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With shameless wheeler-dealers, intense economic pain inevitable

Tuesday November 5 2019

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In absence of development loans, the political elite may be turning to public-private partnerships as a new frontier to sustain their status. ILLUSTRATION | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

KENNEDY CHESOLI
By KENNEDY CHESOLI
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There is no doubt we are headed into a major economic crisis.

After years of self-delusion and plunder of public resources, it’s payback time. And it’s not a question of if but when.

We have always had in our midst a coterie of crooked individuals that have stolen public resources but now scions of these thieves — and their recruits — are acting with impunity and shamelessness.

In a few years, a few thousand Kenyans have amassed fortunes that could rival Western magnets with intergenerational riches.

Don’t be fooled: these are not successful entrepreneurs but plain thieves who keep stealing from us.

Systemic corruption eventually empties public coffers — unless the public draws a red line. Ours are almost empty.

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The era of borrowing for infrastructure development is over. We may continue to borrow but strictly to retire old loans.

We may not even raise enough funds from new loans as they may be costlier.

DEBT BURDEN

Furthermore, delays in accessing credit could eventually force the government to cut its recurrent expenditure or — God forbid — default. These are the stark options.

Attempts by the Treasury at some wiggle room through a higher borrowing ceiling will have no long-term effects.

In absence of development loans, the political elite may be turning to public-private partnerships as a new frontier to sustain their status.

I previously said we lack the capacity to enter into viable PPPs for they ultimately privatise gains and socialise losses.

Consider the newest PPP to “develop and manage" the Westlands expressway. This project had no public participation, yet it will allegedly privatise and toll one of Nairobi’s transport corridors.

Claims that it will have no effect on the sovereign debt burden are ridiculous: turning over a public road to the Chinese for over two decades, in unclear circumstances, is a scam.

PRIVATISING ROADS

Ironically, the country is courting foreign funders for a railway line from JKIA to Westlands — a more attractive and sustainable alternative.

It’s tempting to blame the Chinese for the impeding economic woes yet our government is responsible for this mess.

Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta travelled to Washington for a meeting with his US counterpart and, afterwards, we were told that the Americans would expand Mombasa Road into a superhighway.

Although this is meant to be one of America’s largest PPP project in the region, it is suspect.

There is absolutely no justification for an ultra-modern road to the Coast, given the government’s struggle to sustain the SGR by forcing transit cargo off the highway.

There are some striking parallels between this deal and the expressway. It will allow the Americans to turn yet another major public road into a private tolled one with full rights to deny poor Kenyans access and its use.

ELITIST PROJECT

In his attempt to defend the project, which degenerated into a nasty war of words on Twitter, Kyle McCarter, the US Ambassador to Kenya, may have feigned pretence of not hearing what ordinary Kenyans were telling him.

The message was simple: this project is elitist and lacks public support. The envoy knows the public right in seeking critical details, including why Bechtel was awarded the contract.

Sadly, there is a realisation that, on infrastructure projects and deal making with our corrupt elite, there is no difference between the Americans and the Chinese: public participation, accountability and transparency are just fancy words.

Expect the upcoming cataclysm to force deal-making investors to abandon their projects and flee.

Our Latte- and wine-sipping middle class, most of whom are ‘tenderpreneurs’ and tail-end beneficiaries of illicit wealth, will be in pain.

Empty malls, high-end apartments and office spaces are signs of our unravelling economic “prosperity”.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected] @kenchesoli

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