Lamu Port and the Lapsset project

Lapsset (Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Corridor) is the name given to the low-tech, high-cost infrastructure project that will create a system of railroads, highways and pipelines from Lamu to Isiolo and on to Juba and Addis Ababa. The new transport network will link up with existing and proposed transport hubs on the coast and Isiolo to open up to the rest of the world what has previously been an isolated expanse of the coast and northern Kenya. The project calls for an estimated US$ 20 billion (and rising) investment.

The Lapsset concept advocates establishing an equatorial land bridge spanning the continent’s Atlantic and Indian Ocean seaboards—connecting Douala in Cameroon to a place on the Kenyan coast called Magogoni in Lamu District. Construction of a modern port in Lamu is the cornerstone of the Kibaki government’s Vision 2030 strategy for making Kenya an emerging industrial economy.

The historian Roland Oliver argued that imperialism’s major contribution to sub-Saharan Africa was the development of roads. The project will substantially extend land, sea, and air transport links that have witnessed little or no improvement since the end of the colonial era.

But this exceedingly ambitious venture raises some serious issues about the nature of regional development in this era of ‘late capitalism’. As in the case of colonial intervention, natural resources are the driver of foreign interests. Access to the continent’s oil and acquisition of ‘underutilized’ land, including tracts the size of small countries, are just two examples of the latest variation of external exploitation.

In the Lamu context, many issues need to be examined including the question of why the port is being actively developed despite human rights abuses, rampant land speculation, and mounting criticism of the security concerns attending the proposed port and other impacts. Why place the port in remote Magogoni in Manda Bay, especially when Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa is currently undergoing expansion and its transport links already exist?

Prerequisites for an operational port
According to government sources, the Manda Bay location offers several technical advantages. They claim the harbour will enable seven large ships to enter the port, whereas Kilindini allows only two, facilitating a 50 per cent increase in the tonnage the new facility can handle. The reported 38-metre depth of the channel will allow the latest generation of cargo ships (known as post Panamax) to dock at its berths.

The depth of the channel may be 38 metres in places, but as anyone who has fished the area and traversed the route between Mkanda and Mtangawanda at low tide knows, a large portion of the bay is relatively shallow. A long sand bar extends from Shaka la Paye and bisects the channel facing the Magogoni waterfront.

It is hard to envision seven ships simultaneously entering and exiting the Mlango wa Manda, the southern entrance to the bay—the picture of an oil tanker crashing into the Mwamba Khasani reef (the coral reef that borders the entrance) is much easier to conjure up. The Mlango Mkuu wa Kizingtini route in the north-east is much longer and considerably shallower.

While these and similar technical issues require clarification, it also follows that such obstacles are not a problem for the transformative powers of global capital.

Tweaking the area’s primary inshore fishery, the main livelihood resource for local fishermen during the economically difficult period of the Kusi south-east monsoon, is a simple matter of massive dredging. Dynamite can demolish the inconveniently located corals of Mwamba Khasani.

The reef is an important offshore fishing ground, and the only place this mtonyi (fisherman) has encountered the bonefish (mborodi in Kiswahili). The serious sport fisherman’s most elusive trophy, the run of the mborodi hooked on light tackle can make 200 metres of line scream off the reel like a banshee. Billfish are wimps in comparison.

Tourism will, of course, survive, but the makeover will claim other sectoral causalities.

The mangroves fringing Lamu’s islands and mainland—the critical hatchery for fish, shrimp, crab, and other delicacies gracing the tables of tourist hotels and Nairobi’s fine restaurants—will suffer major damage. Stakeholders fear the project’s negative impact on the area’s game and marine reserves, forests and water resources.

Turtles, dugongs and other endangered citizens of the sea will have to seek out other sheltered habitats to reproduce; Lamu’s indigenous communities may find themselves in the same boat.

Designed to promote economic integration of the larger region, the project’s railway master plan states that the Great Equatorial Land Bridge will also “facilitate cultural exchange” across the vast territory between Douala and Lamu—a distance of over 3,000 kilometres. Such benefits are more spin than reality.

In addition to the range of negative environmental and social impacts, costs on the ground are likely to include the deterioration of Swahili culture, a legacy that developed over the past two millennia. Amu (known to the outside world by its anglicized name, Lamu), long considered the centre of the civilized universe by its indigenous inhabitants, will no longer exist as we know it.
Lamu District’s population grew from 72,686 in 1999 to 85,641 in 2008. This 17.8 per cent increase does not reflect the parallel process of local out-migration during the same period. Yet, Kenya’s national rate of demographic increase over the same period was 2.8 per cent, a whopping 15 per cent below Lamu’s figures. The proposed port will see the current immigration of outsiders responsible for this unprecedented population growth turn into an avalanche.

According to an article in The Standard, the population of the district will balloon to 1 million over the coming years. Displacement has been under way since the late 1960s. The indigenous people of Lamu—long subject to humiliation, harassment and chronic insecurity—have good reasons to fear that they will end up a poor and landless minority in their own homeland.

