Frequent breakdown of ferries at the Likoni Channel in raising fears of a major disaster in the making as hundreds of thousands of people put their lives at risk with each crossing.
In the past six months, the fleet of dilapidated ferries that link Mombasa Island to the southern mainland of Likoni has broken down with alarming frequency. A ferry will stall in the middle of the Kilindini Channel and passengers get stranded for hours before a rescue vessel is sent.
What makes the situation dangerous is that the ferries are often overloaded with people and vehicles and panic could easily tilt a ferry leading to its sinking.
This is exactly what happened on 27th April 1994, when the Mtongwe ferry capsized not far from Likoni and killed 272 of the 400 people on board. Fearful passengers had rushed to one side of the ferry leading to the disaster. Afterwards, it was reported that the legal capacity of the vessel was 300.
The Mombasa economy is in danger of slowing down due to the constant breakdowns. When ferries stall, motorists and travellers on both the island and mainland sides must wait several hours for whatever fault to be rectified. With Likoni being the only link between Mombasa Airport and the tourist hotels of Tiwi and Diani, hoteliers say that they are incurring heavy losses as visitors opt for more accessible locations such as the North coast.
Just last week, a tourist hotel at Tiwi in the South Coast was burnt to ashes because fire fighting engines were delayed at the ferry crossing.
Regional traffic has been adversely hampered by problems with the ferry since the Likoni route is a major link between Mombasa Island and the Tanzanian towns of Tanga, Lunga Lunga and Dar es Salaam.
On its part, the Kenya Ferry Services says it has ordered two new vessels due for delivery in June this year. Mombasa residents are however used to these kind of promises, and are taking the announcement with a pinch of salt. They will only believe it when the ferries finally appear on the horizon east of Mombasa.
The Likoni Channel suffers strong currents from the Indian Ocean. It is feared that a stalled ferry could be carried by powerful waves and dashed onto the rocks with disastrous consequences. Passengers are expressing fear that the aging ferries will one day collide with one of the many cargo ships entering or leaving Kilindini Harbour. Should such an accident involve an oil tanker, there could be a huge explosion at worst or a massive oil spill at the least.
There is currently no viable road transport alternative between Mombasa and the southern mainland. The land route through Kinango is reportedly so bad that motorists would rather wait several hours for the ferry to resume service.
In the past, the Kenyan government has promised to construct a road linking Mombasa’s Moi International Airport with hotels in Likoni, Tiwi, Diani and Shimba Hills but nothing has happened so far. The proposed road will totally be on the mainland, unlike the current situation where travelers from the airport first cross to Mombasa Island via Makupa Causeway then proceed to the Likoni Ferry to reach South Coast hotels. Since the 1980s, the government has also proposed building either a bridge or an undersea tunnel across Likoni but nothing has been done.
This spate of broken promises is the reason why coast people feel that Kenya’s powerful central government is neglecting them. Federalism, or Majimbo, is very popular because Coast people believe they will direct infrastructure development accordingly.
To rub salt water to injury, the Kenyan leadership has announced a 231 billion Kenya Shillings (US$3 billion) plan to build a new port at Lamu, a remote archipelago located close to the border with Somalia. Lamu lacks roads, a railway and an electricity grid. Incidentally, political leaders from Lamu say they were never consulted on the plans.
From the days when the East African coast was ruled by Arab sultans, Lamu and Mombasa have been rivals. The decision by President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga to relocate the port to Lamu has not gone down well in Mombasa.
If the plans become reality, Mombasa port will lose business as the main entry point for Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.