February 7, 2023

MOMBASA, Kenya – Fireworks exploded and confetti fell in the coastal city of Mombasa as Kenya’s president inaugurated the country’s new railway – designed, financed and built by China.

President Uhuru Kenyatta has announced that the new train will connect the port in Mombasa with the neighboring country of Uganda, create jobs and help transform Kenya into a middle-income industrial country.

“This is a very historic moment,” President Kenyatta, waving a giant Kenya flag, told a gathering of Kenyan and Chinese officials. “We should be proud.”

That was five years ago. The railroad has since turned into a fiasco, targeting lawsuits and criminal investigations into corruption, resentment by environmentalists and an exodus of workers in the trucking industry.

Now, it’s a hot issue in the closely contested August 9 election and part of a broader debate about China’s expanding role in Kenya. Leading candidates suggested everything from deporting Chinese workers Do local jobs to renegotiate the burdensome debt owed by Kenya to China. But for many, the railway, which cost $4.7 billion, has become the embodiment of corruption and greed among the political elite.

China funded the railway initially as part of the $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to expand China’s economic and political influence by financing new ports, roads and railways globally. But China has been reluctant to finance the last part of Kenya’s railways – the link to Uganda – as some African countries struggle to repay their debts.

The train tracks run 367 miles from Mombasa through the capital, Nairobi – and end abruptly in an empty field in the Rift Valley, more than 200 miles from Uganda.

“The SGR train is broken economically, socially and financially,” said Tony Watema, an economist, referring to the standard gauge railway, which Kenyans call the train. “The disruption it has caused to the Kenyan economy will be felt for years.”

The two leading candidates in the campaign to choose President Kenyatta’s successor – William Ruto and Raila Odinga – have taken advantage of the railways’ troubles, promising to reassess its operations, while also trying to distance themselves from the project.

Mr. Ruto is Vice President and part of the management that launched the railway. In an interview, he admitted that Kenya’s public debt – which totaled $73.5 billion as of March in a country with a GDP of just over $100 billion – was creating a “very precarious” situation, and that the railways had so far failed to develop Economy.

“We are pained by the repayment of Chinese debt,” he said.

And his opponent, Mr. Odinga, is a former prime minister who has long criticized the project and He accused Mr. Kenyatta’s family of taking advantage of him. But now that President Kenyatta has supported him, Mr. Odinga has tempered his criticism, while promising to reform the operation of the railway. He told a crowd of supporters in Mombasa recently, “As soon as I take office, we’ll fix it.”

Economists, analysts and government officials said in interviews that the railway represented the culmination of the borrowing and looting spree that has plagued Mr. Kenyatta’s government since it came to power in 2013. They said his administration has burdened the country with large-scale infrastructure projects that are not financially viable, and are largely beneficial to the government. The mega-wealthy diverted investments from education and health care. In the past nine years, Kenya’s public debt has increased nearly fivefold.

“The railway standard is the jewel in the crown of corruption in Kenya,” said John Githongo, the former anti-corruption czar. “This is an unfortunate legacy of the current system.”

Mr. Kenyatta’s office did not respond to questions sent via email for this article. The government’s Treasury and Planning Minister, Ukur Yatani, who oversees the country’s port, rail and pipeline infrastructure, did not respond to requests for an interview.

The railway financier, Exim Bank of China, has demanded repayment, even as creditors such as France and Japan have given Kenya some relief from servicing their loans due to the pandemic. To pay off the loan, the government introduced a raft of taxes and austerity measures that angered the public, who are dealing with soaring food and fuel prices caused by the drought and war in Ukraine.

Abdul Samad Sharif Nasser, the deputy who heads the Parliament’s Public Investments Committee, said there was a “lack of economic planning and foresight” in operating the railway.

For years, Kenya debated whether to build a new railway or restore its century-old line built by British colonists known as the “Lunatic Express”.

Recommended independent reports, including from the World Bank Upgrade the existing railway network As a cheaper option. But in the end, Kenyatta’s administration settled on building a new one: a standard railway on which freight trains could run at 50 mph and passenger trains at 74 mph.

The work began in 2013. But troubles hampered the project from the start.

Although it was funded by taxpayers, there was no Competitive bidding for the project – Mr. Kenyatta’s move defend.

Environmentalists questioned Why the government routed the railways through Nairobi National Park, one of the few wildlife parks anywhere near the capital.

Okiya Umtata, a prominent lawyer who challenged the project in court, said the only known feasibility study for the project was done by the Chinese contractor – not the government – that presented a conflict of interest.

He said he was invited to a hotel in Nairobi to meet with several Kenyan senators and Chinese directors who had asked him to withdraw the case in exchange for $300,000 in damages. When he declined, he said, one senator offered up to $1 million. He was told that if he refused, they could pay damages to the judge to have the case settled in their favour.

Mr. Umtata remembers telling them when he left the room: “You keep your money and I will keep my country.”

A communications officer with Chinese contractor CRBC did not respond to emailed questions. Mr. Omata did not mention the senators he said he had met.

The Court of Appeal finally ruled in favor of Mr. Umta, in 2020, declaring the railway contract Illegal for violating Kenya’s procurement laws. The government is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Ruto has promised, if elected president of contract publishing A move that activists hope will allow the public to scrutinize it. An official at the Ministry of Transportation said this year that announcing the contract would undermine national security because it would be revealed Terms of non-disclosure.

Over the years, activists and opposition figures have accused senior politicians Inflate costs and profit from the railway.

Land acquisitions have become a flashpoint as well, with more than a dozen officials, including the former managing director of the Kenya Railways and the former head of the agency that administers public lands in Kenya, indict In 2018, accused of facilitating the payment of more than $2 million to individuals and companies who falsely claimed to own land along the railway line. While some cases have been dropped, trials of other defendants are continuing. Parliament revealed the disbursement of millions more in Overpayments or payments made without clear documentation.

A year after the train went into operation, a parliamentary report showed that it costs more than twice as much to transport goods on a train than on the road.

To make the railways profitable, the authorities forced importers to send goods by rail rather than by road – a decision that sparked protests and Court cases.

Mombasa officials said the railway cost their county tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue. One Estimated report Conservatively, more than 8,100 people employed in the county’s trucking, fuel and freight business will lose their jobs..

Lawrence Bowie, a truck driver in Meritini, a suburb of Mombasa, has accused the government of “demonizing” truck drivers and leaving many young people unemployed and turning to crime.

“We are citizens of this country, and we deserve equal rights,” he said.

At Nairobi station, passenger trains aboard a railcar painted with the slogan “Connect Nations. People Prosper”. But a survey conducted by Afrobarometer in 2019-2020 found that 87 percent of Kenyans They think their government borrowed a lot of money from China.

Lawmakers recommended the government renegotiate the railway loan with China. But even if they could, as Mr. Watema, the economist said, the railways would still be a “serious mess”.

China is also reassessing its early lending spree for African infrastructure projects as it faces a growing backlash for lending to poor, fragile countries.

Although China will remain the largest financier of African infrastructure, Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Global South Project, said it is unlikely that risky megaprojects such as the Kenya Railways will receive funding in the future.

“The hourglass has run out of sand,” he said.

Currently, the railway leaves Mombasa, passes through Kenya’s famous national parks, and barrels through Nairobi, before its tracks stop at a quiet little village near the town of Doka Muga, surrounded by thick bushes and maize plants.

“They said this train was in progress, but for whom is this progress?” Motorcycle taxi driver Daniel Tebab said passing the dirt road near the railway finish line.

“Sometimes we build things just for her,” he said.

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