Kenya’s big vision for a ‘coalition of the willing (CoW)’ agreement with Uganda and Rwanda to build a major rail line and oil pipeline that would invigorate and open up East Africa’s economy may be going up in smoke as its partners look elsewhere for more economically pragmatic paths to achieve their goals.
First it was Uganda. In March, East Africa’s third largest economy pulled the plug on a tentative agreement with Kenya for an oil pipeline deal. Desperate bids to save the deal fell through as Tanzania, the new ally in Uganda’s oil pipeline deal said it would expedite the process for a lot less less than the Kenyan route had been estimated. Then Rwanda did what took both Kenya and Uganda by surprise: opting out of the standard gauge railway (SGR)with the two partners, once ‘bosom friends’.
In 2013, soon after Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta ascended to power, he marshaled Uganda and Rwanda into a ‘coalition of the willing’ arrangement in which they initiated a raft of infrastructure, telecommunication, defense and tourism-promotion projects in East Africa’s Northern Corridor. The Northern Corridor links Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and gives the two landlocked countries as well as the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan access to the sea through Kenya’s port city of Mombasa.
The CoW was seen as sidelining the reluctant, cautious and suspicious Tanzania, as well as the landlocked Burundi, which has been gripped by political instability for several years now.
Instead, the CoW partners tactfully initiated South Sudan into the game plan, which would see projects such as a high-speed standard gauge railway connect the three nations in the shortest time possible. The original idea was for the rail line to run from Mombasa through Kampala, Kigali and later to Juba in South Sudan and would cost approximately $13 billion. Uganda, under the CoW arrangement was in turn, to construct an oil pipeline through Kenya to Lamu Port at a cost of $5 billion. Such plans have now gone up in smoke, with Uganda and Rwanda opting out of the oil pipeline and rail line respectively.
Kenya had ideally been seen as a natural partner on the oil pipeline deal with Uganda as the two countries discovered large oil deposits. Kenya first discovered oil in Turkana, an arid north western region of the country in 2012, six years after Uganda announced finding significant oil deposits in the Lake Albertine basin in western Uganda. South Sudan would provide the perfect partnership given her more advanced oil production status.
However, the grand plan by Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda to proceed with major infrastructure connecting the three countries way back in 2014 (isolating Tanzania and Burundi) has now come to haunt two partners. Rwanda has now abandoned the alliance, choosing Tanzania and Burundi for access to the sea through Dar es Salaam.
“We opted for the route transiting to Tanzania during the construction of our railway line because the Kenyan route would be expensive and time consuming,” Rwanda’s minister of finance and economic planning Claver Gatete was quoted by Xhinua news agency.
The railway line would cost Rwanda between $800 million to $900 million compared to the $1 billion that the Kenyan route would have cost the tiny country.
Gatete, however, said Rwanda would continue using the port of Mombasa as it has always done. “Our trade goes through Dar es Salaam and Mombasa … We will need both of them.”
Kenyan officials have downplayed the exit of Rwanda from the rail deal with Kenya and Uganda, stating that the rail may still terminate in Kisumu, Kenya’s city located along the shores of Lake Victoria. Cargo hauled by trains from Mombasa or Nairobi would then be loaded onto ships at the port in Kisumu and transported across the lake to Kampala and Jinja in Uganda or Mwanza in Tanzania.
“It is price and efficiency that will inform who is the winner eventually. So this is not about countries competing, it is about countries creating a competitive environment and the rest is for business people to decide,” Kenya Railways Corporation managing director Atanas Maina as quoted in local media.
Uganda, which appears alarmed by the drastic decision, should have seen this coming. Behind the scenes, Rwanda blamed Uganda for prioritizing extending the rail to Juba at the expense of Kigali. Rwanda was just waiting for the right time to jump, and jump it did, giving an indication of how fast the cracks in the ‘coalition of the willing’ have widened and are no longer holding together.
The turn of events has given Tanzania, and more so, its president John Magufuli, both political and diplomatic clout amongst his peers in the East African region. Hardly a year into office, Magufuli appears to have navigated his way slowly and cautiously into the hearts and bosoms of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. He may not be keen to stop there but extend his expansionist influence across the DRC, Zambia and Malawi.
The DRC is particularly a key strategic fit as Tanzania shares a vast border line with the resource-rich, conflict-ravished country. This means that it will be easier for Tanzania to have the line extend to the DRC, than it would have been for Kenya to have the rail line going all the way from Mombasa, Kampala, Kigali and later to the DRC. Buoyed by its own ambition, Tanzania, with Chinese help, has given indications of planning to revamp the decrepit narrow gauge Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara) line and extend it to four additional countries namely Rwanda, Burundi, the DRC and Malawi.
At this point, presidents Kenyatta and Museveni may be facing sleepless nights, while Tanzania’s Magufuli relishing in new gains that may usher in a radical geopolitical shift in the East African region in his favor.