On Tuesday, while speaking on the sidelines of the Forum for China Africa Cooperation (Focac) in Beijing, Kenya’s Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia said Kenya will hitch a ride on Uganda’s SGR since it is a regional project. On paper, the standard gauge railway is indeed a regional project and part of the Northern Corridor infrastructure project designed to connect Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda, and onward to Kampala, Uganda’s capital city and eventually Kigali in Rwanda, with a branch line to Kisumu, and a northern line to Juba in South Sudan through Kasese and Pakwach.
“Kenya is the entry gate of the SGR, which runs from Lamu-Mombasa-Naivasha-Kisumu-Lake Victoria all the way to the Atlantic Ocean in West Africa. However, Kenya cannot develop it on its own because it will not be viable due to the fact that 30 percent of cargo from Mombasa is on transit, of which 85 percent goes to Uganda. There is need to harmonise the SGR with what countries in the region are doing,” said Mr Macharia.
He added that while the time for completing the whole project might have changed plans to extend it to Malaba have not, adding that China was in the final stages of realising funds.
On April 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta returned from China without securing the funding for the third phase of his signature standard gauge railway (SGR). President Kenyatta had hoped to secure $3.68 billion from China—in loans and grant—to take the SGR line from Naivasha in Central Rift Valley to the lakeside town of Kisumu, and on to the Malaba border crossing from where Uganda would take over its construction to Kampala and beyond.
Instead, Kenya bagged some $400 million it says will be used to upgrade its 120-years old metre gauge railway to Malaba on the border with Uganda.
Mr. Macharia, however, downplayed fears that upgrading of the old railway could see an end to the SGR, arguing that the venture is an intervention as the country awaits funding from Beijing.
“Since by September we will start receiving goods at Naivasha from Mombasa and Naivasha-Kisumu is not yet ready — even if we start today it will take three to four years — we had to rehabilitate the old railway to Malaba so that while it will take nine hours for goods to arrive in Naivasha, it should take the same time for the goods to reach Uganda, which is our biggest client. Without modernising it, it might take two days,” said the CS.
Macharia’s sentiments and optimism, however, seem to be completely different from Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni who was in attendance and even officially opened the follow-up meeting on the FOCAC resolutions.
President Museveni in his 1,732 speech didn’t mention Uganda’s Standard Gauge Railway in one instance instead choosing to give a history lesson of how the Communist Parties of China gave serious military, political and diplomatic support to the anti-Colonial Movements in Africa and Asia.
He concluded his speech by saying Africa and China should, therefore, establish an equitable trade and development model that should emancipate humanity from the primitive tendencies of win-lose situations without giving specifics.
“We should all work for win-win frameworks. China, by supporting infrastructure, which is the base of the production of tradable goods and services is already moving in the right direction.” Museveni said.
Why would President Museveni not use such an important platform to urge the Chinese to fund Uganda’s Standard Gauge Railway says a lot about his administration commitment to the SGR project and simply drowns Macharia’s optimism.
On his twitter official twitter handle Museveni also didn't mention any SGR related content and only cited two dams and industrial parks China had helped set up.
At the end of it all, President Museveni said he was glad the two countries had signed several memoranda of understanding in the fields of foreign affairs, trade and economy.
It is not hard to see why SGR did not feature in Museveni’s speech and his 4-day trip to China. Last year Uganda announced it had abandoned the SGR project in favour of its old railway line.
“It is apparent the SGR is going to take us a lot of time to complete. First, we have to wait for Kenya to reach the Malaba border point then we can start,” Uganda’s Finance Minister Matia Kasaija told Daily Monitor in 2018.
Uganda therefore decided to invest some $205 million (Sh20.7 billion) in restoring the old railway line linking Kampala to Malaba.
The writing is on the wall but it seems Kenya is not willing to see it, only time will tell if Macharia’s sentiments come to pass.