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Turkwel Dam: Biwott project and thirst for development

Saturday March 28 2020
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Former Cabinet minister Nicholas Biwott. He used treachery to make his Turkwel dam proposal sanctified. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By KAMAU NGOTHO

With Covid-19 hogging the attention, few took note of a story tucked inside the Sunday Nation two weeks ago, that Turkwel Dam may soon dry up due to environmental degradation.

A symposium led by West Pokot Governor John Lonyangapuo and addressed by environmental experts heard that the dam is “fast dying” due to heavy siltation of Suam River basin, which feeds the gorge on which the dam is built.

The irreversible disappearance of the dam will mean death of the Turkwel Dam Hydroelectric Power Project, just as happened with once vibrant irrigation projects served by the dam.

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Yet that wouldn’t have come to pass had the government not thrown out of the window an experts’ report advising against construction of the dam.

Besides dismissing the report by a foreign agency with hands-on experience and knowledge of the terrain on which the dam was built, the Kenyan government declined cash assistance to conduct its own research on the viability of the project.

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Instead, the project was bulldozed through – and at a highly exaggerated cost – on sole consideration of the handsome kickbacks paid to the Kenyan officials, a confidential report by then-European Union (EU) head of mission in Kenya revealed.

In those days of authoritarian one-party rule, no Kenyan media house would dare touch the report by the EU official, who would soon be bundled out of the country.

When the Financial Times of London published it, a few copies that found their way into the country were confiscated at JKIA and destroyed by security agents.

I will come back to the contents of the report Kenyans weren’t allowed to read. But first I begin the story – at the beginning.

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DEVELOPMENT

Flying back home from a presidential trip to Iraq and the United Arab Emirates in May 1980, Nicholas Biwott, then-minister of State for Regional Development, had moved from his seat at the front – next to President Daniel Moi – to the back, next to then-Energy minister Munyua Waiyaki.

Biwott had a message for his Cabinet colleague and wanted to pass it while they were up in the skies, and away from anyone else’s earshot.

“Look,” he told Waiyaki, “the President has been so kind and charitable to you people (meaning the Kikuyus). You have the vice presidency, the Finance ministry, and the ministerial dockets with the biggest budgets. Now, you must ‘return a hand’ by helping the donkey catch up, or at least come closer to the horse.”

To make the point clearer, Biwott said to Waiyaki: “You Kikuyus are way ahead in development. You must help us (meaning the President’s community) come at least closer, if not be at par with you.”

Then he added in a veiled threat: “You help us climb the ladder and the President will never let anybody touch you, and if you neglect us then don’t blame us for what happens!”

Waiyaki, as he was to tell me years later, told Biwott he had no objection to the proposition, but quickly reminded him that Nandi, Kericho and Uasin Gishu districts were as developed as central Kenya, to which Biwott quickly replied:

“True, the Nandi and the Kipsigis are the Kikuyu of Kalenjin-land. Like the Kikuyu, those are ‘horses’. The people I am calling ‘donkeys’ are Tugens, Keiyos, and other pastoralists in Rift Valley.”

FEASIBILITY STUDY

Then Biwott came to the crux of the matter. He told Waiyaki that he (as minister for Regional Development) had a project to propose to Waiyaki’s ministry (Energy) – a multi-purpose dam on the Turkwel River.

It would generate power to feed the national grid and provide water to irrigate the arid Turkana and West Pokot districts.

Waiyaki said the project sounded all right in principle, but said the two must loop in Vice-President and Finance minister Mwai Kibaki.

Back in Nairobi, the two had a meeting with Kibaki. The latter had no objection, but said due process must be followed – which was to commission a feasibility study, and from which a paper would be prepared to be tabled before the Cabinet.

A Norwegian engineering and consulting firm, NorConsult, was engaged to conduct the study.

The choice was informed by the fact that the Norwegians had projects in northern Kenya and were therefore equipped with useful knowledge and experience on the terrain.

The study advised against construction of a dam on the Turkwel River, the main reason being that the chosen site “lies on a major earthquake fault-line and would silt up in less than 50 years (that is nine years from now).”

The study said, if constructed, the dam would have “a deleterious effect on alluvium brought down by floods… and the lush vegetation of the riverine forest, to radically change the flow of Turkwel River through silting…”

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The Norwegians knew better, having previously burnt their fingers and thus learnt the hard way.

Long before the Turkwel project was mooted, they were first on the ground with the establishment of a community fishing venture that was supposed to change eating habits of the Turkana – from beef to fish – and interest them in a cash economy through exportation of frozen fish.

