Lessons SGR critics can learn from Kenya-Uganda railway

Saturday November 02 2019

President Uhuru Kenyatta launches the Nairobi-Suswa Madaraka Express train service on October 16, 2019 in Ongata Rongai, Nakuru County. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


History has a way of repeating itself – and perhaps it will one day be kind to President Uhuru Kenyatta.

And because he has not been able to defend the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from a historical perspective (he usually falls back to the political trap), let me help the son of Jomo, albeit late.

Once upon a time, over 125 years ago, the proposed Kenya-Uganda railway, a massive engineering work by its sheer scale then, faced the same financing predicament facing SGR and British Prime Minister Lord Salisbury found himself in the same quandary facing Mr Kenyatta.

Had Lord Salisbury given in, the railway network in East Africa would not have been built.

Modern-day Kenya would also be different, and one needs to look at the history of major towns in the country that arose from the railway and how they evolved.

The anti-Kenya-Uganda railway campaign was led by journalist-turned-MP Henry Labouchere, who edited a weekly anti-railway magazine called The Truth.



It is he who wrote these scathing words that were dismissive of the entire project:

What it will cost, no words can express.

What is its object, no brain can suppose.

Where it will start from, no one can guess.

Where it is going, nobody knows.

What is the use of it, none can conjecture.

What it will carry, there’s none to define.

And in spite of George Curzon’s superior lecture, it clearly is naught but a lunatic line.

President Kenyatta has an expensive Chinese-funded SGR, which is gobbling up a lot of our money as we repay the debts in one of the most painful undertakings in the country’s infrastructural history.


The Mombasa-Nairobi line cost Sh360 billion and is the most expensive infrastructure project since independence.

President Kenyatta’s critics had a field day after the Sh150 billion second phase of SGR terminated in Suswa – where it will serve the proposed industrial park in Maai Mahiu and join the old metre-gauge line at a later date.

The problem is that the park is not there, and neither are roads connecting this station to the outer world.

Again, the old metre-gauge track is dead – and has to be rebuilt. Mr Kenyatta is mad that the Standard Gauge Railway, which has been built to replace what the British christened the “Lunatic Express”, and a big part of his legacy, is being dismissed as the “railway to nowhere” because there are no connecting roads to the Suswa station.

If I were him, I would say, rightly, that railways are actually known to precede towns, and not the other way round.

Many Kenyan towns, including the city of Nairobi, are railway towns and they grew out of the railway infrastructure. Will that happen along the SGR? We can only wait and see.


Secondly, President Kenyatta, as a student of history, should know the politics of railways.

When the Conservative government of Lord Salisbury proposed the building of the Kenya-Uganda railway, and requested a grant-in-aid for the preliminary survey of 1892, his critics refused to back him in parliament, dismissing the new Uganda protectorate as a “white elephant”.

Lord Stanmore, for his part, tabled papers in the House of Commons on the project, insisting that he did not think that the railway could pay its expenses, for a long time.

He was actually wrong and by 1905, the railway was posting profits. Will the SGR trigger an economic revival in Kenya – or are its critics right? The answer depends on whom you ask.

What we know from history is that the rise of Nairobi Town, in the middle of nowhere, is perhaps the biggest story of the growth of a railway town.

Critics had dismissed Nairobi as a shanty “tinville” and did not even foresee the emergence of a city, arguing that no city has ever emerged for simply being a railway terminal.

When the railway reached Nairobi – and on the edge of the Nyika - it is now known that this dry, lush, cold, wildlife-inhabited swampy plain was uninhabited, and had no economic activity.


By then, the railway project had consumed £3,000,000 and there was no money left (as in Suswa) to drive the railway to Lake Victoria and Uganda.

Critics found something to rubbish the project – and President Kenyatta should learn something here.

The problem was that the contractors had used more than was anticipated – and this is the same predicament facing the SGR project.

Said Gibson Bowles, the founder of Vanity Fair magazine, and by then a member of the House of Commons, said:

“I am a little sorry now that the Foreign Office did not get hold of some simple-minded and patriotic contractor and try to get him to make the railway for £3,000,000, which was the original estimated cost. We are now told that the cost is to be £5,000,000. I am quite convinced it will never be made for that.”

As London debated the cost of the final part of the railway, a town started mushrooming into modern-day Nairobi.

We have an expensive railway and it is draining the country when you look at the numbers.


It can only make sense if we revive our economy and start exporting.

