- Financed and built by the Chinese, it is supposed to link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan and ease and lower the cost of transporting bulk goods.
- There is more that binds the eastern African countries than just shared borders and this standard gauge railway. They are also bound by a standard kind of politics.
A new standard gauge railway line is currently under construction in East Africa’s northern corridor.
Financed and built by the Chinese, it is supposed to link Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan and ease and lower the cost of transporting bulk goods.
There is more that binds the eastern African countries than just shared borders and this standard gauge railway. They are also bound by a standard kind of politics.
Despite this new transport investment, the internal politics of the countries through which that railway is supposed to go still resemble the way politics was in the late 1890s when the original Uganda Railway was constructed by the British.
It is still very much based around tribe and the Big Man. Kenya and Rwanda have been the focus of the media during this month of August because of the elections held in the two countries. Since independence in 1963, Kenya has been all about tribe and ethnicity in its politics. It has never tried to hide this fact.
It might have the highest skyscrapers and largest shopping malls and residential areas in East Africa but the politics remains parochial.
Usually in Kenya predicting who wins presidential election, one only needs to study the most recent Kenyan population census.
That is because Kenya votes along blocs of tribal alliances. Since the late 1960s the central Kikuyu region has tended to ally with the Rift Valley Kalenjin. It is the same alliance in the 2017 election campaign.
President Uhuru Kenyatta is a child of modern, digital technology Kenya, as is his deputy president William Ruto. But in the 2013 and 2017 election campaigns they had to reckon with the reality that even in the 21st Century tribe is still thicker than terabytes in Kenya.
There is no sign that this will change any time soon.
In Rwanda, elections after 2000 have been even more humorous than Kenya’s. Kenya’s election campaigns might be parochially tribal, but they are very competitive. There is real campaigning, calculation, the formation of alliances and the deployment of campaign teams.
In Rwanda since 2000, it has been the story of one man and that is President Paul Kagame.
Apart from physically towering over most of his countrymen, Kagame towers even more over the country’s politics.
Even if he didn’t campaign, he would still win with landslides into the mid-90s per cent. Even before he announces that he will contest the election, Kagame has already won by a huge margin.
From 1994 when the RPF took power in Kigali to 2000, there was at least a semblance of weight in Rwanda. There were a handful of prominent Hutu politicians either as chairman of the RPF or president.
Since Kagame moved up from his position of vice president, he has become the face of Rwanda in more ways than any recent African president has been the face of his nation.
In that sense, Rwanda’s is just another standard gauge political formula that resembles 1970s Africa.
Further along the standard gauge railway, we arrive at a station called South Sudan.
Like Kenya and Rwanda, South Sudan is a raw, ethnic-based society. The civil war waged by the SPLM starting in the 1950s was all about security of the identity and territory of the Black, mainly Christian South Sudanese.
Ever since it gained independence in 2011 and no longer having the northern, mostly Muslim Republic of Sudan to worry about, the major tribes of South Sudan turned on each other in December 2013 in a civil war.
There was a brief period of peace but the civil war resumed in 2015.
Finally we get in the last leg of the standard gauge railway and arrive in Uganda.
Like Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda was hailed by the naïve US administration of president Bill Clinton in 1996 as a breath of fresh air, the leaders as a “new breed” in Africa.
Over 21 years later, the “new breed” of African leaders are still in power and are starting to be in power longer than the Big Men of the 1960s and 1970s who were much despised around the world and in their countries. Just as a Kagame win of more than 90 per cent is always guaranteed even before Kagame has thought of running for re-election, it is definite that the Ugandan Constitution will be amended to lift the limit imposed in 1995 on the presidential age, as the presidential two-term limit was lifted controversially in 2005.
By 2018 or 2019, we shall have a new standard gauge railway connecting these eastern African countries. They are already bound by a common 1960s-style Big Man and tribal politics.
Rail infrastructure in EA
The railway politics aside, the region’s rail traffic density is the lowest on the continent with none of the lines, whether in the central corridor or the northern one, having more than one million traffic units per route kilometre, says Rajiv Sharma, an Infrastructure & Capital Projects manager with Deloitte East Africa.
By global standards, he adds, East Africa’s rail traffic volumes are a little more than what might be carried by a moderately busy branch line. Moreover, such low traffic volumes do not generate the revenue needed to finance infrastructure rehabilitation and upgrading.
“The average effective velocity of rail freight in the region is less than 10km per hour; this slow movement of goods has something to do with infrastructure but even more to do with the extensive delays suffered in border crossings, port delays, reliability constraints, limited network, trade logistics and safety,” he says.
It is projected that total traffic on the Northern Corridor will increase from 21.5 million in 2013 to 35.2 million in 2015 reaching 89.6 million tonnes by 2030, he notes.
He says to meet the future demand and facilitate the easy movement of goods within East Africa, efficient national rail networks as well as integrated operations serving landlocked Uganda, Zambia and Ethiopia through Kenya, Tanzania, and Djibouti respectively are crucial.
“This will result to vast economic benefits such as reducing the cost of transportation in the region making it an attractive investment destination, accelerate industrialisation through easier and cheaper transport and the establishment of new industries to service the new railways,” he says.
With recent accelerated developments of the Mombasa to Nairobi standard gauge railway (SGR) line, Kenya is keen to maintain her status as a logistics hub; and is monitoring closely developments in Tanzanian ports and central line upgrades, which is expected to route 35 million tonnes of freight annually to landlocked Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and eastern DRC — countries that currently rely on Kenya’s infrastructure.
Regional governments are currently evaluating financing options for the construction of their respective portion of the SGR.
Mr Sharma says an equity model that proved successful was the introduction of the railway development levy of 1.5 per cent by the Kenyan government on all imported goods for domestic; over Ksh20 billion ($208 million) was collected in 2013-14 surpassing target collections by 48.9 per cent.
“Nonetheless, the East Africa rail network is currently described as being in a state of neglect and dilapidated accounting about 4 to 6 per cent of cargo from Mombasa port and about 5 per cent from Dar es Salaam. In the 1970s, freight volumes stood at about 60 per cent of port cargo. This has mostly been attributed to negligible advances of the railway line since construction,” Mr Sharma says.
A lack of an efficient railway system has increased transit costs estimated to be at 40 per cent of the total shipping cost.
To achieve a world class system driven by technology where East Africa rail capacity and revenue are comparable to developed markets; I believe that the following areas need to be addressed in order to sustainably operationalise the region’s rail network.