyan soil has been justified by its perpetrators on the basis of events occurring thousands of miles away. For instance, the date of the August 7 1998 Al-Qaeda attack on the U.S embassy in Nairobi coincided with the same date, in 1991, when U.S troops first landed in Saudi-Arabia in preparation for the Gulf War, which Al-Qaeda regarded as a Christian invasion of ‘Muslim lands’.

Kenya may have suffered these attacks since it is considered a key ally of the West. But why is Al-Shabaab (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) targeting Kenya more than it is other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have close ties with the West and have fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia? To what extent does Al-Shabaab attack Kenya for the reasons it publicly gives? Will Al-Shabaab, for example, stop targeting Kenya if the Kenya Defence Forces pulled out of Somalia?

Also, why are Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam, joining Al-Shabaab? Four of the five Dusit D2 attackers were Kenyans. Some analysts have found that status, adventure seeking, financial gain and revenge are prominent drivers of enlistment, while others submit that ideological commitments to an Islamist vision, driven by local Muslim experiences and a global narrative of ‘Muslim victimization’ have stronger explanatory power. Others have argued that it is due to a combination of wider socioeconomic conditions, and individual-level psychosocial characteristics that turn young converts to a path of violent extremism. At the same time, an authoritative account of Al-Shabaab recruitment in Somalia found that despite the varied and complex motivations for joining the group, the most common reasons given include a quest for justice through Sharia legislation and an idea of ‘defensive’ or ‘offensive’ jihad. This way of understanding the world can be regarded as empowering for some individuals, as membership can be compared to a conversion process, which can be considered a central benefit – more than access to material resources – of participating in ‘jihad movements’. These questions and debates, which have preoccupied a community of analysts and practitioners within a broad-based programme for policy intervention commonly referred to as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), have been laid bare, yet again, in the unfolding drama of the DusitD2 attack.

Kenya may have suffered these attacks since it is considered a key ally of the West. But why is Al-Shabaab (an Al-Qaeda affiliate) targeting Kenya more than it is other countries in the region, such as Ethiopia and Uganda, which also have close ties with the West and have fought Al-Shabaab in Somalia?

At the centre of the attack was Ali Salim Gichunge, the son of a Meru military officer, and the leader of the cell that was behind the attack, and his wife, Violet Kemunto Omwoyo, a Kisii convert to Islam, and journalism graduate at the Masinde Muliro University in Western Kenya. Their story is important as it not only defies Kenya’s ethnic fictions, but also disrupts widespread perceptions of Islamist violence in the country.

Yet, the story of Gichunge and Kemunto is not entirely new, peripheral nor fringe. Exactly six years before Gichunge stormed DusitD2 with his associates, wearing his baseball cap on backwards, wielding an AK-47 rifle smuggled from Somalia, and baying for the blood of innocent civilians, Al-Shabaab announced the appointment of an ‘ideological leader’ for its Kenyan operations: Ahmed Iman Ali, then about 40 years old and of mixed Meru and Kamba origins. In the January 2012 video released by Al-Shabaab’s media wing, al-Kataib, Iman Ali – he grew up in the Majengo slums of Nairobi, graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Nairobi, and became the secretary of Majengo’s largest mosque, the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, before fleeing to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab in 2009 – described Kenya as dar-al-harb – the house of war. Its people, he said, were legitimate targets of violent attacks.

Why are Kenyans, many of whom are recent converts to Islam, joining Al-Shabaab?

Years before he joined Al-Shabaab, Iman Ali led an ouster of the Pumwani Mosque committee, which he accused of corruption and embezzlement. Speaking against a litany of socio-economic hardships afflicting his predominantly Muslim neighbourhood, Iman Ali was a powerful balm for Majengo’s long-felt sense of exclusion and powerlessness in a Christian-dominated country.

That was in 2007. In 2012 when he was announced leader of Al-Shabaab’s Kenya operations, he was believed to be in command of hundreds of foreign fighters with the Somalia-based group, most of whom were his childhood friends from Majengo, with origins in Central Kenya, Rift Valley, Nyanza and Western regions.

