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The Nested Tragedies of Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta flags off the inaugural Nairobi-Suswa, Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line constructed by the Chinese Communications Construction Company (CCCC) and financed by Chinese government, on October 16, 2019 in Nairobi. SIMON MAINA / AFP

Recently we’ve seen two new pieces of research on Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway (SGR,) which make for fascinating – if depressing – reading. They show that the project was doomed from the start by corruption and bad dealing from both the Kenyan and Chinese sides.
It’s now clear that the projections of the usefulness and profitability of the railway had been distorted, and that a humbler refurbishment of existing, smaller rail lines would have been a more realistic way to achieve the SGR’s stated goals – East African regional integration and a more ecologically and financially sustainable alternative to road transport.

“China, because its lending policies have encouraged elaborate infrastructure projects which are often over-priced and unnecessary. Kenya, because its elites are corrupt and do not care about the country’s long-term development, has reached the point where “Corruption in the country has become a culture and it permeates all aspects of life.”

professor ian taylor, st. andrews university

At present, the SGR seems doomed to become a monument to a specific moment in China-Africa relations, one when the optics of Chinese development (high-speed rail networks as far as the eye can see) were made to count for more than the hard-nosed calculations that fuelled China’s actual development.
I write “were made to” because this tragedy would not have happened without high-level manipulation. The largest tragedy of the SGR is doubtlessly the unjust debt burden it has imposed on Kenya’s people. Future generations will now be born in a country offering many fewer opportunities, and with their future already mortgaged.

“Will the debt incurred in connection with the SGR be deemed illegal as a matter of Kenyan law? There is little doubt that the Chinese government will not simply accept such a position.”

Dr. Luis Franceschi, Dean of Strathmore Law School

 But a secondary tragedy lies in how the optics of development have been tainted. After all, development always demands a bargain between a government and a population: sacrifice now for future prosperity. This bargain lies at the heart of China’s own development narrative, and bolsters the Chinese Communist Party’s continuing power. Within this bargain, the unveiling of a swanky new state asset – an airport, stadium, or rail network – provides the spectacle of promises fulfilled. It plays a crucial symbolic role in maintaining buy-in into the development bargain.
The SGR is an expensive monument to that broken promise. Depending on domestic dynamics, Uhuru Kenyatta’s government may or may not pay a clear political price for this debacle. But it will have wider impacts, not least on China’s most valuable asset in Africa: its own development story. What differentiates China from all the other peddlers of overpriced railways out there is exactly this story: how well the development bargain worked out for the Chinese people.
Without that story, China is just another loan shark, colluding with local elites to add to a well of African cynicism already deep as the ocean.

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