By gagging talk on rail tender, President Uhuru is simply fomenting credibility fears

By Anyang’ Nyong’o

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Agreed. Kenya needs a standard gauge high-speed railway that is diesel or electric powered from Mombasa to the border with Uganda, passing through Kisumu on the Lake Victoria to Busia, with another branch from Nakuru to Malaba. The NARC government had endorsed this project and it was to follow logically after the five year Economic Recovery Strategy for Wealth and Employment Creation (ERS), which covered the years 2003-2007. The project is, therefore, welcome now that the Jubilee government is implementing it.

There are, however, pertinent questions being raised by the media, MPs and civil society, which need to be adequately addressed by government if the project is to be implemented efficiently, transparently, accountably and cost-effectively. People raising these issues mean well for the project; they are not in any way being obstructionist. I still remember when Kenya Railways was concessioned to a South African firm called Sheltham at very unfavourable terms in 2005. Some of us raised serious objections within government and with the IMF. But we were brushed aside. It did not take long before our fears were confirmed when the concessioner failed to perform and our railways took a nosedive to the bottom of the economic pit from which it has never recovered. Let us, therefore, discuss this particular railways project this time with open minds so that Kenyans can get value for money.

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Our procurement laws require a project of this magnitude to be procured according to established law and laid-down procedure. It looks as if some laws and procedures were flouted and the Public Investments Committee (PIC) of the National Assembly is currently sitting to pronounce itself on this issue. It is important that the Jubilee government respects this very important process of due diligence before proceeding with the project.

Secondly, a project of this magnitude involves committing the Kenyan taxpayer to servicing a huge loan for a long period of time. To be fair to the taxpayer, government should provide evidence that the deal with the Chinese company was the best in the market. In other words the Kenyan taxpayer is getting value for money. Under normal circumstances, “value for money” can only be fairly assessed through competitive bidding — where the best offer wins the tender or benchmarking within the international market — where comparative costs can confirm that the choice made is the best even without competitive bidding. Such explanations do not seem to be forthcoming from the Jubilee government. The President prefers to tell us “to stop the noise” and let construction of the railway to continue even when we have serious questions about the very foundation on which this project is being built.

Thirdly, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere once warned us that it is important “to reason” rather than “to shout” when trying to win an argument. I am afraid that my very good friend President Uhuru Kenyatta excelled on the side of shouting rather than reasoning when he exhorted us “to stop making noise” on this issue. Consider the following. At the PIC hearings, senior officials did not seem to agree on the total cost of the railway. What is even more disturbing is that the Attorney General admitted his legal advice was neither sought nor given when the project was being procured. I do not think that Sh375 billion ( or whatever it is) is small money; it cannot be borrowed to be invested in a project where the interests of “the lender of the money and the contractor” is held to be sacrosanct over and above the taxpayer who is supposed to be the beneficiary.

Any time the taxpayer raises concerns about the deals the government is getting into on his or her behalf, the government is duty bound to pay attention.  Telling the taxpayer to “shut up or ship out” is a demonstration of arrogant and authoritarian behaviour of the most despicable type in an otherwise democratic polity.

Fourth, a string of middlemen and women have always littered the pathway of government in procuring services and goods, as well as sourcing credit and investments. Some of these people are professional and mean well. Others are worse than mean dukawallahs who can sell their country for a calabash of porridge provided they get their kickbacks even when Kenya gets nothing from such deals.

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Unfortunately, the railways project seems to have been infested with suspicions of dukawallah deals, which need to be thoroughly dispelled by government for wananchi to regain confidence in it. To gag discussion unfortunately raises more issues of credibility of the project than the government is prepared to admit. This is extremely unfortunate. I say so for the simple reason that this is a project that Kenyans would have wanted to have been implemented 50 years ago. Arriving 50 years too late, it becomes very painful to see it bungled by a few individuals who want to use the mystery of State power to make it be constructed at an unreasonable cost so as to cream off some billions of shillings into their own bank accounts.

It would be helpful for the government to come clean on the allegations that some shady middlemen have been “facilitating” the procurement at an inflated price to provide for their own kickbacks.

Finally, it must also be born in mind that there could be two types of disgruntled groups who have their own selfish reasons for opposing this project, and who therefore are trying to appear as “the defenders of the public good”.

The first group are those the President calls “those who lost in the bidding process.” It would be important, for the sake of transparency, to name these fellows. The second group are partners in Jubilee who have no real problem with the project except for the fact that they may have been excluded from the deal-making behind implementation of the project.

President Uhuru Kenyatta rail tender