March 23, 2023

Mombasa, Kenya — The coastal city of Mombasa set off fireworks and rained confetti as Kenya’s president unveiled a new railway designed, financed and built by China.

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

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

That was five years ago. The railroad has since turned into a fiasco, the target of lawsuits, criminal investigations into corruption, and grievances from environmentalists and unemployed workers in the trucking industry.

It is now a hot topic in the contested Aug. 9 election and part of a broader debate about China’s expanding role in Kenya.Leading candidate proposes everything to expel Chinese workers do local work Renegotiate Kenya’s heavy debt to China. But for many, the $4.7 billion railroad has become a manifestation of the corruption and greed of the political elite.

China initially funded the railroad as part of its trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to expand China’s economic and political influence by funding new ports, roads and railways around the world. But China is reluctant to finance the last stretch of Kenya’s railway — the link to Uganda — because some African countries struggle to repay their debts.

The train’s tracks, 367 miles long from Mombasa through the capital Nairobi, came to a sudden stop in a clearing in the Great Rift Valley more than 200 miles from Uganda.

“SGR is an economic, social and financial disruptor,” said economist Tony Watima, referring to the standard gauge railways that Kenyans call trains. “The damage it will do to the Kenyan economy will last for years.”

The two leading candidates running for President Kenyatta’s successor – William Ruto and Raila Odinga – have seized on the railway’s troubles, promising to reassess its operations while also trying to keep up with the project distance.

Mr. Ruto is the Vice President and part of the government that opened the railway. In an interview, he acknowledged that Kenya’s public debt – $73.5 billion as of March in a country with a gross domestic product of just over $100 billion – was creating a “very volatile” situation, and the railway has so far closed down to develop the economy.

“We’re hurt by paying off China’s debt,” he said.

His opponent, Mr Odinga, a former prime minister who has long criticised the project, Accusing Mr Kenyatta’s family of benefiting from itBut now that President Kenyatta has his back, Mr Odinga has softened his criticism while promising to overhaul the operation of the railway. “Once I take office, we’ll fix this,” he told a group of supporters in Mombasa recently.

Economists, analysts and government officials said in interviews that the railway represents a peak in lending and looting that has plagued Kenyatta’s government since it took office in 2013. They say his administration has saddled the country with massive infrastructure projects that are not financially viable, benefit mainly the wealthy and divert investment in education and health care. Kenya’s public debt has soared nearly fivefold over the past nine years.

“The Standard Gauge Railway is the crown jewel of Kenya’s corrupt crown,” said former anti-corruption czar John Gitongo. “This is the sad legacy of the current regime.”

Mr Kenyatta’s office did not respond to emailed questions about this article. Government Finance and Planning Minister Ukur Yatani, who oversees the country’s port, rail and pipeline infrastructure, did not respond to a request for an interview.

The railway’s financier, the Export-Import Bank of China, has demanded repayments, although creditor countries such as France and Japan have given Kenya some respite to repay the loans because of the pandemic. To repay the loan, the government has introduced a series of tax and austerity measures that have angered the public in response to rising food and fuel prices due to drought and the war in Ukraine.

Lawmaker Abdullswamad Shariff Nassir, chairman of the parliament’s public investment committee, said there was a “lack of economic planning and vision” when it came to opening the railway.

For years, Kenya has been considering whether to build a new railway or refurbish the century-old railway, built by British colonists and known as the “Mad Men’s Express.”

Recommendations from independent reports including the World Bank Upgrading the existing rail network as a cheaper option. But in the end, the Kenyatta government decided to build a new railway: a standard gauge railway that could run at 50 mph for freight trains and 74 mph for passenger trains.

Construction began in 2013. But problems plagued the project from the start.

Although taxpayer-funded, no Project Bidding – Mr Kenyatta’s Move defend.

Environmentalists questioned Why the government put the railway through Nairobi National Park, one of the few safari parks adjacent to the capital.

The only known feasibility study for the project was done by a Chinese contractor rather than the government, which is a conflict of interest, said Okiya Omtatah, a prominent lawyer who challenged the project in court.

He said he was invited to a hotel in Nairobi to meet with several Kenyan senators and Chinese managers, who asked him to drop the case in exchange for $300,000 in damages. When he declined, one of the senators offered up to $1 million, he said. He was told that if he refused, they could pay the judge to rule the case in their favor.

“You keep your money and I will keep my country,” Omtata recalled, telling them as he left the room.

A communications officer for Chinese contractor China Road and Bridge did not respond to emailed questions. Mr Omtata would not disclose the senators he said he was meeting with.

The Court of Appeal finally ruled in Mr Omtatah’s favour in 2020, declaring the railway’s contract It is illegal to violate Kenyan procurement laws. The government is appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Ruto has promised, if elected president to release contract — Activists hope the move will allow the public to scrutinize it.A Transportation Department official said this year that making the contract public would undermine national security because it would reveal its Privacy Policy.

For years, activists and opposition figures have accused senior politicians Exaggerate costs and profits from the railway.

Land acquisitions have also become a hotspot, with more than a dozen officials, including the former managing director of Kenya Railways and the former chairman of the Kenyan Public Land Management Agency, accused in court In 2018, accused of assisting in the payment of more than $2 million individuals and companies Falsely claiming land along the railway line. While some cases have been dropped, trials against other defendants continue.Millions more to be disbursed, council revealed Overpayment or payment without clear documentation.

A year after the trains started operating, a parliamentary report revealed that the cost of transporting goods on trains was more than double that on roads.

To make railroads profitable, authorities forced importers to ship goods by rail instead of road – a decision that sparked protests and court case.

Officials in Mombasa say the railroad costs their county tens of millions of dollars in lost annual report estimates Conservatively, more than 8,100 people in the county working in trucking, fuel and freight operations will lose their jobs.

Laurence Boye, a truck driver in Miritini, a suburb of Mombasa, accused the government of “demonizing” truck drivers, leaving many young people unemployed and turning to crime.

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

Passengers board a train carriage bearing the slogan “Connecting the Nation” at Nairobi Station. prosperous people. ” But a 2019-2020 poll by Afrobarometer found that 87% of Kenyans Think their government has borrowed too much money from China.

Lawmakers suggested the government renegotiate rail loans with China. But even if they could, economist Mr Watima said the railways would still be “a mess”.

China is also reassessing its early lending spree for infrastructure projects in Africa, as it faces growing opposition for lending to poorer countries with financial ailing.

While China will remain the largest financier of African infrastructure, Eric Oland, co-founder of China’s Global South Project, said high-risk mega-projects such as Kenya’s railway are unlikely to receive funding in the future.

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

Currently, the railway leaves Mombasa and travels through Kenya’s iconic national park, passing through Nairobi, before stopping in a quiet hamlet near the town of Duka Moha, surrounded by lush shrubs and corn plants.

“They say the train is progress, but whose progress is it?” said Daniel Tipape, a motorcycle taxi driver who passed a dirt road near the railway’s finish line.

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

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