Why regional interests risk ruining pet project

From left: Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya Meles Alemu, South Sudan Transport PS Martin Hassan, AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development in Africa Raila Odinga and Transport CS James Macharia displays the Memorandum of Understanding for the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) on January 14, 2020. [File, Standard]

Kenya’s interests in the region are getting severely challenged. Some of the threats are apparent and others are deceptively subtle. Peculiar external and internal events (appearing unrelated) are undermining Kenya’s ambition for regional prowess. Among them is the creation of the Horn of Africa Cooperation that involves Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia.

The master mover seems to be Ethiopia, with a burning desire to have direct access to the Red Sea through Eritrea, and most important access to the Indian Ocean through Somalia.

Since the Red Sea is increasingly volatile, the Indian Ocean is the preferred route to the creation of Ethiopian maritime exploits. And although Ethiopia is landlocked, it has a “navy” and desires to be the region’s economic hub.

Global image

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The danger is that these new developments risk eroding Kenya’s global image as stable, economically thriving, and reliable regional power. They also create doubts among Kenyan citizens as to their state’s ability to look after their interests.

The constant bickering in the political class as to which ally is ditching which friend, who wants whose job, stealing what, and who gets the shaft simply reinforces the feeling that Kenya is losing it. That feeling is itself a threat, feeding into such external challenges as the “developments” at the Horn of Africa, and necessitates serious national rethinking.

The lukewarm reception of the Standard Gauge Railway by Uganda; and Tanzania and (Uganda) the Turkana oil pipeline is also a significant indicator of the growing jostling for Big Brother status threatening Kenya’s dominance in the region. Today we focus on the multi-billion shilling Lamu Port South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) project.

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Should Ethiopia and Somalia gang up to give Addis Ababa access to the Indian Ocean through one of the Somalia ports, Ethiopia’s interest in the LAPSSET programme is likely to decline and thereby undermine Lamu’s geo-strategic value to countries all the way to the troubled Cameroon. While these other countries wait to see whether LAPSSET will actually come into being, Kenya has to make it work. Its ability, however, is increasingly in question.

Kenya’s weakness

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Part of the trouble is that Kenya has multiple weaknesses that lead to failure to deliver on the expected. Those entrusted with the LAPSSET probably do not believe in the large project, lack the necessary drive, and display inability to coordinate functions. While Kenya has made progress on the port aspect, for instance, it lags behind when it comes to connecting infrastructure such as highways, railroads and pipelines.

The port, therefore, cannot be put into operation, which probably explains the regular postponement of its official opening. Probably, Kenya’s inability to operationalise the Lamu port encouraged Ethiopia to look for an alternative route to the Indian Ocean.

From the Somalia perspective, providing the alternative route to the Indian Ocean for Ethiopia would erode Lamu’s commercial relevance while boosting the fortunes of ports in Somalia. It might even entice Ethiopia to endorse Somalia’s claims to Kenyan waters or support Djibouti’s challenge to Kenya’s UN Security Council bid.

Those calling the shots in Somalia and Djibouti, however, are outside the two countries. If Ethiopia pulls out of the LAPSSET, it is possible that even South Sudan and others might consider doing the same. This would imply regional isolation of Kenya, which started much earlier than 2020.

The threat to the LAPSSET is not just from Ethiopia shifting potential routes to the Indian Ocean, it is also from forces that probably never wanted the LAPSSET to work in the first place. These include global shipping interests that thought of LAPSSET as threat to their commerce around South African ports. It is also part of big geopolitical power play in which cutting China’s Belt and Road Initiative by weakening the Lamu link would boost China’s rivals.

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China finds itself in a bind. It operates in every country and would naturally find it difficult to take sides. It probably will be involved in constructing the alternative Ethiopian route to the Indian Ocean through Somalia; and it is deeply involved in Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s major projects.     

Additionally, the repeated attacks on institutions make Kenya appear incapable of protecting its people and assets. The effect is to discourage local, regional and international investments.

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