Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga has blamed Chinese commercial interests for the raging controversy over the construction of a modern railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, and asked President Uhuru Kenyatta to address the questions raised about the project.
Mr Odinga told Sunday Nation that the claims and counter-claims about the integrity of the railway tender have put the project in jeopardy, but cautioned that cancelling it will cost Kenyans billions of shillings.
“The costs of cancelling the contract are dire. The contractor will move to court and seek damages, arguing that they had already mobilised resources. We will pay them money and miss the railway,” said Mr Odinga.
He is now urging the President to appoint a committee in government to ensure that the contradictions are addressed and all questions answered in order to close the controversy over the Sh320 billion project. Mr Odinga also wants the costs re-examined to ensure that there is value for money.
The Cord leader also said the cost should be explained with comparisons of similar projects elsewhere.
At the same time, the former PM sounded the alarm over the varying figures bandied by the government on the cost of the railway, and challenged the President and his experts to come clear on the matter.
“Government officers are behaving like the blind men who touched an elephant. Each had a different explanation for what he touched. That is why we have too many conflicting reports on the length of the rail, number of wagons, stations to be built and where they will be built.”
Two House committees are investigating the award of the contract to a Chinese firm, China Road and Bridge Corporation.
The contract to construct a standard gauge railway was awarded without competitive bidding, and questions have been raised about the cost, legality and transparency of the process.
As premier, Mr Odinga chaired the Cabinet sub-committee on infrastructure which, at one time, oversaw the initial processes of the project. Other officials were former Transport minister Chirau Ali Mwakwere, former Principal Secretary Cyrus Njiru and former Head of Civil Service Francis Muthaura.
He blamed the Jubilee Government of mishandling debate around the project, and encouraged the President to be more candid on the issue.
“Parliament is not going to come up with solutions because the two teams are likely to reach two contradicting verdicts. The President should tone down the adversarial public approach and address the matter in-house to prevent further damage,” he said.
“Mr Kenyatta should manage the adverse publicity which the project has attracted, and counter propaganda with facts to convince Kenyans they are not being cheated of their taxes.”
Moreover, the former PM suggested, the President should have set up a committee to answer questions to prevent inconsistencies which have characterised government reaction.
As an alternative, the former PM proposed that the president appoints a small team of technical experts to re-look into the process to ensure no money is lost. He says a similar team rescued the Lamu port project from similar wrangles.
“What we are witnessing is a vicious commercial war fuelled by Chinese interests that were competing for the project. The same interests are fighting over a similar project in Uganda,” said Mr Odinga during an interview with Sunday Nation at his Bondo home on Friday.
Government officials have said at one stage that they were following the rules laid out by the Chinese and, at another stage, they defended their action as covered by a government-to-government arrangement.
By Kenyan procurement law, China Road and Bridge should not have been awarded the contract because they also conducted the feasibility study. It is thought other Chinese companies were waiting for the announcement of the tendering process, which did not happen.
The same procurement law indicates that a contractor can undertake a project without competitive bidding as long as a foreign government is financing 100 per cent of the project.
In the case of the railway, China is financing 85 per cent while Kenya is injecting 15 per cent, which means that there should have been competitive procurement restricted to Chinese companies with a presence in Kenya, as happens in other projects.
During the interview, Mr Odinga called on President Kenyatta to address all issues raised properly.
“I fear for the project. I fear that propaganda might win the war. We must isolate the chaff from facts and propaganda. There are vicious undercurrents behind the scenes. I am encouraging the President to ensure that propaganda does not win because Kenya needs the railway.”
Mr Odinga, an engineer, said though he supports the railway project, he is doubtful about the cost, saying certain prices may be inflated.
President Kenyatta has declared that the project will go on as planned, and blamed the shadowy forces that seek to derail it.
The former PM said the project was conceived to protect roads by ensuring most cargo is transported by rail, and not road as is the case currently.
The President has pointed out that the railway line will reduce transport costs significantly, and also reduce transit time by freight trains from 30 hours on average to eight.
Apart from increasing rail transport share and thereby reduce damage to the road network, the President maintains, the project is core to the attainment of Vision 2030.
“Businesses will thrive. Thousands of jobs will be created. I, for one, believe that the delivery of that Vision 2030 can be brought forward a full decade if we implement our infrastructure development agenda within the tight time-frames we have set for ourselves,” President Kenyatta told journalists at a live news conference on Tuesday last week.
He vowed to see it to completion and accused unnamed business interests of fighting projects after losing tenders. In this case, however, there had not been any competition for the project.
In his statement to the Parliamentary Investments Committee, Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary Michael Kamau said that the project was authorised by Cabinet in August 2012, which had directed that the railway be built through a government-to-government arrangement.
The Cabinet had also proposed that Uganda and Rwanda be invited into the deal to make it a worthwhile economic project to serve the East African Region.