This was in a conversation that I had with a friend who works out in Embakasi, and lives in what journalists love to refer as the ‘leafy suburbs’ (they are not suburbs anymore, and the leafiness is also wearing off). Prior to having this conversation, he had battled his way through two-and a-half hours of traffic from work to get to my place (also ‘leafy suburbs’). Traffic to Nairobians is what the weather is to Britons, and so we sat there, companionably complaining about it.
I had managed to avoid the recent Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and India’s Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi visits, and had also skipped Obama’s last year. But unfortunately, you don’t even need to wait for foreign dignitaries to land yourself in a massive jam: the local ones going to the airport and back also cause a mess. I have been reliably informed (thank you, dad) that Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel manages to get herself to the airport and back without half her Cabinet to see her off and welcome her back again, so this appears, in principle, possible.
What to do? Can they go away? Well, such state visits are probably difficult, but it’s a bit different with massive international events like the upcoming UNCTAD conference. Those could, in fact, be sent away to, say, Rwanda. That country’s slightly authoritarian bent may have its issues, but at least itensures that the streets are not constantly clogged up (infrastructure and orderly traffic: authoritarian regimes are often good at this). That sounds a little unpatriotic, no?
Why would you want to send business away? Tourism in Kenya has not been doing so well overall, and business tourism, less vulnerable in recent years than leisure, had buffered some of the impact. But what if we calculate the amount of money in individual incomes, fuel, and car depreciation that is lost every time Mombasa Road and the rest of the city turn into kilometres and kilometres of a raging hell scape? Not an easy calculation to make, I’m sure, since there will be people with vastly different incomes involved.
But maybe someone could do an estimate and see what comes up? The cause for this methodological challenge is of course also the reason why there will always be more of a public backlash if you recommend all big conferences being sent off a neighbouring country: the hotel industry is far better organised than the non-existent Mombasa Road commuter lobby. They will have lobbyists and press releases and media access. As civilians, we sit in the non-leafy non-suburbs (if we can get there, that is) and elsewhere, exhausted.
The writer is an independent
country risk analyst