• The unity of Coast MPs against the Kenya Merchant Shipping (Amendment) Bill, 2019 shows that together in the National Assembly, they can make a huge difference.
• The amended law forbids other shipping lines from operating the terminal and instead gives priority to the Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL) and the foreign, private-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).
It is rare to praise the performances of Coast MPs given the divisive nature of politics and party affiliations in the region.
However, recent developments have shown that together in the National Assembly, they can make a huge difference: Indeed, they would have something to crow about.
This is in reference to the controversial debate in the National Assembly regarding the Kenya Merchant Shipping (Amendment) Bill, 2019, in which the MPs stood together to ensure the interests of the coastal communities were secured at the Port of Mombasa in general at the contested Container Two Terminal in particular. The bone of contention is placing the running and management of this facility in private hands — terminal harbours Berths 23 and 24. The government eventually won in its favour after the President vetoed the proposal by Coast MPs that sought Berths 23 and 24 be run and managed by the Government.
The amended law forbids other shipping lines from operating the terminal and instead gives priority to the Kenya National Shipping Line (KNSL) and the foreign, private-owned Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC).
The Coast MPs could not marshal the two-thirds majority to overturn the Presidential veto. Nevertheless, their determination to have the amendment rejected was praiseworthy. In any case, African parliaments do not, as an act of faith, veto presidential decisions, let alone a veto. Kenya is no exception. However, the effect of these actions on the part of the Coast MPs was the symbolic message that politically, the Coast shall never be the same in that it will not be business as usual in thus perceived swing region. The MPs abandoned party affiliations for the collective good of coastal communities. It was a major political score.
This determination to ensure coastal interests were protected is reminiscent of the divisive independence debate over majimboism in the 1960s. Despite massive opposition setbacks, Coast leaders stood together to push the majimbo agenda. Without the determination, patience and persistence of local leaders such as the late Ronald Ngala, devolution, the mild form of majimbo, would have been an illusion. They kept pushing the majimbo agenda where others had relented.
The debate about the ownership and operations of the Mombasa Port is a good example of what and how Coast leaders should join hands to push for coastal interests, even if they lost. After all, the winners win, the losers lose.
For decades, the Port of Mombasa has served as the breadbasket and income earner of many a people across the Coast region and beyond, even though recent trends point to progressively dwindling employment opportunities for the locals, especially in high-status jobs. This, thus, raised concerns over the handing over to private hands of the running and management of Container Two.
Many other individuals and entities have supported the MPs. They include the leaders of the Dock Workers Union and civil society groups such as the Taireni Association of the Mijikenda, Muhuri and Muslims for Human Rights.
Like the MPs, their argument is that as a national resource, the government should run and manage the Port, in this case, the renovated Berths 23 and 24. The Taireni Association, in particular, a civic group representing the interests of the more populous Mijikenda people, has been the most vocal in the KNSL-MSC partnership, which it perceives as an attempt to “privatize” Container Two and its operations. This is also the view shared by the Dock Workers Union leadership, which argues that privatisation would amount to transferring public assets to private institutions.
But if the MPs and local civic groups have been vocal over the management of Container Two, other Coast elected leaders have remained indifferent. Conspicuously missing are the voices of governors, senators and MCAs. Even the pro-people governors Hassan Joho and Amason Kingi have remained silent. The champions of coastal interests before the handshake are now spectators in the game of change.
The MCAs behaved badly. As the closest elected representatives of the people, the significance of their concerns could not be gainsaid: Their voices would have made a difference in support the MPs. Yet, like the other leaders at the county level, they gagged themselves.
The government’s position is that the KNSL-MSC partnership will revive the debt-ridden national shipping line and create jobs for the youths. It is estimated that the refurbished and renamed Bandari College should train some 1,500 youths in marine operations annually and employ some 3,000 annually as seafarers.
In this optimistic view of job creation, the government has the support of a section of Coast professionals and marine experts, the Sea Farers Association and the Transport Parliamentary Committee.
But there are other unresolved issues. One of these issues is the non-disclosure of the particulars of the Tripartite Agreement between the Kenya Ports Authority, the KNSL and the MSC. The other is the ownership of 14 per cent shares once owned by two private entities but later transferred to the MSC. KNSL thus owns 53 per cent and the MSC 47 per cent.
The question, though, is who owns the 14 per cent shares that were transferred to the MSC?
Even some foreign envoys have been drawn into the contested amended law. Unlike the other critics, though, the envoys’ concern is not about “privatization” but the monopoly accorded to the KNSL and MSC to manage Container Two, without competitive bidding.
Ambassadors Mette Knudsen of Denmark, Aline Kuster-Menager of France, Yoshihiro Katayama of Japan and outgoing British High Commissioner Nic Hailey called for open competitive bidding.
They questioned the government’s sudden change of mind in cancelling the international tender it had earlier advertised. The also faulted the amended Merchant Shipping Act, which forbids other shipping lines from operating the terminal and instead of giving priority to KNSL and the MSC. Japan, in particular, should be the most troubled because it contributed most of the finances for the renovated Container.
Politically, though, Coast MPs are the winners in this game of change. It is the kind of political unity of purpose that should be sustained if the Coast region is to have any impact in the 2022 general elections and beyond.