The introduction of a smart card revenue collection system at Maasai Mara Game Reserve has split the local leadership down the middle.
Narok South MP Nkoidilas ole Lankas and his Kilgoris counterpart Gideon Konchella have strongly criticised the manner in which the contract was awarded to a local bank, arguing that the agreement was riddled with irregularities.
“Though the system of electronic ticketing is good, the community is against the manner in which the contract was awarded.
“How can the council enter into a 10-year agreement with a private entity, yet it knows that it will not exist with the entry of the county governments after next year’s General Election?” Mr Lankas asked.
After months of silence on the matter, Heritage Minister William ole Ntimama has finally thrown his weight behind the council, saying e-ticketing will end pilferage and in the long run benefit the local community.
“The new system will check rampant theft of money by gate clerks, senior council officials and councillors.
“Those who are protesting want to entrench corruption,” Mr Ntimama told a parliamentary committee investigating the manner the controversial contract was awarded on December 10.
Defended the contract
As the battle over the system rages, protests against a 10-year contract Narok County Council awarded Equity Bank to collect tourism revenue have denied tourist’s access to the reserve.
Narok County Council chairman Joseph ole Nkadado defended the contract and denied claims that the contract was not fairly awarded.
He asked the local community to support electronic ticketing, saying, it was aimed at tightening revenue collection.
“The contract was carried out transparently. All the government ministries and agencies — including the defunct Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission — were involved,” he said.
Members of the local community led by Narok County Congress lobby chairman George ole Narok complained that with the new system, they would not benefit from the park and want it to be done away with.
“The money the council has been collecting for years has never benefited Narok residents and we are not against the new system in itself, but (against) the nature of the agreement between bank and the council,” he said.
Mr Narok said in the deal, if the bank fails to collect Sh1.5 billion annually, the council will be required to pay it in addition to the service fee of 50 per cent difference; and in case the council wants to quit, he said, it will be required to pay the service charge of seven per cent for eight years.
The residents further questioned the account opened to deposit the money claiming it would not be subjected to audit.
Equity Bank CEO James Mwangi exonerated the bank from any wrong-doing, arguing that the bank followed the laid down procurement laws transparently.
“The bank was awarded the contract fairly. It has never been involved in unethical practices for it to be given the job,” he said.
According to the expression of interest dated June last year, the bank was awarded the contract to supply, install and commission the new system and not to collect revenue — including park entry fees.
Last week protesters engaged riot police in running battles for hours, denying hundreds of tourist’s access to the park through Sekenani, Talek and Musiara gates.
The community around the world-famous reserve said it was not consulted before the council entered into the agreement with the bank.
Hundreds of livestock were driven inside the park, prompting concerns from tourists who complained that the animals interfere with their game viewing excursions, with breeding sanctuaries for rhinos turned to grazing fields.
“We did not expect to come and view cattle instead of wild animals,” said Alistair Murray, a first-time visitor from Londonderry in Ireland.
Last week men and women armed with poisoned arrows, spears, machetes and bolt studded knobkerries blocked a 10-kilometre stretch to the park along the Narok-Mara road with boulders, trees and burning tyres.
They vowed to continue protesting, saying that as stakeholders, they have a bigger say on how and who should manage the famed reserve, whose annual migration of wildebeests has been named the Eighth New Wonder of the World.
The irate mob burned solar panel equipment and software gadgets the bank had installed at Sekenani, Talek, and Oloolaimutia gates to monitor revenue collection.
“This will be our daily duty until the deal is cancelled. How can a few individuals decide how our only resource is going to be managed?” said Mr Joseph Salaon a resident of Oolaimutia, on the south eastern tip of the reserve.
Tour drivers who take clients to the park appealed to Tourism Minister Najib Balala to resolve the matter by visiting the reserve and talking to locals.
“If nothing is done, there will be massive cancellations ahead of the Christmas holidays.
“If the government finds it fit to reverse the controversial deal, it should do so in the interest of the sector,” said Mr Andrew Mungatana, the vice-chairman of Tour Guides and Drivers Association.