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Uhuru's expensive pet project that has been mired in controversy since inception

Sunday April 28 2019

Kenya’s standard gauge railway

The construction of the second phase of Standard Gauge Railway from Nairobi to Naivasha will be completed in September. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KIPCHUMBA SOME
By KIPCHUMBA SOME
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Ever since the construction of the standard gauge railway began in Mombasa in October 2013, the project has been dogged by one scandal after another.

First was its astronomical cost. The 470-kilometre section from Mombasa to Nairobi cost Sh327 billion while the 150km section that runs from Nairobi to Naivasha cost Sh150 billion.

During his trip to China this week, President Uhuru Kenyatta and his delegation were expected to announce at least Sh360 billion had been secured for the Naivasha-Kisumu phase.

Instead, Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said priority is to rehabilitate the old railway line at Sh40 billion.

Some previous recommendations before construction of the SGR began were for the rehabilitation of the old railway at a fraction of the amount projected for a new one.

However, the government dismissed the proposals, with China Road and Bridge Corporation winning the award to implement the expensive Beijing-funded project.

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But even then, more questions were raised on the cost.

“We negotiated and awarded the tender for Sh227 billion when we were leaving office,” said Orange Democratic Movement leader Raila Odinga, who added that the project was conceived during the grand coalition government in which he was prime mister from 2008 to 2013.

“What Jubilee only did was to retender it to the same contractor but at an inflated price of Sh350 billion. It is the cost that we have a problem with,” Mr Odinga said in 2014.

This week, Mr Odinga was part of the government's delegation in Beijing.

Perhaps the biggest problem with SGR is that it appears to be a vendor-driven project.

Instructively, a well-known influence-peddler acted as a middleman before being edged out when Jubilee took power in 2013.

Once again, the government bitterly defended itself over the inflated cost of the SGR, accusing the opposition of demonising and attempting to sabotage a well-intentioned project.

President Kenyatta swore that nothing would come in the way of his pet project whose cost was considerably higher compared to others in countries like Ethiopia.

Kenyans were even more surprised when they saw diesel-powered locomotives being unloaded at Mombasa port instead of the high-speed trains they had been promised.

In 2017, Mr Macharia said the government would spend Sh65 billion to electrify the line by 2021.

“We are not sure of the power supply,” he said to justify the option of the diesel locomotives.

Even with the billions of shillings sank into the project, Kenyans were shocked last year to learn that they were forking out Sh1 billion every month to pay the Chinese firm to operate the line.

As expected, the government reacted angrily to the report.

“The SGR is not a matatu. It it is a huge operation and it costs billions to run," Deputy President William Ruto said.

According to experts, since Kenya is primarily an import country, the SGR would have made economic sense if neighbouring countries mainly served by Mombasa agreed to build similar lines and linkede them to Kenya’s.

Cargo volumes are still woefully low since no neighbouring countries have committed or even secured funding for their own projects.

This has pushed the government to desperation. Last year, it forced importers to use the SGR rather than the road. The decision led to protests.

There were complaints about racist and degrading treatment Kenyans working for the SGR were being subjected to by the Chinese.

Once again, the government rushed to defence of the project. Government spokesman Eric Kiraithe spewed bile and venom, blaming unnamed persons of being detractors.

“While we’ll protect individual rights and dignity of Kenyans, inward looking 'haki yetu' centred personalities have no place in this kind of profession,” he said.

In November 2018, the Sunday Nation exposed a complex ticketing syndicate involving officials of the Chinese operators of the SGR and their Kenyan accomplices through which millions of shillings were lost.

Another suspect aspect of the SGR has been the high cost of acquiring land for the project. Former National Land Commission chairman Muhammad Swazuri and others were arraigned days ago for settling false compensation claims.

A number of lopsided contracts have dented the hopes of the SGR ever making profit.

In March, the Sunday Nation revealed ran a story showing Kenya Railways Corporation intended to award a company linked to Mombasa Governmor Ali Hassan Joho preferential rates to transport bulk cargo on the SGR for almost 30 years.

The offer letter to the Joho firm was later withdrawn.