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13 Aug 2022

Abdi Latif Dahir, The New York Times (USA)

Kenya: China-funded railway embroiled in lawsuits and corruption investigations becomes hot-button election issue

"‘Jewel in the Crown of Corruption’: The Troubles of Kenya’s China-Funded Train" 9 August 2022

Fireworks popped and confetti rained down in the seaside city of Mombasa when Kenya’s president inaugurated the country’s new railway — designed, funded and built by China. [...]

That was five years ago. The railway has since turned into a fiasco, the target of lawsuits, criminal investigations over corruption and resentment by environmentalists and displaced workers in the trucking industry.

Now, it’s a hot-button issue in the closely-contested Aug. 9 election and part of a broader debate about China’s expanding role in Kenya. The leading candidates have proposed everything from deporting Chinese workers doing local jobs to renegotiating the onerous debt Kenya owes China. But for many, it’s the railway, which cost a whopping $4.7 billion, that has come to embody the corruption and greed among the political elite. [...]

Both leading candidates in the campaign to pick President Kenyatta’s successor — William Ruto and Raila Odinga — have seized on the railway’s troubles, promising to reassess its operations, while also trying to distance themselves from the project.

Mr. Ruto is the vice-president and part of the administration that launched the railway. In an interview, he acknowledged that Kenya’s public debt — a total of $73.5 billion as of March in a country with a gross domestic product of just over $100 billion — was creating a “very precarious” situation, and that the railway had so far failed to grow the economy.

“We are hurting from paying the Chinese debt,” he said.

His opponent, Mr. Odinga, is a former prime minister who had long been critical of the project and accused Mr. Kenyatta’s family of benefiting from it. But now that President Kenyatta is backing him, Mr. Odinga has softened his criticism, while promising to overhaul the railroad’s operation. He told a crowd of supporters in Mombasa recently, “Once I am in office, we will fix it.” [...]

Mr. Kenyatta’s office did not respond to emailed questions for this article. The government’s minister for treasury and planning, Ukur Yatani, who oversees the country’s port, rail and pipeline infrastructure, did not reply to requests for an interview. [...]