HornAffairs' staff

(Murithi Mutiga)

Within three years, Ethiopia will have one of the most advanced rail networks in Africa. Work on a twin-track line began on January 31, 2012. The government wants it completed and running on January 1, 2015.

To achieve that aim, 3,000 Ethiopian workers under the management of contractor––China Railway Engineering Corporation––are working day and night.

In addition to the light rail transit system, Ethiopia plans to build a 5,000-kilometre network connecting major towns with the capital Addis Ababa and to the port in neighbouring Djibouti. Kenya has similar ambitions.

Yet in Nairobi, plans are still at the boardroom stage. The result, as a recent edition of The Africa Report notes, is that Ethiopia and Djibouti will be better positioned than Kenya to offer South Sudan an alternative route to the sea.

“Ethiopia’s projects are far more advanced – they benefit from the wholesale support of the government – while Kenya’s are lagging behind. The railway to link South Sudan to the port at Lamu lacks investment, and the development of the new standard gauge line is bogged down in debates about how the contract was awarded,” the magazine says.

The problem with the politics of tenders in Kenya is it is impossible to tell when the controversy is really about corruption and when it is about hidden financial agendas.

As we heard from Otieno Kajwang’ in the run-up to the last Genereal Election (on the election kits procurement deadlock), no tender for anything worth over Sh1 billion will end without acrimony in Kenya.

Bidders will appeal, rivals will win friends among MPs, the media will take sides, and the whole thing will end up in the courts or collapse altogether.

Also, while we want to appear to have strong checks and balances, the reality is that our MPs sometimes engage in what Nicholas Gumbo recently called “oversight banditry” and use their powers for rent-seeking activities.

Meanwhile, as we engage in these complex dances, other economies in the region power on.

NOTHING MIRACULOUS

Although the success of nations in the Far East in transforming their economies is often called an “Asian economic miracle”, there was nothing miraculous about it.

They simply did the basics: invested massively in infrastructure development – including ports connected to efficient railways and expressways, boosted training in science and technology and made sure industries which could employ thousands and boost average income had regular access to electricity.

Ethiopia is doing all that. Last week’s edition of The EastAfrican noted that the country requires that 70 per cent of graduates study science and engineering, and its commitment to infrastructure development, coupled with tax holidays for investors, means that it is fast becoming an attractive destination for industry.

It is good that Kenya is a democracy and is not run in the authoritarian fashion of more controlled nations in the region. But this democracy should not be obsessed with petty issues like who should fly which flags and must not hinder development.

If I were President Kenyatta, I would make the standard gauge railway line and the Tana River irrigation scheme the only two projects of a long-term nature on my desk and throw everything at them. Without evidence that the tender is inflated, I would launch into construction straight away and demand that the contractors deliver on time. If, on the other hand, there is evidence of tender inflation, then cancel it and secure an alternative deal that should also start on schedule, at least by July.

Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysia was not run in the most transparent of ways. Tenders were often given to figures close to the ruling party. Despite that, today Malaysia’s infrastructure standards are matched only by China, Japan and Singapore in that region.

President Kenyatta has a chance to fight corruption because he is reputedly not needy himself. But while we all abhor corruption, simply fighting graft is not a meaningful policy in itself.

A much better legacy would be the large-scale expansion of infrastructure to attract investors who would, in turn, stimulate employment.

The railway line has the potential to be a game changer for the Kenyan economy. It should not be allowed to turn into a political football.

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*Originally  published on Daily Nation, on March 29, 2014, titled “Ethiopia’s mega rail projects are on track while Kenya looks on”.