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Fate of Mombasa Port, SGR generates heated talk on campaign trail

By Patrick Beja - Jun 18th 2022
Kenya Railways Officials offload Cargo from The SGR Train to the Meter Gauge Railway Cargo train at the Naivasha Inland Container Depot In Mai Mahiu, Nakuru County on January 10, 2021, for onward transportation to Malaba. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The heated debate on the transfer of port operations from Mombasa to Nairobi and Naivasha after the introduction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) freight service about five years ago has returned to haunt Coast politicians as they scramble for the 1.8 million voters to support their presidential candidates in the two major coalitions.

Politicians and business people alike have taken the debate a notch high reminiscent of the 2017 electioneering period when the SGR freight service was introduced.

Although Mombasa Port has always been a hot subject during elections for many years, Deputy President William Ruto reignited the latest debate after signing a deal with Pamoja African Alliance (PAA) leader and Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi promising to return port operations if he wins the August 9 presidential contest.

“I will revert the port operations back to Mombasa by August 10 if I am elected,” Ruto said during his recent campaign tour in the Coast region.

But Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho has dismissed the statement as hollow, claiming Ruto advocated for the transfer of the port operations and cannot rescind the move.

Joho played recorded audio clips of Ruto allegedly supporting the transfer of port operations in 2017 during Azimio la Umoja One Kenya coalition campaign rallies across the Coast region to counter the DP’s campaign strategy.

“Ruto cannot revert port operations back to Mombasa. He was the chief advocate of the transfer and he is simply engaging in double-speak,” Joho claimed at a rally in Mtwapa, Kilifi County.

In a September 2019 report on the effects of the transfer of port operations from Mombasa to Nairobi, the University of Nairobi’s School of Business indicated that Mombasa county had already lost Sh17.4 billion and 2,987 jobs equivalent to 8.4  of its annual earnings since the implementation of government policies requiring mandatory transfer of cargo through SGR to Nairobi in 2017. 

“…in the event the proposal to convey all upcountry cargo through SGR, then the implications to the Port City of Mombasa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employment sustainability will be serious,” it says, adding that the implementation of the SGR freight service did not consider all the appropriate socioeconomic, cultural and political context.

The study done over a period of one year indicated that Mombasa’s economy would shrink by 16.1 per cent with 8,111 jobs lost if all cargo is evacuated by the SGR from the port.

It recommends that Mombasa County be made part of the port community “as a key interested party” and the county government to lobby the national government for “policy/legislative alignment that will allow market forces to operate freely to create a sustainable environment for other sector stakeholders.”

But in a marked departure from past agitation, the report also demonstrates that in spite of these negative impacts, Mombasa’s economy can still thrive in perfect co-existence with SGR if the government implements remedial policies including fast-tracking of the Dongo Kundu Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and other potential industrial parks to create new employment opportunities for Mombasa.

Earlier this month, Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) signed an agreement with the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) for a Sh32 billion grant to develop the Dongo Kundu SEZ next to the port aimed at creating jobs and spurring economic activities.

Mombasa Port has always occupied the minds and souls of politicians as the source of votes, jobs and businesses in the Coast region.

Yesterday, Mvita MP and Mombasa ODM governor candidate Abdulswamad Nassir told Ruto’s United Democratic Alliance (UDA) camp to stop politicising Mombasa port, claiming they failed to stop the transfer of port services to Nairobi and Naivasha.

Nassir, who was accompanied by Jomvu MP Badi Twalib, Likoni MP Mishi Mboko and Kaloleni MP Paul Katana, said Dr Ruto was hoodwinking Coast residents over his pledge to return the port logistics to Mombasa.

According to Nassir, when he took a motion to the National Assembly to oppose a plan to privatise port services, Ruto’s allies including then Majority Leader Aden Duale and Ruto’s running mate Rigathi Gachagua opposed it.

“It seems that our colleagues forget very fast. When we were talking about the effects of SGR in Parliament in June 2019, they opposed the motion. Among those who opposed were Duale and Gachagua,” said Nassir.

“We have fought for the SGR and port issues but the other camp has nothing to tell us,” added Twalib.

He said that before the handshake between President Uhuru Kenyatta and ODM leader Raila Odinga in March 2018, Joho was mistreated by government because of his stance on transfer of port operations to Nairobi and Naivasha.

“When we were fighting for the port, none of them came to help out. Joho was profiled, blocked and frustrated because of the fight to retain port operations here,” Twalib argued.

He was referring to an incident in March 2017 where Joho was dramatically blocked by police at the Nyali bridge to prevent him from joining President Uhuru who was relaunching the Mtongwe ferry services. 

In May 2017, Joho was again blocked from attending the flagging off of the SGR passenger train at Miritini. His spokesman then, Richard Chacha, said the governor wanted to attend the function so that he could question why its cost was inflated by more than Sh100 billion. Joho had earlier threatened to stop the launch of the train service for what he called an “exaggeration of the project’s budget”.

The SGR and port operations have been the focal point of all the Mombasa governor candidates with parties differing on the strategies to secure back the port operations.

Last week, UDA governor candidate Mr Hassan Omar said if Ruto wins the August 9 polls, he will revert the port services within the first 100 days. 

Omar argued that Ruto will also renegotiate the loan terms with the Chinese government and revoke the SGR tenders awarded to a few people in the national and county government.

Yesterday, Dock Workers Union (DWU) general secretary Mr Simon Sang dismissed the call to revert port operations to Mombasa as political rhetoric, saying the matter should be handled professionally.

Sang said those pushing for the return of port operations to the coastal city were engaging in populist politics and should not be taken seriously.

“This matter should not be handled politically. It should be handled professionally if we are to benefit. SGR needs to compete with road transport. People need to be given incentives to use SGR. The government should have implemented the Dongo Kundu SEZ and create jobs in Coast before going to Naivasha,” said Sang.

But Kenya International Freight and Warehousing Association (Kifwa) national chairman Mr Roy Mwanthi backed the push, saying many businesses have registered a decline and thousands of people lost jobs.

He protested a government directive issued two weeks ago that saw South Sudan cargo moved by SGR from Mombasa to a Container Freight Station (CFS) in Nairobi that is operated by a private company.

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