Mombasa’s anxiety about Lamu plans

There’s growing worry in Mombasa about the plans to transform Lamu island into a mega-port serving Sudan and Ethiopia.

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Diversion of shipping and transport from Mombasa will mark the death of this 1,000 year old city whose ideallic location on East Africa’s coast has been its economic mainstay.

The construction of new roads and railways linking Lamu with the interior is viewed as an example of misplaced priorities considering the dilapidated state of the existing railway line after decades of neglect.

If the Lamu plan becomes a reality, highway towns such as Mariakani, Maungu, Voi, Mtito Andei, Makindu, Mlolongo and Athi River will wither as vehicles get diverted into the bushlands of northern Kenya. Nairobi will also suffer from the loss of business generated by transit traffic.

Meanwhile, transportation experts argue that its cheaper to rehabilitate the Mombasa port, roads and railway links than building new ones in remote areas. In any case, the experts argue, new infrastructure will still have to be maintained.

The economy of Mombasa is completely dependent on both the old and new harbours. The Old Port of Mombasa is the original Arab port. It still handles small vessels plying traditional routes to Zanzibar, Pemba, Somalia and the Middle East.

Kilindini harbour was developed by British colonial authorities in the 19th century to handle large steamships. This is the point where the first plates of the Kenya – Uganda Railway were laid in 1895. The railway was meant to link Mombasa with the Buganda Kingdom, which had allied itself with the British.

Since then, the Kenya – Uganda Railway contributed to the building of the modern Kenya and Uganda states. It opened the interior to trade and settlement. By the 1950s, Kenya had the largest number of European settlers outside Southern Africa. Growing trade resulted in the railway spreading out to Nyeri, Nyahururu, Rongai, Magadi, Eldoret and Butere.

A parallel road transport industry developed over the years, especially after the highway from Mombasa was tarmacked in the 1960s by the government of President Jomo Kenyatta. Today, road transport handles at least 90% of the cargo between Mombasa and the interior due to corruption and mismanagement of the railway.

Regardless of the means of transport in use, the people of Mombasa have turned the port into their honey well. More than 70% of employment in Mombasa is totally dependent on the port. This includes transport companies, clearing agents, travel agents, hotels, manufacturing industries, the service sector, electricity and water supply, the oil industry and local government tax collections.

The tourism industry, which makes up the remaining portion of Mombasa’s economy, is also dependent on the port of Mombasa. Numerous cruise liners and naval vessels that arrive at Kilindini bring into Mombasa thousands of visitors willing to spend wads of foreign currency. The extensive road and railway links from the interior also feeds into this traffic, resulting in the flow of tourists from the Maasai Mara, Mount Kilimanjaro and Nairobi.

There’s no doubt that the port of Kilindini is in urgent need of expansion. Congestion causes delays, which pushes up costs and makes imported goods more expensive. Sometimes, there is so much congestion at Kilindini that ships have to drop anchor in the high seas while waiting for space to become available. Congestion at Kilindini has been attributed to poor management.

Since the early 1980s, there have been plans to expand the port into neighbouring areas. Unfortunately, the plans have never been implemented even as the Kenya Ports Authority makes billions in profits. Instead, the government has tried to de-congest the port through administrative measures that have only worsened the problem and created channels of corruption.

The enactment of container freight stations (CFS) is shrouded in mystery as prominent personalities monopolize the lucrative business. The chances of an ordinary person being awarded a CFS contract is next to impossible.

As political influences paralyze the port, Kilindini harbour is rapidly being overtaken by trends in ship construction. Kilindini cannot handle modern-day giant ships. The sea bed at Kilindini was last dug up by the British in the early 1960s. Since then, the flow of garbage from Mombasa Island and Likoni are filling up the harbour, making it difficult for ships to navigate through the coral reef.

Mombasa only requires dedicated management to reclaim its lost glory as the leading port of East Africa. Mombasa residents are therefore surprised to hear that the government wants to spend colossal amounts of money in building another port hundreds of kilometres away.

If the Lamu project comes into fruition, there will be massive business losses in Mombasa. Employment opportunities will decline and the city’s economy will collapse. Many of the thriving industries that contribute to the coastal economy will cease funtioning.

In short, the port of Mombasa will die out. People will leave in droves seeking better opportunities elsewhere, perhaps at the new Lamu port. What will become of Mombasa? It will be left as a ghost town of deserted buildings, rotting factories and empty hotels. Drugs and crime will be the natural consequence to this sad state of affairs.

Mombasa has survived 1,000 years of Arab, Swahili, Portuguese and British rule. Mombasa has survived floods and droughts, opulence and poverty. Mombasa has risen from the ashes after invasions from both land and sea.

Marauding African tribes, Arab swords and Portuguese cannons have all contributed into what Mombasa has become today: a thriving, multi-cultural phenomenon that has won the admiration of the entire world. Its no wonder that people from across the world want to settle in Mombasa.

It will be unfortunate if an independent African government kills Mombasa. Let us hope that common sense prevails.

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