Former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki built Kenya’s Great Infrastructure Church and went. President Uhuru Kenyatta followed him and is now the Pope of the church.
The Kenyatta government, and a slew of county governors, are dyed-in-the-wool infrastructure fundamentalists and have built roads, by-passes, highways, expressways, and some rail like they are going out of fashion.
It seemed like the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway was going to be Kenyatta’s big trophy. Then about 18 months ago, work started on the Nairobi Expressway, the 27-kilometre toll flyover connecting Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to various suburbs. It has cut the time to the airport from two to four hours from many points to about 20 minutes.
At the price of $668 million, it is a tidy sum. At the start, it seemed opposition from environmentalists and activists who saw it as a wasteful vanity project, would kill it. Then Covid-19 came around. With the country in lockdown, the Kenyatta government put the project on steroids. By the time opponents emerged from Covid jail, Kenyatta had built his thing.
Recently, Kenyatta patted himself on the back, saying the project would have taken four years under normal circumstances, but his government pulled it off in 18 months.
The sceptics, though, remain unpersuaded and hold that it is a monument to political madness. The expressway raises the same questions that were thrown up by other expensive projects in East Africa; the Kigali Convention Centre in Rwanda; the resurrection of once-hopelessly failed national carriers like Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania; the souping up of the Julius Nyerere International Airport, and the numerous other infrastructure splurges in the region.
Some of these, like the Kigali Convention Centre, broke even within two years. Devotees of the Infrastructure Church say they always pay off, and that sometimes the biggest returns are easy to miss.
In a recent encounter, a bishop of the Infrastructure Church in Uganda disarmed me with his homily about the beauty of building, or even simply promising that you will lay down a lot of concrete and mortar.
He gave the example of President Yoweri Museveni’s government’s announcement that 15 towns were now cities. Many of them had extremely dubious claims to city status. If your view of a city is that it must have a prestigious theatre, a couple of cinemas, a competitive high school and university, a couple of malls, a substantial middle class with suburbs to match, an airport, and a modern bureaucracy to run it, don’t look to the new Ugandan cities.
However, the Infrastructure Bishop said just calling the towns cities had a considerable impact. Many residents immediately stopped thinking of themselves as small-town folks but as city people. They started to eat different, driving up the consumption of certain foods, including rice and ice cream. They started to dress differently. Chaps are even building more elegant homes. Those behavioural changes have been transformational for some town economies.
If he is right, the Nairobi Expressway could make Nairobi feel like it is Los Angeles or Shanghai, and in the process become one of them. That could be the church Kenyatta bequeaths when he rides off into the sunset after the August elections.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter @cobbo3