How zombie ideas sabotaged the SGR project in East Africa

Presidents Museveni and Magufuli
This bromance almost derailed a
 major development project
 According to a report in Uganda’s Daily Monitor, the government of Uganda will construct 2700 KM of Standard Gauge Railway regardless of whether Kenya extends its section to the border or not. The work, says the report, quoting the Coordinator of the Project, Eng. Perez Wamburu will begin in the financial year 2021/2022.

This is good news for the project that was almost derailed by populist, Zombie ideas. Wamburu expressed confidence that the Chinese Exim Bank will approve its loan application, perhaps early next year. Uganda’s decision adds the pressure on Kenya to extend the line to Malaba, on the Kenya-Uganda border.

The China Exim Bank withheld funding for the whole project after a tiff between Kenya and Uganda forced Kenya to redesign the line to terminate in the Kisumu City of Kenya, on the shores of Lake Victoria.

 Trouble for the line began in 2016 due to meddling by the Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli. Magufuli, like his soul brother, outgoing US President Donald Trump, embraced the nationalistic “Tanzania First,” philosophy.  Like Trump, Magufuli has utter disdain for competitors- both in Politics and in his style of management. He has little regard for Science and due process, and even least regard for Law and order.  

At the time of taking office, other East African Common market partners were already miffed with Tanzania’s reluctance to move in tandem with the team. They had formed the famous "coalition of the willing" to integrate the East African Common Market. Tanzania was a reluctant partner. The other partners, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda among other things decided to build a high-speed Railway line from Kenya’s Mombasa Port to Kigali in Rwanda through Uganda.  MOUs were signed to invest in the Railway line.

Kenya had also entered into an MOU to build an oil evacuation line from Hoima to Kenya’s Lamu Port, which is under construction. In 2016 President Magufuli, backed by the French Oil Major, Total SPA, brandishing a fake feasibility study by a fake researcher, persuaded Uganda’s President Museveni to abandon the Kenyan route and choose Tanzania’s Port of Tanga instead.  Museveni swallowed the bait hook- line -and Sinker. He allowed Magufuli to yank the Line away from Kenya.

Kenya, feeling betrayed and uncomfortable with Uganda’s commitment to MOUs, redesigned the SGR line to terminate in Kisumu City instead of Malaba, which is on the border with Uganda. The Chinese who were funding the line got alarmed and suspended finance.

Happy with his disruption of the coalition of the willing, Magufuli now turned to the Railway line, hoping to also yank it away from Kenya. His pitch; the central Corridor line, which traverses Tanzania, will be electricity propelled, build cheaply at US$1.5 million per kilometer and will serve Uganda well.

 This was lunatic because it ignored factors that screamed against such a project. But then, the truth was a nuisance.

Even when the truth finally emerged, it was ignored. This is the first truth that emerged; that Tanzania’s 300KM Dar-es-Salaam- Morogoro line was to cost a total of US$1.245 billion for an average cost of $4.15 million, that is 277 percent more than Magufuli’s price.  The price tag is without Locomotives and wagons. On this score alone, the Northern Corridor line was way cheaper since its cost included Locomotives, train cars, and wagons. At $4.15 million per kilometer, the whole central Corridor line, measuring 1,455 KM, will cost no less than US$10 billion. But the populists stuck with US$1.5 million a kilometer- a 277 percent undervaluation!

The idea of rating projects based on cost consideration only regardless of the underlying factors is a Zombie idea, that is, an idea that sounds like truth but is not. Technical specifications and the related costs count for nothing in zombie ideas.

 Based on a myth, misleading analyses and unmitigated political slander took to the waves in East Africa. Anti-Corruption activists for hire also chipped in. 

The Uganda department of Transportation came out with a report that debunked the whole myth. It revealed unpleasant truths: that a rail link between Uganda and Tanzania is a pipe dream since between the two countries lies Lake Victoria. The distance between the two across the lake is 380 kilometers.  To transport freight between the countries would require massive investment in Marine logistics and infrastructure.  Consequently, they dismissed the Tanzanian line as a “low priority for Uganda.” Third, it revealed that the quality of both the Ethio-Djibouti line and the Central Corridor line were inferior compared to the Northern Corridor line.

Fourth, the quality of works was higher in the case of Kenya’s SGR compared to both Tanzania and Ethiopia. Fifth, the Central Corridor in Tanzania could become a white elephant since the served area cannot generate sufficient tonnage to keep the line viably working. Expert opinion suggests that Tanzania and Burundi can generate only 3.8 million tons a year for the line designed to carry 10-20 million tons.

Magufuli was aware of these truths hence his desire to scuttle the Kenya line with populist ideas. The only way the Central Corridor could be feasible is if it diverted some of the traffic on the Northern Corridor, some 10 million tons to Tanzania, a consultant’s report, seen by this publication said.  The Northern Transport Corridor, between Mombasa Port and the landlocked countries including Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Eastern D. R Congo, and South Sudan is the busiest of the three corridors even in road transport.

 Armed with these facts, President Museveni changed his mind and authorized his officials to renegotiate the US$2.9 billion Chinese loan for the 230KM Malaba–Kampala section. China, which had by then grown cold feet, insisted that Kenya must change its mind about terminating the line at Kisumu city.

Now that Uganda is about to start work on the project, there will be no reason for Kenya’s reluctance to end the line at Malaba.  In fact, the change of design will also open the wallet for the third phase of Kenya’s line to Malaba, on the border with Uganda. This is why the announcement by Uganda is good news for the Northern Corridor SGR. 

One lesson to take home from this development is; the truth is stubborn and will always force its way into the front. The line would be nearing completion without the nuisance of zombie ideas.


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