President Uhuru Kenyatta's legacy project, the Standard Gauge Railway is being powered by an army of 5,000 Chinese nationals. Among this massive workforce are civil and structural engineers, accountants, dieticians, cooks, self-taught locomotive operators as well as welders and carpenters. Their upkeep is part of the Sh1billion a month wage bill footed by the Kenyan taxpayer.
A month -long investigation by The Sunday Standard has also shown that as late as last month, another batch of 168 were looking for work permits to be allowed to join their colleagues in operating the Nairobi-Mombasa railway.
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The nerve center of this Chinese operation is in Nairobi’s Lavington area, where the core team of executives who call the shots are located, and are under a 24hour guard by a small brigade of uniformed and uniformed armed police officers.
The executives live at the luxurious White Heights Apartments, located behind Valley Arcade in Nairobi’s Lavington estate, where they enjoy exclusivity that their previous station at Jacaranda Gardens along Nairobi's Kamiti Road, had denied them.
Executives are driven out in top of the range tinted vehicles. There are also several bullet proof vehicles among them a black armoured Mercedes van.
Our sources told us that a Range Rover is reserved for the boss. Toyota V8’s are reserved for deputy general managers and their assistants and there are the Volkswagen Touareg vehicles for the heads of departments. The rest move around in Volvos. Kenyans use pick-ups or Nissan vans.
At their Lavington offices, the executives are running a near self-sustaining operation that is in very little need of local staff or locally produced goods having shipped in almost anyone and anything they need to run their growing empire.
A list of the expatriates working on various sections of the project, seen by this paper, shows that there are 4954 Chinese nationals on SGR's payroll.
At the top of the food chain is the project manager, the general manager and at least two deputy general managers.
Below them are more than 1,100 civil engineers, about 200 bridge engineers, 150 Railway engineers, over 120 translators, about 100 accountants, at least 90 architectural engineers, over 85 electrical and mechanical engineers, more than 80 electricians, about 50 Chinese cooks, over 30 administration officers and 15 dietitians.
There are also hundreds of highway engineers, welders, surveyors and a number of archivists, carpenters, assistant engineers as well as asphalt plant experts and operators on the payroll.
Other professionals include automation engineers, bench workers, decoration engineers as well as business administrators.
To complete the operation are doctors including doctors of traditional medicine, computer engineers, secretaries, chefs, chemical engineers, cost engineers, crane conductors, welders and interpreters.
Majority of the 4,954 Chinese nationals got their work permits renewed from 2016 and before the launch of the operations last year, giving them two years to remain in the country after the end of their work. Those who did not land on jobs in the second phase have looked for other odd jobs and that are below their expertise.
Death on the train
Despite the huge staff deployment, the Chinese operator is yet to put in place a sufficient strategy to deal with medical emergencies that have caused death on the train. Last week, a diabetic passenger died on board the Madaraka Express.
Insiders said besides the official numbers that have applied for work permits, there are hundreds of others behind the walls working using tourist visas who fly back home every six months for a short break, before jetting back in to pick up where they left.
There are others with questionable academic papers, some that are rejected, but only to be re-submitted with new papers.
“We have people whose job is to just buy internet for the office. There are also secretaries and individuals whose job is just to stamp passports, manage cars or act as store keepers," an insider said.
The fact that the project enjoys top government support has also scared immigration officers from doing their jobs given that they fear being highlighted as those frustrating the project in what has seen the Chinese staff dubbed ‘untouchables’ among immigration officials.
Some of the engineers have certificates showing that they studied engineering courses at home through a self-study programme raising questions of the quality of skills imported in the country.
For instance one of the certificates of a Mr Duan Meiwu, shows that he undertook a ‘self-taught undergraduate course majoring in traffic engineering.’
“He was granted graduation after meeting all the course requirements,” the graduation certificate of the self-taught engineer reads in part.
The Chinese workforce is also exempted from the Sh400,000 work permit fee required for expatriates. This means the government has foregone revenue amounting to almost Sh2billion to facilitate the entry of Chinese staff working on the railway.
