OBBO: Railways, roads and East African democracy - Daily Nation

The strange story of the railways, roads, and East African democracy

Wednesday February 9 2011


At the end of last year, senior editors at Nation Media Group were studying the Kenya population and political map and trying to understand how it might change with the new Constitution that established 47 counties as the new administrative units.

As we added the numbers and plotted them on a map, we realised that nearly 75 per cent Kenyans lived within about 100 kilometres of the railway line.

Recently I looked at the Tanzania and Uganda maps to see if the pattern was the same. It was. Even more striking is that while in Europe and Asia, the majority of the population lives near water, that is not the case in East Africa.

The “railway belt”, if we may call it that, is a greater population pull. The main reason for this is that the colonial economy was built around the railway. That became the foundation of the dynamics of our societies.

Thus Machakos was the first “capital” of colonial Kenya. However, the capital was moved to Nairobi in 1899 for one reason — it was by-passed by the Kenya-Uganda Railway. Nairobi, in turn, had been founded as a rail depot on the railway linking Mombasa to Uganda.

Also, nearly all the leading schools in East Africa are all within the railway belt because that is where the colonial administrations invested most. But there was something else. Missionaries started many of the schools in Uganda. The missionaries too followed the railway, so they built their schools near it.

Thus the railway has shaped our countries. The railway belts have produced most of the region’s presidents, rich men and women, influential intellectuals, and eminent bureaucrats.

Because they didn’t have much sympathy for areas outside the railway belt, they neglected them. This partly produced the deprivation of North Eastern Province, North Rift, and the northern extreme of Eastern Province in Kenya. Likewise, northeastern Uganda. And in Tanzania, the southern region.

I also think it explains the parochial and sectarian tendency of the railway belt elite. Until about 30 years ago, most students travelled to and from school by railway, as did workers and civil servants going back to their villages to visit on holiday.

Most of the Kenya-Uganda Railway then (and today), travelled through bush. Travelling by railway, you saw very few people.

Compare that to travelling by road. A trucker driving on the Mombasa-Kampala route can stop and drink at 20 bars and, as some do, have girlfriends at 10 towns along the way. Passengers can do the same.

Train drivers and passengers doing the same Mombasa-Kampala route, meanwhile, will not even have got out of any station once! Therefore, of the two, the chaps who travel by road will be more broad-minded because of their encounters with various cultures along the way than the railway crowd.

From that point of view, though the initial collapse of the Kenya-Uganda was an economic disaster, it was a good thing politically because it shifted, on average, 80 per cent of East African from the narrow-mindedness of the railway to the liberating possibilities of road travel.

There were other outcomes from the collapse of the railway, without which even the glimpses of democracy you see in East Africa today wouldn’t have happened.

The collapse of the railway was one product of the decline of the post-colonial state all over Africa. Governments could no longer run railways, and everything else — education, hospitals.

To fill the gap private transport (buses) were licensed, as were private schools and hospitals. Until then, the structure of our economies meant that governments controlled every aspect of your life: you travelled by state-owned railway, went to a government hospital, went to a government school, and were employed by the government and lived in a government pool house.

The government decided which crops you grew and at how much you sold the harvest at a government-owned market.

Without the collapse of the railway state, we would all be living in dictatorships. Now, it can be revived, because the power has shifted away from what our grandparents called the “iron snake”.