More than a century after construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway line by the British colonial government and almost half a century after the two nations attained their independence, the East African governments are yet to demonstrate a capacity to manage a modern railway service.
If utterances by leaders in both countries are anything to go by, they actually find the Kenya-Uganda railway to be a source of wry humor and rhetoric at any and every forum that provides them with a microphone. President Museveni referred to it as “our antiquated system fit for the museums” during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala last year. The ‘diplomatic’ laughter that followed the presidential jest paled in comparison to the guffaws that erupted at State-House Nairobi a few months later when he repeated the same line at the inauguration of Kenya’s coalition government. Here, I think the mirthful but uneasy VIPs were probably just attempting to exorcise their guilt as the guardians who supported railway vandals during the electioneering hooliganism.
Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga also never tires to remind his audiences that ever since the colonial government completed laying down the railway line, successive governments “have not added an inch to the line”. And he says it with such a wide grin plastered on his face that one can almost be sure that he finds it more hilarious than distressing. Massaged by the decibel levels of his cheering squads, it still hasn’t occurred to the man that the onus is now on him to build competent capacities.
So other than making lofty vision statements and poking fun at the Africans’ profound lack of skill, these men and women in government are just floating along, eating, sleeping and waiting for Godot.
Not only has the line suffered disrepair and unrelenting vandalism but services have degenerated and almost ground to a halt; a precarious position that is causing extensive harm to regional trade. With the decades long ineptness of the two governments to manage the railway services, the business community in the region has over the years been lobbying for privatization or partnership arrangements to operate the railway line. Two years ago, the governments acquiesced and jointly advertised a tender for an operator before granting a concessionary contract to the Rift Valley Railways. It is now clear that the decision to award the contract to RVR was a colossal blunder that has seen the railway operator hurtling downhill, shunting from one crisis to another right from day one.
The initial partners in the initial RVR consortium now feel vindicated after spending two years in courts crying foul play on the part of Sheltam Pty. They seem to have successfully managed to buy extra time from the two governments by cobbling up a resuscitation plan for the concession agreement. Support for the plan from the wary international lenders seem to have convinced the two governments to move along with the plan and give RVR another three months to clean up their act or surrender the concession.
There is widespread exasperation amongst the citizenry in the region who cannot stomach this inexplicable impotence on the part of their governments even as devious characters plunder national assets. It is unconvincing for them to claim that their hands are tied by ‘contractual obligations’ when it is clear that the same was entered into through false representations by Sheltam. That they have opted to extend this commercial tomfoolery gives credence to muted suggestions that senior officials in government are in fact knee-deep in a monumental con. The alternative conclusion would be that the people managing our infrastructure are grossly incompetent and clueless-in-wonderland as rings are woven around them by expatriate weasels. A conclusion that is indeed hard to swallow when one considers the array of professionals that were involved in crafting the deal.
Members of Parliament in both countries, having slept on the job as the railway was being handed over, are now throwing up belated tantrums demanding explanations from their governments and punitive action against those behind the debacle. It is now that the pretentious legislators are purporting to adduce evidence that in actual fact, no due diligence was performed on RVR prior to being awarded the contract. The problem with this pompous noise making is that, other than serve for cloak-and-dagger entertainment in Parliament, it does little to undo the extensive damage on citizens’ livelihoods or compensate for losses occasioned on commerce and trade.
This fiasco goes to confirm my long held opinion that our politicians are by far the greatest impediment to the development of the region. And in this case, they are quickly running out of excuses for their inability to manage the railway system. I expect that the next stunt will be for the railway management to walk out of their offices with underpants drawn over their heads and pencils stuck up their noses. Their very well paid lawyers can then, in mitigation on their behalf, plead ‘mismanagement due to insanity’. Insanity induced by the Lunatic Line!