Deputy President William Ruto and ODM leader Raila Odinga, and their allies at the Coast have heightened political rhetoric about the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) as the August 9 election campaigns heat up.
Transport analysts say it was becoming tough for the two campaigns and their supporters to balance between political rhetoric and the economic reality of the SGR, which is one of the State’s Vision 2030 flagship projects.
Ruto and Raila, and most of their allies, now appear to have swapped the positions they held in the run up to the 2017 election about the project as they seek to woo the over 1.8 million voters at the Coast.
On May 10, the DP signed a political pact with Kilifi Governor Amason Kingi-led Pamoja African Alliance (PAA) promising to return the port services to Mombasa from Nairobi and Naivasha in the first 100 days.
In the pact, the DP and his allies who were ardent supporters of the SGR freight services have promised to review relevant legal and administrative issues to revive the logistics sector in Mombasa.
During his campaigns, Ruto claims that the project was not implemented as envisioned in the first term of the Jubilee regime. He has sensationally claimed that the SGR has been hijacked by powerful brokers.
“On matters to do with the port it was never our intention to build the SGR so that the Coast can be impoverished. The converse was the intention,” he said a fortnight ago during the Mombasa Economic Forum.
Raila and his allies like Mombasa Governor Hassan Joho, who fiercely opposed the project in 2017, have toned down criticism and backed the creation of symbiotic multimodal transport system that include the SGR.
“Discard the diseases of good old days. Things will not remain the same. We must look for new opportunities,” Raila recently told Coast MPs who complained about the effects of the SGR.
Joho and the ODM MPs at the Coast claim a leap of pragmatism, but critics say they cannot criticise the SGR freight services due to the current political bromance between Raila and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“Those who called us political dwarfs when we raised these issues are now pretending to be fighting for the people of Mombasa,” said Joho who has in recent days said he does not need to shout at the government because he has a chance to consult with State officials.
Unlike Ruto, who has promised to reverse the port services from Nairobi and Naivasha to Mombasa, Raila has said he will fast tract the Dongo Kundu SEZ to create jobs for those sacked due to the SGR.
Raila has selected Mombasa businessman Suleiman Shahbal, who stepped down for Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir in the race to succeed Joho, to lead the SEZ projects if he is elected president.
Nassir and other MPs, although they have also toned down attacks on SGR, they have turned their guns on Ruto and his allies accusing them of double speak.
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In all his campaigns, Joho has played audio clips of Ruto, who in the run up to the 2017 election laughed off Coast leaders’ claim that Jubilee regime was keen to transfer port services to Nairobi.
In one clip, Ruto is overheard saying “little education is better than those who have bought examination papers. Is it possible for us to carry the ocean on our back from Mombasa to Nairobi?”
The DP was at the time reacting to weekly demonstrations in Mombasa’s city centre over the move.
Data from the Kenya Railway Corporation show that since 2018, cargo volume railed through the SGR has continued to increase. In 2021 SGR moved 5,419,508 tons compared to 4,418,444 tons in 2020.
Maritime transport experts say it would be impractical to reverse all the port services from Nairobi and Naivasha to Mombasa, saying an efficient rail system was key to the operation of the port.
In a recent interview, Shippers Council of East Africa Chief Executive Officer Mr Gilbert Langat said the SGR had increased efficiency at the port and the safety of cargo but it was still facing some challenges.
Mr Langat said he agrees with the proposal to fast track the construction of the SEZ in Mombasa saying “this should have happened as soon as yesterday”.
“SEZ will be a game changer in the country’s quest to create value addition of manufactured goods for export. This will address the trade imbalance and create thousands of new jobs,” Langat said.
Maritime analyst Andrew Mwangura said the promise that all port services will be returned to Mombasa is unrealistic, adding that the rail and road transport are supposed to complement each other like in other ports.
“We must attract foreign firms to do value addition in Mombasa. Fast track Mwangala SEZ’s shopping centre and Miritini industrial park to create jobs. We must not continue to cry over spilt milk,” said Mwangura.
He said that there was also need to push for the establishment of regional shipping cabotage system along the East and Southern African seaports to protect local shipping companies from global giants.
“These small shipping companies can create jobs for thousands of seafarers if they are nurtured to do transshipment trade between the regional ports,” he said.
Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KNCCI) Mombasa chairman, Mustafa Ramadhan agrees that the solution to job losses was the construction of the SEZ.