Transitions

A megaproject transforms Kenya – but not everyone is thrilled

In March, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi troweled dollops of concrete onto a barren patch of land on the picturesque island of Lamu, Kenya, where a future seaport will lie. The Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $23-billion undertaking that will connect Kenya’s coastal ...

TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

In March, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi troweled dollops of concrete onto a barren patch of land on the picturesque island of Lamu, Kenya, where a future seaport will lie. The Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET), a $23-billion undertaking that will connect Kenya’s coastal Lamu region to South Sudan and Ethiopia with oil pipelines, railways, and super highways, is one of the biggest infrastructure projects in Africa to date. According to President Kibaki, LAPSSET "will stimulate the growth of regional economies through promotion of trade and other productive activities." He predicted that the project will boost employment and contribute to better prospects for some 167 million people in the surrounding region.

This optimistic forecast might yet come true. But the discontent stirred up by the project demonstrates once again how the imperatives of development and democracy can sometimes clash in transitional societies.

It turns out that many Kenyans don’t necessarily share President Kibaki’s enthusiasm for LAPSSET. Farmers and fishermen have taken passionate issue with the plans. But rather than considering their objections, the government has reacted with intolerance. Police have threatened local activists with arrest if they demonstrate against the government-backed project and restricted journalists’ access to information. Support for LAPSSET has come mainly from individuals and organizations that stand to directly benefit from the project.

The government argues that the benefits of the state-sponsored project will offset the losses of those inconvenienced by it. Transit revenues flowing into the government budget will translate into improved public services, including better provision of education, health care, and water and electricity. LAPSSET also aims to boost Kenya’s competitiveness in global maritime trade even as it integrates the East and Central African region more closely to international markets. Meanwhile President Kibaki has assured Kenyans that the government "will compensate those affected by the development of the corridor in accordance with the law," and that "all necessary precautions [will] be taken to ensure that there is minimal interference with the delicate ecosystem and cultural heritage."

Yet that has done little to assuage the concerns of Lamu residents. In planning LAPSSET, the Kenyan government refused to conduct an environmental impact assessment of the project despite the fact that construction will take place in an area that boasts lush mangrove forests and coral reefs that attract hundreds of eco-tourists each year. (Lamu Old Town has been designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.) For months, local fishermen have been expressing fears that fish populations will plummet as construction degrades the quality of the water and destroys breeding areas along the coast leading to a loss of income. And worries about land security began to crop up early on due to the big new investment projects the port is expected to bring in its wake.

Because the Kibaki administration refused to listen to such concerns during the planning period, Lamu residents planned public protests, launched press campaigns, and filed an injunction to stop LAPSSET from proceeding in the days leading up to the opening ceremony. The government didn’t exactly welcome this citizen involvement.

In one instance, police intimidated and threatened a human rights activist, preventing him from holding a demonstration at the LAPSSET ceremony. Abubakar Alamudy, chairman of the NGO Save Lamu, said that two police officers came to his office and ordered him to accompany them to a police station, where he was kept for an hour. In another incident, officials confiscated the memory card and notebook of a reporter who tried to take photos of a meeting regarding the Lamu Port development project. There are increasing indications that the project is speeding up the rate of deforestation and land-grabbing in the nearby Bono-Dodori region, which could ultimately result in the extinction of the Boni, one of the area’s last hunter-gather groups.

It’s a worrying trend. If the Kibaki administration continues with its brusque treatment of citizens who have legitimate concerns about the project, the result could be intensified protests that might, in turn, undermine investor sentiment. While there’s still a lot of debate about the issue, there’s certainly plenty of good evidence for the argument that democratic countries actually boast greater stability, which leads to greater investment and economic growth.

In the future, the government should do a better job of anticipating citizens’ concerns by conducting environmental assessments before commencing projects, regulating and monitoring land exchanges, and publicly committing to infrastructure improvements to ensure that people feel tangible benefits from development. Meanwhile, international aid donors should work harder to ensure that recipients of development project funding comply with basic democratic norms. The African Development Bank has set a negative example by announcing loans for LAPSSET-related projects despite government moves against dissenters.

But there’s a lot that the Kenyan government can still do to soothe passions. Technology offers some easy solutions for ensuring that politicians and citizens are better connected. Organizations like the Africa Technology and Transparency Initiative utilize technology to enhance public participation in politics by providing information about government activities. Netvibes measures public sentiment (on various issues) in real time by analyzing online content. Putting plans, budgets, and contractor information into the public realm can reduce corruption by increasing the transparency of such large-scale development projects.

Steamrolling the objections of opponents shouldn’t be justified by the imperatives of investment. Contrary to popular belief, democracy and development can go together. You just have to want it.

 Jeremy Flattau is Director of Flattau Associates LLC, a research consulting firm that provides new solutions for assessing governance and democracy. You can follow him on twitter @DLA_FA.

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