To get this exemption, the national treasury wrote a letter to the director of immigration services seeking the exemption certificates.
“The government has approved the following 168 Chinese experts to work in the country with China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the contractor engaged by the GoK to operate and maintain the Mombasa – Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) for a period of two years,” one such letter reads in part.
“This is within the terms of agreement between the Government of Kenya and China,” the letter dated May 28, 2018, adds. Such requests are usually copied to the ministries of interior, transport as well as the CRBC project managers and Kenya Railways.
However, the question of just how many numbers Chinese are working in the country has remained one of the toughest for Government officials to answer, even for those who are directly involved in the approvals. Some officials would rather evade it all together, pass it to the next officer above them or simply lack specifics required to give an official response.
Immigration Principal Secretary, General Gordon Kihalangwa, who was previously the Director of Immigrations, said the Government is currently doing a verification exercise to establish the actual numbers and told us that it would be premature to preempt the findings of that process.
“It is very difficult to tell now until we finish the verification exercise,” Gen Kihalangwa said when asked about the total number of Chinese working on all the projects in the country. He would also not give an approximate number.
When we narrowed down the question to just the numbers working on the SGR, he said these too will be established after the audit.
We further asked him if he was aware that some of the work permits being issued by his department were for some jobs that can easily be done by Kenyans.
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“You are the one who is telling me about the cooks, that bit I would not know. The verification exercise will enable us to know how many people are working with permits, what are their categories, then what are these works they are doing,” Gen Kihalangwa said adding that the verification exercise will end on the 22nd of this month.
On his part, Kenya Railways boss Atanas Maina who did not have the total number of Chinese working in the SGR said there was initially an agreement that would have ensured the ratio of Chinese and Kenyans is 1:3.
But this was not fully adhered to on the first phase of the project after the government chose to fast track the construction to be ahead of schedule. This hurry handed the Chinese contractor a near free hand in importing into the country the skills that were allegedly not easily available.
Maina says the contract requires the operator to ensure that by the fifth year in operation, the proportion of foreign experts agreed upon at the beginning of the contract declines to 10 per cent.
“Expatriate staff cost 2.5 times more than local staff in line with international practice. Negotiated staff numbers so far are 611 expats and 1300 locals,” he said.
After completion of the first phase of the project, some of the Chinese were required to go back home while others were absorbed into the second phase to Naivasha.
On the operations side, Maina said the SGR has so far employed 870 Chinese staff and 1624 Kenya staff working for the Operator.
“Of these, 110 are Chinese Locomotive Drivers while we have 94 assistants already being trained and 120 who have been interviewed and enlisted for training starting next week after which they will become assistant Drivers and eventually graduate to full Drivers. The increase in numbers has been necessitated by our plan to do more trains than initially anticipated,” Maina said.
Having successfully shipped in thousands of men for the phase one project, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), which is the primary firm behind the SGR, passed the button to its mother company, China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), which is now in charge of the Nairobi Naivasha railway.
At the top of the operation is Mr Li Qiang, the CRBC-Kenya Office General Manager who has been behind the scenes since 2012, and has overseen the project rise from the conception stage to the contract signing and now to its operation.
Mr Li, is the most experienced of the Chinese team in dealing with Kenyan government and knows just what buttons to press and which doors to knock to get things done. He has perfected the art of switching from the command system where he runs the firm with an iron fist to a more diplomatic stance whenever in public or meeting government officials.
CRBC Vice president An Aijun, an engineer, is the projects general manager. He is strictly Chinese speaking and does very little effort at speaking English while on duty. He is deputised by three representatives of administration, engineering and procurement.
The engineering and procurement departments are more technical while the day to day running falls under the administration department which is headed by Qi Xiaobo assisted by Mr Yang Peng, a ruthless manager described by staff as the main man safeguarding Chinese interests.
His word across sectional heads must be followed this includes the operations unit of the SGR and he micromanages everyone including the workers union (Kenya Building Construction, Timber Furniture and Allied Industrial Employees Union), labour inspectors from the ministry, and other persons from key areas such as Kenya Railway Corporation and mostly through their Railway training institute (RTI).