Right now, the containers returning to the port of Mombasa are only seven per cent full, meaning we are only using SGR to import and why those staging demos to continue using roads might have no case.

With the SGR now stuck in Suswa, and as Kenya awaits the connection to the old metre-gauge railway, we can only watch what will rise here in Suswa and Maai Mahiu.

Actually, Suswa, the “nowhere” of the SGR, also resembles the story of Port Florence, now Kisumu.

Initially, the Uganda railway was to go towards the Nile but it ended up in modern-day Kisumu, which was an empty swampy port.

Today, Kisumu is the biggest city on the shores of Lake Victoria – and the third largest in Kenya after Nairobi and Mombasa.

The termination of the railway in Kisumu on December 20, 1901, as in the case of Suswa, had its critics too.

Kisumu was not the selected port on the original maps by engineer MacDonald. Rather, the railway was to terminate at Port Victoria – which only existed on maps but is where the Nzoia River enters Lake Victoria.

Only history can now tell us whether engineer Ronald Preston’s choice of Kisumu was apt.


But look at what critics said of the railway terminating at Port Florence (Kisumu).

“When the railway is complete, there will still be great difficulty in taking goods to Uganda, because the railway is taken to Florence Bay, a place on the middle of the Lake near the German frontier, and goods for Uganda will have to be transshipped there and put on steamboats,” said Labouchere, the foremost critic.

To him and his followers, the railway was a non-starter and he neither had nice words on the project nor on the people that were to be served.

“When I ask what we will gain by Uganda I am answered, in that vague sort of way which does duty in connection with African affairs, ‘Oh, the natives can grow wheat and coffee, which they can exchange for your cotton goods.’

I do not believe that Uganda will ever grow wheat or coffee. The climate is so bad that Europeans cannot settle there and bring up their children. And if a European goes there he has to return in two or three years,” he told parliament.


Again, he also thought – and said as much - that Ugandans would never utilise the railway, and for two reasons:

“They are without exception the very laziest of that laziest race in the whole world, the African negro. They have a fruit from which they produce an intoxicating liquor.

All labour is regarded as derogatory on the part of men; the women do the labour, and all the labour the men do is to make the huts. The (men) sit round and drink this intoxicating liquor… and when they get drunk they immediately begin to fight. The whole country is divided into Protestants and Catholics. The Catholics fight with the Protestants and the Protestants with the Catholics.

And when they have injured one another to a certain extent and killed a few, they make up their little feud and sit down to drink again. Do you suppose that these people are likely to cultivate wheat?”


That is how the Uganda railway critics usually argued their case. And before he sat down, he added: “I am opposed entirely to this sort of railways in Africa, and I have been opposed to this railroad from the very commencement because it is a gigantic folly.”

By this time, the railway had consumed £3,000,000 up to Nairobi, which had been passed by the Treasury in 1896 but critics found that the contractor had cut some corners.

“If the House looks at the original report of Major Macdonald, which is the fairy tale upon which all this expenditure is based, they will find there were to be no timber trestles; they were to be the steel bridges which one would expect to be employed in enterprises of this description.”


The unanticipated problem was that the price of steel rails went up from about £4 per tonne to nearly three times that value, which is why some sections of the old railway had timber.

Now what? President Kenyatta’s government is facing the wrath that faced the Foreign Office that was told off by the founder of Vanity Fair magazine.

While dismissing the Kenya-Uganda railway project, Mr Bowles said: “The Foreign Office is an admirable organisation for the negotiation and for the discussion of protocols and treaties, but it is an organisation for nothing else.

It has not the beginning of a notion for the making of a railway, nor has it the beginning of a notion for commanding armies and constructing railways…I have always had considerable doubt of the political wisdom of undertaking this Uganda venture at all.”

Even with the critics, the railways and their networks continued in East Africa, opening up areas that hitherto were not connected.


The story of SGR is painful as that of the Uganda railway. The pain of repaying debts is now with us.

But now that we have an expensive infrastructure, what do we want to do with it? The challenge before Kenyans is the same one that faced Britain. It gave offers to entrepreneurs to help turn around the project.

It is now upon the Kenyatta government to do what the British did. Support entrepreneurs along the line, give them a chance to do business and let them conquer new territories.

If he doesn’t do that, he will have one of the biggest white elephants in his hands. There is something to learn from the Lunatic Express.

[email protected] @johnkamau1