If the planners talk blithely about cultural exchange, the Lapsset infrastructural elephant is clearly not about the Bajuni exporting coconuts to the pygmies in exchange for the hardwood needed to build their dhows.
More sober observers reckon that it may insure the extinction of the culture and society that gave Kenya its national language and the region its famous lingua franca. Pastoralists inhabiting the rangelands between Lamu and Juba fear the influx of foreign capital and infrastructural development will be the Trojan horse that dooms their identity and way of life. They rue the irony of this happening just when their traditional economy of trading in livestock is generating the monetary value and institutional respect it deserves.
Those opposing the project, in contrast, could be accused of ignoring the big picture motivating its architects, planners and financiers. Kenya, for example, is a dynamic yet poor nation with a government sensitive to the needs of its burgeoning population of young and increasingly educated citizens.
On the surface, the Lamu port at Magogoni and other Lapsset initiatives present a timely opportunity to provide for their long-term welfare. Perhaps the same could be said in respect to the quest for internal energy and food security motivating China and other national governments queuing up to finance the project.

Under conditions where land and citizen rights are secure, local inhabitants aware of the costs imposed by their historical isolation would welcome investment and development on this scale and accept that some eggs will be broken along the way. The diverse voices raising objections in this particular case are not opposed to making an omelet per se. Rather, it’s the unrealistic scale and timelines for implementation, the secrecy of the ‘black box’, and other contradictions invoked by the project’s implementation that raise the alarms.

At a time when the principle of local participation is the rule elsewhere in Kenya and implementation of the new constitution holds out hope that historical injustices will be rectified, the issues raised by the Magogoni Port contradict the content and spirit of the reformist agenda.

The memorandum of understanding for the ROLLA Project—an acronym for
Road, Rail, Oil-Pipeline, Oil-Refinery, Fibre-Optic Cable, Lamu Port and Airport
—a predecessor to Lapsset overtaken by events, granted full control of contracting and hiring to foreign investors and the project included allocating a large tract of prime Tana Delta agricultural land to investors.

After a series of brief meetings with local stakeholders in 2009, the minister of Transport claimed that the mainland site of the port was empty land, and declared the locals to be strong supporters of the project. Although release of the feasibility study undertaken by a Japanese firm and discussion of its contents in parliament is supposed to precede implementation, the government proceeded to issue tenders for the construction of the first three berths.

In the 1980s Magogoni was home to a growing community where internally displaced Bajuni farmers and sedentarized Boni hunter-gathers lived in harmony with a sizeable minority of upcountry settlers. Kenyans need to know both what happened to these people and about the blatant subversion of individual and communal indigenous land ownership that is going on right now.

In local eyes, Lapsset is equated with land-grabbing from above. The primary targets are Magogoni and adjacent areas scheduled for an oil refinery, an international airport, a Dubai-style tourist city and workers’ camps. State elites have reportedly claimed many of the prime parcels. Speculators from coastal tycoons to upcountry investors of more modest means are scrambling to acquire plots, leaving the “legally titled” properties advertised on the internet to more gullible parties.

Reliable sources report that the phenomenon is being replicated in Isiolo and along the designated route to Juba passing through Samburu and Turkana. Issues beyond Kenya’s borders include the quantity and accessibility of new and potential oil deposits in conflicted areas of Uganda, Congo and Southern Sudan.

Oil money can deliver the World Cup to Qatar but translating lines on the map of Africa into a “Great Equatorial Land Bridge” is a much more daunting proposition. Those interested in potential parallels mirroring the scenario unfolding in this part of the world can try typing “Gwadar” in their Google search box. Several years ago the Chinese financed the development of a modern port in this traditional Pakistani dhow harbour and transport links transiting the hinterland of central Asia. Hyped to promote prosperity and regional integration, the Gwadar project spawned massive corruption and land-grabbing by state elites, and fuelled a raging insurgency by Baluchi secessionists. The three Gwadar berths completed before things went awry still remain unused.

A Daily Nation report on the prospects for Kenya in 2011 cited a statement by the latest occupant of the Transport ministry, who stated, “When we are ready, we shall hit the ground and show the locals how they will get involved.” Meanwhile, back in Lamu, there are reports of locals jumping the gun.

The State House interests unveiled in one of the WikiLeaks documents appear unconcerned with security implications of the Gwadar project and other hotbeds of Islamist ferment—like the situation in Somalia a mere 30 kilometres north of the proposed port.

Farmers are vowing to die defending their smallholdings. Their less valorous neighbours are reportedly cutting down trees and burning their houses. The interception of several school leavers intent on joining Al Shabaab last November vindicated rumours of the growing number of locals slipping across the border.

Although Lamu has been one the region’s most important ports for centuries, since 1963 state interventions have worked to choke the traditional Lamu economy based on dhow building, mangrove poles, small-scale fishing and agriculture, and local and international maritime transport.

That the port is sounding the death knell for sub-Saharan Africa’s most sophisticated maritime culture is the project’s darkest irony. That the same infrastructure development could be undertaken more efficiently by encouraging local participation and through partnerships with the new county governments may prove to be its cruellest contradiction.


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