Three days after President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the upgraded inland container depot in Embakasi, Nairobi, in December 2017, Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho came out guns blazing, protesting that the Head of State was sabotaging the region’s economy by transferring the port’s operations.
The operations, according to Mr Joho, were being transferred following the coming of another project, the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) that he also fiercely opposed.
Mr Joho’s opposition to the transfer of the operations to Nairobi transformed him into an instant hero in the region ahead of the last election.
Riding on this popularity, he mobilised the region against President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government and in support of opposition leader Raila Odinga.
Fast forward to 2019 and the flamboyant governor has changed tune, softening his criticism against President Kenyatta even as the region protests the government move to make SGR the only mode of transporting cargo from Mombasa to Nairobi, leading to massive loss of jobs and closure of businesses.
On Thursday, while speaking at the Kenya Coast Polytechnic College in Mombasa, Mr Joho said it was time that “we all accept that we cannot fight the SGR as it is obviously here to stay”.
“As we stand here, we cannot tell the national government to pack up the SGR, a project for which they have received billions of shillings. As a matter of fact, they are going to phase 2 of the project,” said Mr Joho, telling off his critics.
He said that, if anything, he was among those affected by the coming of the SGR as his two Container Freight Stations (CFS) at the port had been forced to lay off 90 per cent of its workforce.
A fortnight ago, an assessment report on the socio-economic impact of the operationalisation of the SGR by the University of Nairobi (UoN) revealed that more than 60 per cent of employees working at Container Freight Stations (CFSs) in Mombasa have been sacked in the past one year.
The study showed a total of 2,987 employees working in the CFSs, trucks and fuel stations have been laid off in the same period; while more than 8,111 workers are expected to be sent home if the directive to make SGR the only mode of transporting cargo is upheld.
Mr Joho however added that he could not engage the government in a war of words since the political ecosystem has changed, with dialogue with Mr Kenyatta the only viable option for Mombasa people.
He said he was instead working on efforts that would see the government revamp the economy of the Coast region.
“I am a strategic leader. Why should I go and engage in a war of words with someone who has shown willingness to listen to my issues? That time is gone and now the only way is to sit down, talk and sort out issues amicably,” he added.
The governor said it is through the new approach that he pushed for the Sh40 billion Dongo Kundu project, which will unlock more than 60,000 jobs, to be fast-tracked.
Mr Joho had asked President Kenyatta to consider hastening the SEZ as an alternative to lost port business, a request the Head of State promised to push for in his August visit to Japan.
For the governor, the issue of SGR, which now has roped in his family business with revelations that they are set to benefit from the Nairobi ICD facility, puts him in a tight spot as his critics accuse him of changing tune as Mombasa residents continue to suffer.
“When they were looking for votes in 2017, they said that they would not allow the port’s activities would be moved to Nairobi and Naivasha. Now that the activities have been moved, members of their families are at the centre of running the Nairobi SGR facility,” Nyali MP Mohammed Ali, a vocal critic of the governor, said.
Mr Joho is now keen on the execution of the Sh40 billion Dongo Kundu SEZ as the region’s alternative to dwindling fortunes brought forth by the shift to SGR and the use of the Nairobi ICD as the main clearance hub for goods.
Last week, the government signed an agreement with Japan that saw Kenya receive Sh88 billion for the construction of the bridge, the development of the Dongo Kundu SEZ project and other developments in Mombasa.
Acting Treasury Cabinet Secretary Ukur Yattani said Sh46 billion will be used to build the Likoni bridge, also known as the Mombasa Gate Bridge.