Kenya’s president Kibaki presided over the much anticipated and often delayed ground-breaking ceremony yesterday for construction of the Lamu port, slated to be the continent’s second largest deep-water port.
The Lamu port is the keystone of Kenya’s ambitious “Vision 2030”, part of a transport and economic corridor — THE LAMU-PORT-SOUTH-SUDAN-TRANSPORT-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CORRIDOR (LAPSSET), a multi-billion dollar flagship project under “the Kenya Vision 2030 national development policy blue print”.
LAPSSET is designed to supply oil from South Sudan, Africa’s youngest country, to land-locked Ethiopia as well as open up trade routes between foreign countries and East Africa’s interior.
Located 24 kms north of Lamu town on mainland at Manda Bay, the port will serve as a gateway into East Africa’s interior, especially to oil-rich South Sudan.
According to a brochure given to VIPs attending inauguration ceremony,
LAPSSET is a transportation and economic corridor comprised of the Lamu port, an oil pipeline from port to Juba, in South Sudan, an oil refinery in Lamu, and a railway and roads to South Sudan and Ethiopia, three international airports that will service three sprawling
The construction of the port infrastructure alone – estimated to cost around $23 billion – has polarised residents of the small town of Lamu who rely heavily on tourism and those coming from other parts of Kenya eyeing opportunities.
Three of the thirty-two berths are expected to begin construction almost immediately.
Champions of the port vow that construction and infrastructure will provide jobs for thousands if not millions of the impoverished.
Opponents don’t object to the port per se as much as fear the destruction of the pristine Lamu archipelago, cultural degradation and a potential humanitarian crisis involving the area’s indigenous tribes.
In 2001, UNESCO designated Lamu old town a cultural heritage site as one of the best preserved traditional Swahili settlements in East Africa. Ancient Arab dhows still ply the channels meandering the Indian ocean archipelago. Tourists can pretty much experience the region much as it was 100 years ago.
That, of course, will change when coral reefs are dynamited and removed, dhows displaced to allow passage for ten Panamax cargo and container ships daily.
Residents on Kenya’s mainland, where construction soon begins, have spotted a Chinese construction company surveying for water and the Ministry of Transport has bulldozed a wide swatch of mangrove forest to accommodate a paved road.
Mangrove forests are critical habitat for the fish. Fishing has provided a sustainable livelihood for locals for hundreds of years. Bajuni fisherman from the islands of the same name are also said to oppose the port since they feel the shipping congestion will ruin their livelihoods.
Difficult to tell though whether the celebration portends actual construction or more ado about nothing in advance of presidential elections this December. The Lamu port project has been in pipeline since the ’70s.
Its a reality, a by-stander told me. He was sure because in January president Kibaki and s Sudan’s president Salva Kiir Mayardit (with his signature ten-gallon black cowboy hat Kiir is Africa’s answer to a Texas oil tycoon) signed a “memorandum of understanding” stating that the two countries will negotiate a fee for transiting crude oil from south sudan through Kenya and exported to China.
The bystander, who was from Nairobi, scratched his head puzzled by futuristic water-color renditions inside the VIP’s brochure featuring balloon-holding bicycle-riding wazungus in resort cities that looked suspiciously like Dubai.
Save Lamu, a Lamu-based grass-roots activist group (comprised of council of elders and Lamu Youth alliance, among other organizations) objects to the way the Kenyan government has so far moved ahead with plans for the port. Its complaints include lack of transparency in neglecting to confer with Lamu citizens regarding the exact nature of the project as well as a failure to complete an Environmental Impact Assessment, a legal requirement the before awarding construction tenders.
The group complains about the Kenyan government allegedly having handed out title deeds that the group say are not the government’s to give away in the first place.
In a televised speech preceding yesterday’s ceremony, Kibaki gestured that the issues would soon be addressed.
Members of Save Lamu say that security had barred them from attending the port launch ceremony even though they held a peaceful demonstration in town the day before.
Kibaki stressed the importance of the port’s security as it persists through its military incursions to prevent Somalia’s chaos from further spilling into its country.
Heavy security – like entering Village market seven times in a span of 30 minutes – and the confiscation of water bottles emptied and unceremoniously littered on the ground may provide an glimpse into the future of life with a potentially never-ending construction site.
Rumours swirled in a popular Lamu area watering hole I will Mahogany Reef that a company out of Mombasa catered the event for the heads of state, dignitaries and in a separate area for the wananchi to the tune of 24 million Kenya shillings — or $292,000 and change. Apparently, the organisers canceled the lunch after the ceremony went over schedule.