Bernard Ochieng Oluma
A few days ago, I was impressed by our budget reading that part of the 2013/2014 budget will go to construction of railway line from Mombasa to Nairobi. My question was; why canâ€™t we also do the same in Nairobi? We know so well that for us as a country to avoid the ever increasing traffic jam in Nairobi, we need a commuter train that links various sprawling estates to the city centre.
Around the same time before the budget was read, we had a very fruitful conversation with one of my colleagues over lunch on effective ways to decongest the traffic in Nairobi. One of the most effective ways apart from the construction of road by-passes to allow motorists to reach other places in the outskirts of the city without passing through the main city centre was establishment of a commuter train. We also discussed a possibility of introducing bicycles on our roads instead of having vehicles everywhere as this will help people exercise their body while at the same time is environment friendly. Beside bicycles which many will complain that is slow and tiresome, why not motorcycles? But we had several reservations for all our great ideas.
Since the Kenya-Uganda Railway was built by the colonial government, in early 20th Century, not much efforts has been made by the Kenyan Government to extend this railway line to other parts of the country, upgrade or maintain it. Instead, over the years, they suffocated the train transport of money leaving this important sector to collapse! In its place, politicians and power brokers including the most powerful business people in the country have over the years invested on big trucks to transport oil, gas and goods from the port of Mombasa to the rest of the interior regions and countries in East Africa. They also invested on buses to transport people to various parts of Kenya and even have some buses travelling across the borders of East Africa.
This is a big and booming business but at the expense of the poverty-stricken population! In all those years, transport costs have increased beyond the reach of the majority poor. Accidents have also increased in a dashing rush by buses and trucks to earn more money, making Kenyan roads one of the most unsafe places in Sub-Saharan Africa reporting so many deaths and injuries yearly due to human error. Traffic along the busy roads and around bigger towns and cities in Kenya has witnessed heavy congestion. Some roads are written off and vehicles inadequately maintained as toll centres and road-blocks have become dens of corruption at the expense of our lives and roads that cannot sustain the heavy truck-loads whose real weights and conditions have been compromised by the weighing bridgesâ€™ officials and traffic police across the country. This is not favourable for business investments in Kenya.
Those problems were not our reservations no matter how grave they are. Our reservations were the thought of how long these problems will continue to persist considering the fact that our policy makers are part of this lucrative business. I have never heard any politician raise these issues as policy concern in our parliament. The railway transport was privatized under the NARC government to a South African company and the name changed to Rift Valley Railways. From then, there have been a lot of sabotage and the railway line has many a times been vandalized to ensure it grounds to a halt!
What about the idea of using bicycles? This option will also take us some decades to adopt unfortunately. We were wondering if we were to be part of the change-makers the challenges we will have to continuously face. I can imagine riding a bicycle on the streets of Nairobi where the same policy-makers have never instructed road construction firms to include bicycles lanes on our roads. Even pedestrians have to compete on the same lane as vehicles. But that aside, I can also imagine riding on my bicycle to an important directorsâ€™ or managersâ€™ meeting in one of the four-star Nairobi hotels; will I be allowed by the security guard to get in? Your guess is as good as mine but even if I am allowed, will the other directors or managers who had seen me parking my Black Mamba (Phoenix or Hero Jet) or Mountain (BMX) bicycle next to a Range-Rover Sport, Hummer, Mercedes Benz or Toyota Land-Cruiser listen to my valuable point?
Vehicle ownership in Kenya is not only an efficient way to travel; rather it is a sign of prestige! We are grappling so much with a status problem that is almost a culture. It has grown in our attitude! It is always every young manâ€™s ambition to own a car in Kenya as a sign of wealth and status. Considering that young people between 15-35 years constitute the high percentage (about 70%) of the countryâ€™s population, we must brace ourselves for more traffic jams in the future. Even though there are individuals who own more than three vehicles in a compound, vehicle sellers are still making a kill every day. CMC Motors or DT Dobie would rather buy our parliament and cabinet than lose the ever lucrative market in the name of traffic decongestion using bicycles.
The main issue here is about how many powerful people will lose business if we have an effective and efficient alternative transport in Kenya. Who are the major shareholders in these big companies? It is the same policy makers. Therefore, we better stay the whole day in the traffic jam provided we will buy their fuel, buy their cars, board their buses, and use their trucks to transport our goods etc as they keep on pocketing our misery. They donâ€™t care about the man-hours we spend on our roads to reach our places of work! And they donâ€™t care about how much green house emissions we transmit to our atmosphere. And they donâ€™t care how much cost our poor people incur to reach their destinations. And they donâ€™t care how many people continue losing their lives as a result of man-made accidents. And they donâ€™t care whether we have to spend an extra cost to periodically repair our roads. They only care about how much goes into their bank accounts as dividends! After all, they can afford to fly on choppers, private jets, or passenger planes or use â€˜chase carsâ€™ or buy state of the art cars with safety airbags and good shocks to avoid those â€˜ourâ€™ traffic jams and or accidents.
We are a consuming country sadly! All the years I have believed in this saying â€œyou cannot bake your cake and have itâ€ but our policy makers are doing just that! We have given them our sovereign power to represent us, but they are busy securing their interests. They develop policies that protect their interests. We need to decide as a people of Kenya whether we must go in the same direction or we need to shift the paradigm and try exercising our sovereign power directly as enshrined in our constitution.
The transport sector in Kenya is a very gray area that needs a very serious advocacy but as civil society, we have either chose to ignore or fail to realize it as an area that is slowly but mercilessly killing our economy! For now, it is a wait and see if the new government will succeed in transforming the transport sector in the country to improve our economy. Wish them all the best!
To read more of Bernard’s opinion pieces check out his blog: http://reworkdevelopment.wordpress.com/