At the centre of the attack was Ali Salim Gichunge, the son of a Meru military officer, and his wife, Violet Kemunto Omwoyo, a Kisii convert to Islam, and journalism graduate at the Masinde Muliro University in Western Kenya. Their story is important as it not only defies Kenya’s ethnic fictions, but also disrupts widespread perceptions of Islamist violence in the country.

Gichunge had himself graduated from high-school in 2011 with a mean grade of C+, and after his hopes of playing rugby for his school were dashed after he was bullied by other students – it led to him having to change schools – he turned his to Information Technology. It was while working at a cyber-café in Isiolo that Gichunge, who was raised in a strict Muslim household, got introduced to radical online sheikhs. He left Isiolo for Somalia immediately after that. Amongst the group of Kenyan Al-Shabaab militants he met in Somalia were former bandits, some with serious criminal records.

Most of these recruits would have been shuttled to Somalia by Juma Ayub Otit Were, a Muslim-Luhya born and raised in the Huruma slums of Nairobi. After he was accused of theft by his employer in Eastleigh, losing his job as a result, Ayub secured a new role with Iman Ali’s outfit, the Muslim Youth Centre (MYC), where he became responsible for shuttling a large number of recruits from Nairobi’s slums and other parts of up-country Kenya to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. The police, who were trailing his activities, code-named him ‘Taxi-Driver’.

Years before he joined Al-Shabaab, Iman Ali led an ouster of the Pumwani Mosque committee, which he accused of corruption and embezzlement.

Some of the early recruits, like Sylvester Opiyo and Kassim Omondi aka Budalangi, both of whom hailed from Nairobi’s Majengo slums; and Jeremiah Okumu aka Duda Black and Stephen Mwanzi aka Duda Brown, who hailed from Nairobi’s Kibera slums, were all well-known thugs before joining Al-Shabaab. Their predisposition towards violence and unlawful behaviour turned a new leaf when the prospects for military training with Al-Shabaab in Somalia became more imminent. After developing networks with Iran, Ali’s group at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, whose influence since 2007 had spread to other mosques in Nairobi, especially those located in neighbourhoods long-neglected by government service, namely Masjid Kibera, Masjid Huruma, and the Masjid Nuur in Kawangware, they quickly converted to Islam and travelled to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab. They were funnelled towards Al-Shabaab’s Majimmo’ sector in Southern Somalia – an area of operations assigned predominantly to East African militants – under the command of the then 25 year-old Titus Nabiswa, who was a recent convert to Islam from Bungoma in western Kenya. In Nabiswa’s group were other militants from the Kenya coast, who had largely been radicalised by the sermons and mosque lectures (darsas) of the late Sheikh Aboud Rogo and the late Abubakar Shariff, aka Makaburi, two Mombasa preachers who had come to symbolise the face of Islamist terror in Kenya. Also in the group were Kenyan-Somalis (mostly from Nairobi’s Eastleigh and South C districts), including foreign militants such as Jermaine Grant and Thomas Evans from England, and Andreas Martin Mueller from Germany.

By 2012, Ali Gichunge, who was partly raised inside the Isiolo army barracks, was screening new Kenyan recruits in Baidoa, almost all of whom were Christian converts to Islam.

Upon their return to Kenya in 2010, some members of this group were responsible for a spate of killings, targeted especially at police officers, including twin-grenade attacks at Uhuru Park on June 13 that killed six people during a campaign rally organised by Christian leaders to drum up opposition against the proposed constitution of 2010. The police responded strongly to this violence, which seemed unsanctioned by Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia, was distinctively unilateral, and largely uncoordinated.

After developing networks with Iman Ali’s group at the Pumwani Riyadha Mosque, whose influence since 2007 had spread to other mosques in Nairobi, especially those located in neighbourhoods long-neglected by government service, namely Masjid Kibera, Masjid Huruma, and the Masjid Nuur in Kawangware, they quickly converted to Islam and travelled to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab.

