If SGR is so important why can’t Kenyans and Ugandans pay for it?

Monday August 14 2023
Kenya SGR

A railway photo illustration. PHOTO | NMG


Government officials of the two strongly connected, but deeply indebted, republics of Kenya and Uganda are criss-crossing the globe looking for another debt of $6 billion. It is for building a railway to connect South Sudan, DR Congo and Rwanda through the two to Mombasa port.

But are their 100 million citizens (53 million Kenyans and 47 million Ugandans) expected to fast and pray that another $6 billion gets added to the foreign debt yoke of $60 billion?

Are we so obsessed with figure “6” that we think the yoke will look even nicer at $66 billion than $60 billion? Indeed, Kenya will be clocking 60 years in December, when the “new” railway project works are supposed to kick off, meaning now both countries will be in the six decades age category.

Read: Uganda, Kenya seek funds in joint bid to take SGR to DRC

Before the 100 million citizens fast and pray for our brilliant economists to pull off the simple feat acquiring the $6 billion yoke (there’s no shortage of money lenders out there in an increasingly ruthlessly world seeking sovereign necks to yoke, especially when they have attachable resources plus a 100 million taxable citizens) we need to be told if the wonderful “new” railway will be powered electrically or by fossil fuel in this age of fighting climate change.

The 100 million of us who are not experts at analysing cash flow amortisation sheets need to be told in simple language if we don’t risk getting stuck with unserviceable diesel engines in the near future, especially as the capacity to refine our crude oil is still eluding us. Yet Uganda is generating more electricity than it can consume and creating capacity to generate more through debt to build dams and a nuclear plant, which debt will have to be paid.


We definitely need the railway, even longer that the one the $6 billion can build. But is borrowing the best way in the circumstances to raise the $6 billion? Again, we who are not financial experts need to be told in simple language why two countries that boast an average per capita GDP of $1,500 cannot pick $10 from each of the 100 million citizens per year for six years (six again) to finance this all-important project.

Are the GDP statistics wrong, or are they not connected to reality? Can those brilliant economists saying they have high chances of mobilising $6 billion from lenders also consider getting it from the 100 million people if the proposed project is that important? And what is more, who doesn’t know that these loans swell the cost of a project several times? Talk to engineers in management and some will swear that the true cost of such projects is actually the local counter fund component, so what is borrowed abroad is actually unnecessary, only enriching lenders and their local friends.

Looking at the railway itself, we who are not material-science experts need to be told in plain language the source of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of steel to be used, considering that there are millions of tonnes of good iron ore in western Uganda.

Read: Kenya, Uganda source funds to revive SGR project

We who aren’t so clever need to know why Uganda does not contribute twice or thrice the amount of iron required for the railway, so the engineering and mining firms involved can pay themselves with it, rather than increase our debt burden, and offer “free” electricity, which it can generate but not use.

If hydro electricity cannot be stored, the cargo trains can move at the time when it is being generated and there are no users. The UN told us last month that our countries are now spending more on debt servicing than on health or education. Why increase the debt to buy things we already have?

It’s worrying when economists of two connected countries that have been independent for six decades can’t put together enough skills, resources and thinking hours to what colonialists did 120 years ago without begging abroad. Our economists seem to think it is all about finding lenders, so then they have succeeded.

If that is their key performance indicator, some right-thinking authority should revise it.

Curiously from the map of the planned railway, Lake Victoria is not factored into the route.

From Naivasha, the new line is supposed to go to Kisumu, then Malaba, where it forks into Uganda westwards to Kampala, DR Congo and Rwanda and northwards to Juba in South Sudan. How many hundreds of millions of dollars would be saved if westward-bound cargo moved by water from Kisumu to Kampala, Jinja and Masaka ports on barges?

The technical documents that are being used to solicit the $6 billion no doubt have answers to these simplistic questions, so let some simplified answers be given to the simple taxpayers who are expected to pay the debt, so they can willingly go on their knees and pray for an honest lender to be found.