March 6, 2012
Late last week, Prime Minister Melles Zenawi of Ethiopia and President Salva Kiir of South Sudan joined President Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and Prime Minister Raila Odinga at the old Lamu island town. The occasion was to formally inaugurate the construction of a modern Lamu Port, an oil pipeline, a modern railway line and a super highway to connect South Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia.
Facts and figures related to this project nicknamed Lapsset Corridor are staggering. On completion, it will have cost US $ 25 billion the equivalent of Ksh 2.2 trillion.
This colossal amount of cash will be pumped into building a brand new large capacity sea port, 1,600km of a modern railway line from South Sudan through Kenya to Ethiopia, 1,700km of a modern highway from South Sudan through Kenya to Ethiopia, a new oil pipeline and three international airports, possibly two in Kenya (Lamu and Isiolo) and one airport either at Juba or Abyie inside South Sudan.
In the words of President Kibaki of Kenya, “the Lapsset Corridor Project is a major step forward for the region’s economic integration that will connect our people to the many socio-economic opportunities that lie ahead”.
This is the type of regional infrastructure development that NEPAD preached for a long time in its formative years when pan Africanists such as Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and Abdulahi Wade of Senegal were still enthusiastic about Africa’s economic integration.
Wonderful as this project may be, one could not help detecting misgivings in some quarters in East Africa. The usual pearl crushers might have seen it as an economic coupe for Kenya at the expense of other states neighboring South Sudan. It is the reason Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki quickly dispatched his Prime Minister to Uganda to clarify the situation for Yoweri Museveni of Uganda who quickly grasped the big picture and endorsed the venture.
However, the most interesting but not surprising reaction came from one Mr. Wolfang Fengler, the World Bank Economist who derided the project as misplaced. His gripe with the whole project was that there was no need to build another bigger port in Kenya when the current Kilindini Port has never been efficiently utilized let alone managed. His other quarrel with the Lamu project was that its location was not economical because the Lamu population cannot sustain it.
Indeed these two points are valid. We have not maximized the Kilindini port to its limits. Yes, we have had many management issues including political consideration in appointing its CEOs. However, the fact that we have faltered in the past cannot be good reason for us to give up walking and even running one day. We cannot allow our past failures to chain us to the past. History is full of many trials and errors and even failures in developed countries but those setbacks never deterred them from trying and trying until they succeeded.
Mr. Wolfang Fengler claims that because the Lamu population is small; Lamu is no good location for this massive project.
I would like to remind Fengler that this project is not a Lamu County project. It is not even a Kenyan project. It is a regional project that will attract Labour, professionals, technical experts and technocrats from all over East Africa and beyond. In fact I will not be surprised if the World Bank will be the first institution to send in experts to the project the way it has done with other regional initiatives.
Yes, the Lamu population today stands at 100,000 Kenyans but the combined population of East Africa, South Sudan and Ethiopia is a staggering 167 million people. Surely, this population is a viable market to sustain the project.
Forget about three ultramodern airports and a superhighway envisaged in this grand plan. Forget about an oil pipeline and even a new port situated in Lamu.
Just building an ultramodern railway line from Juba to Addis Ababa will transform the economic situation in the Horn of Africa like never before. The IGAD countries, the EAC member states including the DRC in Central Africa will experience economic activities like never before.
The whole of Eastern Africa will be captured by this phenomenon if only politics will allow borders to be opened up to ordinary folks. Trade will boom. Cultures will thrive. Tourism will blossom. The arid nomads of the Horn of Africa will no longer starve to death as Uganda destroys its surplus bananas. There will be a new impetus for intra- Africa trade in this region.
With South Sudan and Uganda producing oil that will be refined in East Africa, chances of pump prices becoming cheaper will fuel economic growth. It will be an economy where each state will produce what it is capable of producing and sell to the expanded market. What is more, there will be abundant job creation for all countries concerned. The railway line alone is likely to absorb no less than 500,000 workers, all spreading across the region from Abyie to Addis Ababa. And if you include three modern airports, a super highway and the Port, close to three million new jobs will be created. This is a chance in a lifetime that East Africans cannot let pass due to past prejudices and petty rivalry.