The project was to depend on waters from the now extinct Ferguson’s Bay on Lake Turkana.

The Norwegians were overambitious to think they could freeze fish in very high temperatures using diesel-powered engines and still make a profit!

But a bigger blunder was lack of understanding of the terrain, and specifically that part of Lake Turkana disappears every 30 to 50 years.

Ferguson’s Bay, on which the fish project was built, finally disappeared from the map in the early 1980s, leaving a Norwegian fishing vessel – christened Uji – stuck in the mud in the middle of nowhere!

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On receiving the experts’ report, the Ministry of Finance relegated Biwott’s proposal where it belonged – in the dustbin. The latter wasn’t amused in the least.

Over lunch with Waiyaki at Serena Hotel, he ventilated: “Kibaki must be the most ungrateful person alive,” Biwott said, adding ruefully:

“I wish he knew how many people are secretly fighting him, and how the President has stood with him. The least he should have done to thank the President is to let Turkwel project go through. After all, who are Norwegians to tell us what not to do in our country?”

As it turned out, Biwott had quietly vowed to revisit the matter – in his own time, on his own terms.

First, he would scheme to have himself appointed the minister for Energy. Then he would have his own man as minister for Finance.

That done, he wouldn’t have to bother about the “nonsense” of some foreigners coming with feasibility studies to block his path, rather to hold the donkey from catching up with the horse!

***

In a Cabinet reshuffle soon after, he was appointed minister for Energy and Regional Development, while the Finance docket was taken away from Kibaki and given to Arthur Magugu, who had been his long-serving assistant minister.

But Magugu – a “horse” – would only be a stop-gap measure. In the next reshuffle not long after, Biwott’s chosen “mule”, George Saitoti – he was neither horse nor donkey – was appointed minister for Finance and Economic Planning. The mission was almost accomplished.

But there still was a “small nuisance” in then-powerful Chief Secretary Simeon Nyachae, who not only didn’t see eye to eye with Biwott, but had his own ideas on how to go about the Turkwel project.

Then suddenly, in 1986, Nyachae was shown the door from his powerful perch and the state machinery instructed to cut him down to size. Biwott’s moment had finally come.

***

In January 1986 – five years after Biwott’s chat with Waiyaki up in the skies, he was airborne to the French capital accompanied by Saitoti to sign in on the Turkwel project.

Three days after sealing of the deal with French design and engineering company Sogreah and Spie Batignolles, the European Union chief delegate to Kenya, Achim Kratz, dispatched an eight-page secret memorandum to the EU headquarters in Brussels.

In it he wrote: “The French contract and financing conditions are extremely disadvantageous for Kenya. The price of the French ‘turnkey’ offer is more than double the amount the Kenya government would have had to pay for the project based on an international competitive tender, and it is surprising that this was accepted at a time when the Kenya government is cutting down on investment in the country because of lack of budgetary funds….”

For instance, he wrote, “the installed price on turbines in the French deal was $277,000 each, while the same could be installed at $144,000 on international bidding.”

KICKBACKS

Transformers were also priced at more than double the international price, said the memorandum.

It further noted that a larger portion of the Turkwel project was financed on “commercial loans, despite ready offers for grants or extremely soft concessionary loans. But Kenyan officials nevertheless chose the far more expensive model of financing”.

He concluded: “The French deal was only possible because of handsome profits for French executives involved, and the handsome kickbacks for their Kenyan counterparts.”

Copies of the secret memo to the EU were leaked to the local press and to the Financial Times of London.

In those days of limited freedoms, local media houses couldn’t touch it even with a barge pole, while the few copies of the Financial Times that found their way to Nairobi were seized and destroyed at the airport.

Kenya and French governments pressured the EU to transfer the “offending” chief delegate, a German national, from Nairobi to Lesotho, where he would be of “little harm”.

***

On return from Paris, Finance minister Saitoti – with Biwott egging him on the side – told the media with a straight face that on completion, the Turkwel project would be “the most cost-effective source of Kenya’s future power generation”.

Saitoti – a professor of a discipline called “abstract algebra” – had his math all wrong.

Engineers say at its inflated cost and distant location (the now worn out high voltage cables run over 120 miles to connect to the national grid), Turkwel is the most expensive power-generating plant in the country and the region!

***

Finally, Biwott might have got the “donkey” catch up with the “horse”, but he couldn’t stop Turkwell Dam from drying up, which is what we are paying for now!

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