By 2014, with the killing of Makaburi – it was the last of targeted assassinations of radical sheikhs including Aboud Rogo most probably by Kenyan security forces – most returnees of the Majimmo sector group had either been arrested, killed, or were on the run from the police. For instance, Stephen Mwanzi and Jeremiah Okumu were abducted in Kisauni, Mombasa, in June 2012, never to be seen again; Kassim Omondi was killed in a gun-fight with the police who had gone to arrest him in his Githurai hideout in May 2013; while Titus Nabiswa was arrested and later killed during an escape attempt in Majengo, Mombasa in October 2012. Jermaine Grant was arrested in Kisauni, Mombasa, in December 2011, but his accomplices, Fuad Manswab Abubakar and Samantha Lewthwaite, aka, the white widow, and who earned her moniker from the death of her ex-husband (and Grant’s friend) Germaine Lindsay when he blew himself up during the London bombings of 2005, escaped to Somalia.

The security threat posed by this group had been eliminated. Or so it seemed.

Amniyaat and Jaysh Ayman

Meanwhile, Al-Shabaab’s reclusive and ambitious former leader, the late Ahmed Abdi Godane, was in search of a more potent offensive against Kenya – a need that was intensified by Kenya’s decision to send its troops to Somalia to root-out Al-Shabaab from its key bases in October 2011. The plans begun in mid-2013, after Godane had eliminated key figures within Al-Shabaab’s Shura (Executive Council) that had opposed his vision of turning Al-Shabaab from an essentially Somali movement into a transnational Islamist threat.

By 2014, with the killing of Makaburi – it was the last of targeted assassinations of radical sheikhs including Aboud Rogo most probably by Kenyan security forces – most returnees of the Majimmo sector group had either been arrested, killed, or were on the run from the police.

Godane took matters into his own hands, by bypassing the network of Kenyan Al-Shabaab members, he went ahead and tasked key figures within Al-Shabaab’s special operations and intelligence branch known as Amniyaat to begin planning operations against Kenya. At midday on 21 September 2013, 4 militants under the command of Amniyaat stormed Nairobi’s upscale shopping centre, Westgate, lobbing grenades and firing indiscriminately at shoppers. The subsequent siege lasted 80 hours and resulted in at least 67 deaths.

Following Westgate, Godane ordered a reorganisation of Al-Shabaab’s military wing, Jaysh al-Usra. The commander in the Lower and Middle Juba regions, Mohamed Kunow Dulyadeyn, a Kenyan-Somali from Garissa, began expanding his operations into Garissa and Wajir while Adan Garar, his counterpart in the Gedo region, expanded into Mandera. While this meant that attacks in Northeast Kenya would intensify from 2013 onwards, the leadership vacuum that was left by the 2011-2014 purge of Kenyan Al-Shabaab members had created a problem.

In Nairobi, Mombasa, Isiolo and Marsabit, where radical preachers and their militant followers had exercised some control, before suspected agents of the state killed most of them, a storm was brewing. At the Masjid Musa in Mombasa, the radicalised and violent followers of Rogo and Makaburi were growing ever more impatient, keen on proving their worth to Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia. In fact, a criminal gang formed around the leadership of a protégé of the late Makaburi called Ramadhan Kufungwa, a Digo from Ukunda in the South Coast. According to the police, Kufungwa ordered the gang to conduct a spate of robberies and killings of police and suspected police informers in Mombasa in 2014-2015.

In Nairobi, Mombasa, Isiolo and Marsabit, where radical preachers and their militant followers had exercised some control…a storm was brewing. At the Masjid Musa in Mombasa, the radicalised and violent followers of Rogo and Makaburi were…keen on proving their worth to Al-Shabaab’s core leadership in Somalia.

One of the gang’s members was a Tuk-Tuk driver and high-school drop-out called Mahir Khalid Riziki, who ended his life in a suicide mission at the DusitD2 attack, but was then a resident of Bondeni, a seedy rundown neighbourhood in Mombasa, and a sad reminder of its glorious past. Mahir and his friends immediately found themselves on the police radar. Using networks cultivated by Kufungwa, most of them made their way into an Al-Shabaab hide-out in the Boni forest, where a new unit called Jaysh Ayman (named after its first commander), had been formed in 2014 under the leadership of another former resident of Bondeni, Luqman Osman Issa.

