By P.Anyang' Nyong'o
June 9, 2013
When I was Minister for Planning and National Development in 2003 I proposed that the Numerical Machines Complex be revived and used as the foundation for developing a state-driven capital goods industry. I further proposed that the railway workshops in Nairobi, Kisumu and Mombasa not be left to atrophy but be incorporated into the NMC as a way of bringing back life to our railway system.
I did not see why Kenya should import the post banamex cranes from abroad lock, stock and barrel for use at the Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa; with a working NMC we needed only to import the gears, the rest of the metal work and pulley systems could be fabricated locally. In this regard we could revive our industries in the private sector which had gone down during the crazy Nyayo years when interest rates went through the roof, banks foreclosed loans to several businesses and a good number of such enterprises closed down.
I was vilified for preaching outlandish ideas by the bureaucratic bourgeoisie in government who thrive on the import- export business. Interestingly enough they accused me of corruption. I was seen as collaborating with "Indians" whose businesses had been hurt by the previous regime. Apparently there was no concern that these were Kenyan enterprises whose revival would help create jobs and revive the economy.
Be all that as it may, let us go back to our subject of today, that of railways. The British were not foolish to have initiated railways construction as the first item on the agenda in their colonies. Whether in Pakistan, India or Kenya railroad construction was given prime attention. Today India is the only former colony in the Third World that prides itself of a national railway system that still works, complete with a University to its name. The Pakistan railway system is currently a pale shadow of its former self. The Kenyan one lies in ruins except for the feeble attempt to revamp the commuter system in the eastern part of Nairobi.
Again as Planning Minister I strongly cautioned against the concessioning of the Kenya Railways and the RVR project. In our Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS) we had envisaged a standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Busia and Malaba to be electrically powered with a branch from Rongai to Juba. If we had done that, we would have been ahead of the oil discovery in Turkana. But the bureaucratic bourgeoisie knew better; the RVR and the concessioning project went ahead and has now handed us a failure nobody can be proud of.
It is not, however, too late. Being a tropical country where sun and rain hit the earth with tremendous fury every so often, we obviously find building roads with bitumen a daily headache. The roads are bound to crack more often than they do in much more temperate climates. To add insult to injury our road builders, mired in the web of corruption that is to be found in the procurement processes, have in the past cut down badly on the materials used in construction. Those who are responsible for certifying their work have done no better: they have simply colluded to accept mediocre work after being handsomely rewarded by the contractors they supervise. Road maintenance is a money guzzler for our weak economy; we have to cut down on it.
The only way we can go is to rely on railways and railroads for our major transport systems. All cross county transport should, as much as possible, be done by railways and railroads, especially when this involves transporting heavy goods. With the discovery of oil, coal and the exploitation of geothermal energy, we have a great potential for investing in electricity powered engines for railway transport. It would not be too wild to propose that sooner rather than later solar power will be used in train engines in the tropics where there is sunshine daily throughout the year.
In this regard one can see the importance of the NMC and the railway workshops. The production spare parts, the fabrication of machine tools, and the repair of engines and wagons will no doubt be done at the NMC and the workshops. More jobs will be created and existing skills improved. We have, as it were, a giant waiting to be awoken in our quest for further economic growth but we continue to sleep and be preoccupied by our petty politics of fighting over economic crumbs.
Cameroon, a country that has discovered it has tremendous mineral and oil wealth in the recent past, has embarked on a major project of building railways. Cameroon should be a good example to the rest of Africa. But the success of the railways project in Cameroon will depend on who is contracted to build the railways and under what terms. This is the same problem that the LAPSET project also faces.
Both India and China are lucky in the sense that they have the domestic capacity to build their own railways. This is a capacity they have built over a long period of time. As African countries embark on major projects of building railways, we need to develop our domestic capacities to build our own railways in the very near future. The NMC needs to provide the nucleus or seed for travelling in that direction.