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Africa's ambitious mega-port project shrouded in skepticism

Residents and environmental activists participate in a demonstration against the construction of the proposed Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia (LAPSSET) project in Lamu island, Kenya, March 1, 2012.

Joseph Okanga/REUTERS/Joseph Okanga/REUTERS

On paper, it's a project that could transform the African economy: a $24-billion mega-port, serving as hub for a railway, an oil pipeline, a highway and a network of fibre-optic cables, connecting the landlocked countries of East Africa and giving them an outlet to the sea for the first time.

Kenya's new port at Lamu, launched with a ground-breaking ceremony this month, is one of the biggest and most ambitious projects in recent African history. It would have all the elements that the economic experts have called for: long-term investment in African infrastructure, steps to build African trade, public and private spending to stimulate growth and create jobs, and a chance to unlock the vast potential of impoverished countries.

The port would provide an outlet for oil exports from the newly independent country of South Sudan, and perhaps for future oil from Uganda. It would allow cheaper imports for Ethiopia and South Sudan, greater revenue for Kenya, and it could eventually benefit Rwanda and central African countries too. Investment could be provided by China, a major customer for South Sudan's oil.

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Yet despite all these advantages, the Lamu project is still shrouded in mystery and skepticism. Only three countries have formally joined the project so far. There are environmental issues, worries about costs and corruption, fears about destroying a historic town, anxiety about security risks from Somali pirates and rebels, and local opposition from Lamu residents who suspect they will be squeezed out of the jobs and the decisions.

There is no shortage of grandiose rhetoric about the Lamu project. The Kenyan government has called it "the most ambitious ever undertaken by any independent African country" – and described it as a step towards turning Kenya into an "African Tiger." Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi says the project is "making history."

The 32-berth port would become the biggest port on Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, five times bigger than Mombasa, the only existing port. It would be the terminus of a new railway and oil pipeline from South Sudan, allowing the new country to escape the economic domination of Sudan. The two countries have been embroiled in a battle over oil exports, with Juba accusing Khartoum of hijacking oil from the south as it passes through Sudan on its way to a Red Sea port that Sudan controls.

But while the Lamu port project has many obvious advantages, it remains dogged by question marks, including the rivalries of the East African region. Several of its logical beneficiaries – including Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda – failed to show up at the ground-breaking ceremony last week.

A report in a Ugandan newspaper this week said the Lamu project has "stirred diplomatic tension" between Kenya and Uganda. The report, in the Daily Monitor, said Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni had been seeking a deal with South Sudan to build a pipeline for both countries to export their oil via Mombasa, and he was surprised by the Lamu deal.

Costs are another question. Kenya says the port can be built within four years, but there is much skepticism that Kenya can afford the massive cost, and China's financial role is still murky.

Then there are the security problems. Lamu is near the Somalia border, there are Somali pirates in the vicinity, and Lamu's tourists have already suffered attacks from Somali kidnappers.

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Environmental and heritage issues could be key problems. Lamu is a UNESCO World Heritage site, famed for its historic architecture and Swahili culture. The port would be located within a few kilometres of the town, and the traffic and construction could endanger Lamu's unique heritage.

When I visited Lamu last year, I interviewed many local residents who were worried about the risks of the port development. They felt the massive project could jeopardize their tourism and fishing industries, endanger their Swahili culture, damage their mangroves and coral reefs, and send huge cargo ships within kilometres of the quiet town.

"There are so many negative effects," said Hussein Soud El-Maawy, chairman of the council of elders of Lamu. "People feel very insecure. From the beginning, people were not consulted about it."

Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki has promised to address all of these concerns, including the issues of the environment, land rights, cultural heritage and fishing grounds.

But he also alleged that the opposition was being whipped up by foreigners. "Those who are against the proposed port project are being cheated and incited by people from Europe who have done nothing to help the poverty-stricken people," he said.

And just to ensure that the ground-breaking ceremony in Lamu would not be disturbed by the opponents, he imposed tight security restrictions, searching all guests and locking out the activists who had threatened to protest.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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