An unfinished Chinese railway in Kenya has divided the Eastern African country and its political parties due to massive debt the project has accrued. The billion-dollar cost of the rail project is mired in claims of corruption, according to the New York Times, and has become such a polemical issue that Kenya’s next presidential election could swing in favor of whoever proposes the best solution to Kenya’s debt to China.
Right now, Kenya owes China $4.7 billion for the construction of 367 miles of new railway. This was supposed to connect the port of Mombasa with Uganda, but the railway currently runs from Mombasa, through national parks in Nairobi, only to end in the Kenyan Rift Valley next to a dirt road. The rail line is officially called the Standard Gauge Railway, and it was supposed to replace the aging rail system put in place by the British.
One colonialist superpower ceded way to the next, as the administration of Kenya’s outgoing president Uhuru Kenyatta gave the project to China without any open competitive bidding to drive its price down. Nor without an in-house environmental impact study; the only study was done by the Chinese, per the NYT, for which some Kenyan lawyers sued Kenyatta’s administration.
The Standard Gauge Railway promised it would benefit Kenya’s economy with 50 mile-an-hour freight trains and 74 mile-an-hour passenger trains. But not long after the project’s groundbreaking in 2013, did the corruption claims follow. Kenyan Senators and Chinese project managers asked the lawyers who challenged the project to withdraw their court cases in exchange for payouts, or bribes, of up to $1 million.
The corruption allegations ballooned from there: there were also false claims of land ownership as the railway expanded, and shady deals full of overpayments. Go read the full New York Times report for the rundown because the allegations are extensive.
Many activists and public figures accused Kenyatta and his administration of profiting from the Chinese-funded project. And given the hasty contract award to China, it’s not surprising that a court in Kenya ruled the contract was, indeed, illegal. China has said it isn’t finishing the last section of rail until Kenya starts repaying the money, so Kenyans are being taxed in order to pay down the debt. Needless to say, this made the railway unpopular among some Kenyans.
The railway is also unpopular among some workers who claim the project put the road and rail in competition after government officials told importers to use the train, despite it costing twice as much money to transport goods. Truckers in Mombasa said this harmed the trucking industry and cost thousands of jobs in the fuel and freight sectors.
Now, presidential frontrunners William Ruto and Raila Odinga want to leverage the railway’s unpopularity and turn it into votes on Tuesday’s election. Their solutions range from deporting Chinese workers to reorganizing Kenya’s debt. It’s been quite a mess. It’s also been five years since the new line’s inauguration, but the Standard Gauge Railway sits unfinished and its promises go unfulfilled.