Jaysh Ayman brought together Al-Shabaab fighters from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and was part of Godane’s plan to turn Al-Shabaab into a potent regional force. In June-July 2014, Jaysh Ayman targeted the mainland areas of Lamu County, parts of which are covered by the Boni forest, where they killed close to 97 people in a rampage that shocked the nation and therefore, bolstered Al-Shabaab’s reputation for daring attacks and spectacular violence. Despite the death of most of its early leadership during an attack at a military camp within the Boni forest in June 2015, the unit has remained a potent threat to Kenya’s national security. By the time Gichunge and Mahir joined the unit, the Kenyan contingent of Al-Shabaab militants was larger, and better trained, and featured amongst its ranks, both the educated and uneducated, including petty criminals, drug addicts and HIV positive-persons. It is these militants that Al-Shabaab is now sending to Kenya as suicide-bombers and attackers.

Jaysh Ayman brought together Al-Shabaab fighters from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, and was part of Godane’s plan to turn Al-Shabaab into a potent regional force.

Still the question remains: why does Al-Shabaab target Kenya?

Trans-border attacks as propaganda by deed

Despite the claim that Al-Shabaab targets Kenya due to its passion for global jihad and to pressure the Kenyan government to remove its troops from Somalia, the evidence suggests that Al-Shabaab is driven by different strategic concerns and highly rational reasons. Granted, there has been an uptick in Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya since October 2011, when Kenya sent its troops to Somalia, but Al-Shabaab attacks in Kenya go back to May 2008, when a police post in Liboi (a few kilometres from the Somali border) came under fire. Jermaine Grant, who had been held in the post after he was arrested on his way to Somalia to join Al-Shabaab, was freed during the attack.

The Global Terrorism Database (GTD) recorded 14 more attacks before September 2011, and then 49 in 2012, 35, in 2013, 80 in 2014, 42 in 2015, and 45 in 2016. While the GTD is yet to provide figures from 2017, existing evidence shows that of the 302 trans-border attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab from 2008-2016, 3 occurred in Ethiopia, 5 in Uganda, 2 in Djibouti and 291 in Kenya. Brendon Cannon and Dominic Pkalya, in a recent article, have argued that beyond sharing a border with Somalia, Al-Shabaab targets Kenya more than other frontline states because of the opportunity spaces linked to Kenya’s international status and visibility, its relative free and independent media that widely publicizes terrorist attacks, a highly developed and lucrative tourism sector that provides soft targets, expanding democratic space and high levels of corruption. In sum, these variables play into Al-Shabaab’s motivations and aid planning and execution of acts that aim to fulfil the group’s quest to survive – as it losses more ground in Somalia – by maintaining its relevance on the global stage.

Of the 302 trans-border attacks perpetrated by Al-Shabaab from 2008-2016, three occurred in Ethiopia, five in Uganda, two in Djibouti and 291 in Kenya.

The Westgate, Lamu, Garissa University College, and DusitD2 attacks are all examples of attacks of maximum effect, because they garnered Al-Shabaab international headlines and catapulted it back to the centre of debate amongst counterterrorism practitioners and policymakers. This visibility serves to attract the attention of terrorist financiers, potential recruits and allies. As argued by Cannon and Pkalya, Kenya offers an array of convenient targets to Al-Shabaab that result in relevance through the regional and international publicity of propaganda by deed that is usually desired by terrorist groups.

The Westgate, Lamu, Garissa University College, and DusitD2 attacks are all examples of attacks of maximum effect, because they made international headlines and catapulted Al-Shabaab back to the centre of debate…This visibility serves to attract the attention of terrorist financiers, potential recruits and allies.

With the sizeable contingent of Kenyan militants that Al-Shabaab now controls, it is probably a matter of when, not if, Al-Shabaab will stage another attack in the country. In this way, more needs to be done to scale-up counter-terrorism efforts, especially in border security and intelligence gathering, as more support is given to prevention strategies at the communal and individual level so as to counter radicalisation.

Ngala Chome
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Ngala Chome is Doctoral Candidate at the History Department, Durham University. His email is ngala.k.chome@gmail.com.

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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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