Will the Kenya-Uganda train see the light of day?

A gargantuan endeavour

We’re sticking around in Africa now to speak about a train that, unlike the Red Lizard, may never actually come into being. This new railway is supposed to link up the port of Mombasa on the Kenyan coast with central Uganda. This landlocked country is looking to boost its economy by creating better connections with the nearest coastline. Kenya, for its part, is betting on the train line offering great financial potential when it comes to the transport of goods between Malaba – a stunning city split into Kenyan and Ugandan halves by the river of the same name – and Mombasa. The two countries agreed in 2015 that each country would build its own half of the railway. However, things haven’t exactly worked out as planned.

On the Kenyan side, the project is well under way, as the president at the time, Uhuru Kenyatta, inaugurated the railway with a great deal of fanfare in 2017. However, what the Kenyatta described as a ‘historic moment’ didn’t exactly live up to its promise.  First, as French newspaper Le Figaro reported, it has been subject to a corruption investigation. And what’s more, it hasn’t even been completed: the final 300 kilometres that would connect it with Uganda are missing. In fact, although it was financed by a Chinese loan of four billion dollars, the construction of the line was (rather paradoxically) blocked by China. The latter, Kenya’s second biggest creditor after the World Bank, seemed like it no longer believed in the project. This could be explained by the fact that a parliamentary report found that transporting freight along the line would be twice as expensive than by road.

As for Uganda, things aren’t looking much better. This country of nearly 46 million inhabitants in fact announced in January 2023 that it had ended its contract with the Chinese firm China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC). The latter was responsible for the construction of the Ugandan part of the line: the 273 kilometres between capital Kampala and the frontier city of Malaba. Eight years after the launch of the project, the government had had enough of the Chinese reluctance to provide funds for the rail line. So they’ve turned to Turkish company Yapi Merkezi, which has already built railways in neighbouring Tanzania. An initial agreement has already been signed, but now they’re waiting for a further response from the firm. On top of its experience in the region, this should allow Kampala access to funding to help finalise the construction of its railway. At the time when Exim, the Export-Import Bank of China, was supposed to finance it, the cost was predicted to be $2.3 billion.

Uganda’s decision to ditch the Chinese investment may seem odd given its power in the region and the wider world, it was largely because China had remained silent about the issue. Even though president Yoweri Museveni travelled to China in 2018, this did nothing to resolve the situation. Worse still, the delays in responses from Exim kept on getting longer, passing through a few weeks to several months. “Since our last request for funding in February 2021, we’ve only been met with silence. We waited a few months, and they remained silent. Right now, Exim Bank still aren’t saying anything,” said Perez Wamburu, the project coordinator in Uganda, in online magazine Quartz. Even more astonishingly, certain observers in the region think China was waiting to see if Kenya would finish building its part of the line, which it was refusing to finance, so it could redirect the funds to Uganda. As a result of this saga, Kampala has sought further international funding, notably in Europe.

It’s a good example of the complexity of building a line that crosses borders, but above all, the story of the Mombasa-Kampala railways shows the hold that China has on a vast swathe of the African rail industry. It also demonstrates that Beijing is playing politics through the funding of international railway projects. And that is leading to great instability in many countries like these.

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