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January 20, 2019

What genius cooked up Lamu port?

Lamu port
Lamu port

You may have heard it said that “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” Well, it is time to look at one of our mega projects, which will probably very soon be revealed to be an orphan.

I refer here to the Lamu Port project, and its associated Lamu coal power project.

But before getting into that, let me point out that one of the great mysteries of any Kenyan government is this: How can we know which mega projects any serving President cooked up all by himself? And which projects he was persuaded — possibly against his better judgement — to support?

This is not a trivial consideration. For such large state projects reflect the priorities of whoever first came up with them.

In general, a Kenyan President has only two priorities: First, reelection, and second, leaving a legacy, something which future generations will remember him by.

So broadly speaking, the priorities of any of our Presidents should closely align with the public interest. He cannot be reelected if the voters do not feel that he is doing a good job. And he certainly will not be fondly remembered if he does not create public benefits in some conspicuous manner.

But this does not apply to the politicians and technocrats who surround any —President. Their priorities are often very different, and usually revolve around place-seeking and money-making.

I am in general inclined to assume that if a mega project proves to be an epic disaster, then it was not really initiated by the President, but by someone close to him who was in pursuit of some hidden agenda.

This is the perspective I would bring to the Lamu port project:

If you are reading this online, just take a moment and google a map of Ethiopia and South Sudan, and ask yourself: Is a new port in Lamu really the best way to get oil out of South Sudan, or to transport imports and exports that the Ethiopian economy needs or produces?

Is it really any secret that Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, and Kenya’s Northeastern province, are vast lawless zones, where Somalia-based militias can appear at any moment — and as often as they wish — to destroy whatever infrastructure you may build there?

And yet we are supposed to believe that this is a viable project. That it will somehow shower Northeastern Kenya with a windfall of prosperity. That there will supposedly be new roads, railways, oil pipelines and — most incredible of all — a ‘multibillion-shilling resort city’ in Isiolo, provided with an ‘international airport’ and all kinds of other public infrastructure, all ending up in a glorious new port at Lamu.

So here is my question: What genius cooked up this Lamu port project? Will we ever know?

Now, back to the presidency, you might imagine that history will render a very harsh judgement on Uhuru Kenyatta, given that he will have presided over three mega projects that turned out to be epic failures: the primary schools’ laptops project, the standard gauge railway of which we daily learn more and more horrors; and now here comes the doomed-in-advance Lamu port project.

Yet, I personally believe that Uhuru will be remembered as a great benefactor. Let me tell you why: Up to a decade ago I believed, like most Kenyans, that what we most value here is the creation of a prosperous nation. But the Kibaki presidency shattered this myth for me. In Mwai Kibaki we had a President who did more than any other single Kenyan — first as Finance minister in the 1960s and ‘70s, and then as President from 2002 to 2013 — to bring prosperity to Kenya. Yet all that he is now remembered for is the 2007 post-election violence, which drove the country to the brink of civil war.

Our recent history has revealed that what we really need is a —President who prevents us from tearing our country into pieces.

And by his remarkable act of statesmanship in reaching out to his arch-rival, the former PM Raila Odinga, Uhuru is well on his way to ensuring that the days when we approached Kenyan presidential elections with fear and loathing may at last be at an end.

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