Lamu Port's Regional Dynamics

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Ocean View from the Lamu Port Site Ocean View from the Lamu Port Site Photo by Salma SM

On 2nd March 2012, the leaders of Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia launched the Lamu Port and Lamu Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) project. This event took place on the very spot where the Lamu port component of the project will be constructed.

Other components of the multi-billion dollar project includes: an oil pipeline from Juba, South Sudan to Lamu; a railway and superhighway link to South Sudan and Ethiopia, three ultra-modern resort cities and airports at Lamu; Oil refineries in Lamu and the northern Kenya towns of Isiolo and Lokichogio; a High Grand Falls along the River Tana for Hydropower generation and a fibre-optic cable constructed to link Lamu to Juba and Addis Ababa. In as far as transport is concerned, this project seeks to open up the horn of Africa region to central and western Africa.

More than one year after the launch, the LAPSSET project is not really on the runway ready for takeoff, but rather in the hangar of inaction. Even the multi-storey building that will serve as the administrative center of the project is still under construction, with minimal work going on. 

What happened? Or more accurately, why isn’t there much happening? Possible answers can be found in a trip recently taken by Kenya’s president Kenyatta. On May 23rd, he visited South Sudan for a few hours, en route to the Africa Union’s Jubilee celebrations in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. While in South Sudan, he held a bilateral meeting with South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir. The meeting resolved to fast-track the implementation of LAPSSET. This was a tacit admission that the project had slowed down to barely a crawl.

Addressing a press conference in Juba after the bilateral meeting, President Kenyatta said, ‘the same applies to the pipeline project. We have agreed that this is an area where we need to tackle the funding jointly together and to carry the project as a joint Kenya South Sudan project. A problem in Kenya is a problem in South Sudan. A problem in South Sudan is a problem for Kenya.’

Indeed, the Horn of Africa’s problems and solutions are often as similar as they are inter-connected. Nothing illustrates this interrelation more than the LAPSSET project.

The Horn of Africa and indeed, the entire Eastern and Central Africa has never ever seen a project of such regional magnitude. This is a first. As is true of many firsts, teething problems and suspicions already abound. Even within Kenya, political interests and machinations may have already impacted this vast Lamu project negatively.

For several months after it was launched, this project was based in the then Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s office. But it has now been turned into a parastatal known as LAPSSET Corridor Development Authority. The new Authority will be managed by a board comprising of a chairman appointed by the president, Principal Secretaries of select government ministries and five other members appointed by the president. Parastatal in Kenya have a history of under-performance mostly because their quasi-government status doesn’t always work to their advantage.

The central challenge of this new parastatal will be to overcome internal operational bottlenecks while at the same time managing external relations and input of other countries that are key stakeholders in the project.

This other countries will only be fully pacified through constant reassurance that the project is truly meeting their economic and political interests. It is telling that South Sudan was the first African country that President Kenyatta visited for bilateral talks after his election. His only other visit was to Tanzania for an East Africa Community meeting.

But even as Kenya reaches out to South Sudan, it is anyone’s guess how Sudan will react to the eventual loss of oil transit revenue that will shift to Kenya’s basket. In the same vein, how will security and peace be affected by any eventual Kenya and South Sudan deal?

In January 2012, South Sudan had shut down oil production because of transit fee dispute with Sudan. This dispute was later resolved prompting US President Barack Obama to crow, ‘I welcome the announcement by the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel of an agreement between Sudan and South Sudan on oil revenue. This agreement opens the door to a future of greater prosperity for the people of both countries.’

Catherine Ashton, the European Union policy chief also weighed in from Brussels with a statement that noted how the agreement ‘will contribute to the economic viability of both countries and the welfare of their people. I commend both Governments for the spirit of compromise that made this agreement possible and hope that it will now be extended to other outstanding issues, including borders, Abyei and security arrangements.’

As was noted by President Obama, the Africa Union was quite involved in resolving the oil dispute. It constituted a high level implementation panel that was chaired by former South Africa president Thabo Mbeki. It included Pierre Buyoya and Abdulsalami Alhaji Abubakar, former presidents of Burundi and Nigeria respectively.

All these influential leaders, together with world’s sole superpower and the European Union threw their hats in the ring of the burgeoning oil dispute and either helped in resolving it or took an active interest in the outcome. It may be essential for similar influential focus to be directed at the LAPSSET project, particularly the oil pipeline component o the project. Such focus would seek to preempt any potential oil fallout from undermining the project.

Interests of the pastoral communities and indigenous communities that live along vast sections of the transport corridor will also have to be taken into account. Already many of the communities like the Bajun, Boni, Orma and Wasanye are already up in arms, stating that they are being treated as marginal beneficiaries and not key stakeholders.  


Indeed, this grand Lamu project still has a long way to go and the local people must be a fundamental part of the journey.   

DJ Bwakali

Words can inspire action and change the world

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