25 October 2010

Kenya: Lamu's U.S.$16 Billion Makeover


Nairobi — In the recent past, Kenya has been stirred by two different but intertwined events that are shaping its future.

One is the adoption of a new Constitution that has radically changed the structure of governance, with government taken closer to the people via counties.

The other is the release of the 2010 population census that has seen regional demographics take on a new significance. With the new constitution, a key determinant of the national cake to be apportioned to a county will be its population.

Lamu County is the least populated in the country, with only slightly over 100,000 people. It is also one of the least developed.

It does not have a single kilometre of tarmac road, for instance, nearly 50 years after Independence.

Yet size-wise, its area is about half that of Central Province which has hundreds of kilometres of paved roads.

Going by the dictates of the new Constitution and the results of the census, Lamu is one of the counties to be allocated the least funds.

Without other means to spur development, it could continue to lag behind, trapped in a time warp, decades behind the rest of the country.

Things are set to change, though, as Lamu gears up to reclaim its position as one of the most economically important towns of East Africa.

The main reason for this resurgence is, of course, the Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset), a massive project unlike any other attempted in East Africa.

When complete, it will comprise a port, international airport and refinery at Lamu, and a labyrinth of road, rail and pipeline covering Kenya, Ethiopia and Southern Sudan.

And with the estimated cost running over Ksh1.2 trillion ($16 billion), it is certain that wheelers and dealers perched atop the citadels of corruption are salivating - in three countries no less - raring to dip their hands into a banquet of multibillion-dollar contracts.

To start Lapsset in earnest, an international tender inviting expression of interest for the first phase of the port was advertised for, on Monday October 13, for the first three berths at Manda Bay.

The tender specifies that dredging is to be to a depth of up to 18.5 metres. Such depth allows for the docking of large ships that currently cannot call on ports anywhere else on the East African coast.

Another reason for the revitalisation of the area is the attraction of Lamu Old Town, the oldest of the living Afro-Arabic - or Swahili - towns on the East African coast.

Archeological records show human habitation going as far back as the eighth century, which is to say that when the Bantus and the Nilotes were moving in from the Congo forest and the Sudan to come and settle in Kenya, Lamu was already in existence.

The old town that stands today has had more than seven centuries of continuous settlement. Its narrow streets remain unchanged and its old buildings and architecture are among the best preserved in the region.

In 2001, Unesco named it a World Heritage Site, further enhancing its mystique and appeal. As a place of historic significance and a tourist attraction, the town has very few rivals in the region.

Yet another reason for the resuscitation of Lamu is that most of the area has not been affected by modernity. It is still wild, with game just about everywhere.

Where there are pockets of human settlement - at Witu, Kipini, Mpeketoni, Hindi, Mokowe and Kiunga - wildlife is close by.

People coexist with animals in an uneasy symbiosis. Many a sad tale of deadly encounters with poisonous snakes are told, for instance.

However, two major wildlife reserves - Dodori and Boni - established in 1976, are a good distance from where most people live.

Dodori runs along the coastline on the mainland from across Lamu island all the way to Kiunga, near the Kenya-Somalia border.

It is a sanctuary for giant clams, sea turtles, dugongs, and nesting birds. Boni extends from a little inland in Lamu to North Eastern province along the Kenya-Somalia border.

There is also Kiunga Marine National Park, which includes dozens of small coral islands and coral reefs. The park runs for about 60 kilometres at the northern end of Lamu.

Many of the animal species found in other parts of the country are also found in Lamu - birds, big game such as elephants, buffalo, lions, giraffes and hippos, primates such as baboons and monkey, reptiles - huge monitor lizards and snakes such as the poisonous puff adders, spitting cobras and the constrictor pythons.

In addition to wildlife, Lamu has acres and acres of undeveloped beaches, extending about 200km from the mouth of the Tana River to the Kenya-Somalia border.

Lapsset's port, refinery and international airport will be built in a place where there is no modern infrastructure.

Virtually everything has to be put up from scratch, and support industries in service and manufacturing have to be developed. Trained manpower has to be brought in, too.

The influx of workers, professionals and business people seeking new opportunities from elsewhere in the country will increase the population exponentially.

A few years after completion of Lapsset, it is expected that a modern city of more than a million will have developed on the mainland near the port.

History is said to be cyclical, and if there is an example, Lamu's as good as any. By the 15th century, it was a flourishing, influential city-state with a port exporting goods from East Africa and importing goods from the Arabian Peninsula and the Far East.

This most important trading outpost in East Africa only declined when other towns like Zanzibar took over as the hub of maritime trade, and its decline accelerated when the Mombasa-Uganda railway was completed in 1901.

If the projects associated with the Lamu port are completed according to plan, Lamu will spring back to its former glory.

It will be reinvented as a modern economic hub - a world-class tourist destination with sunny beaches and game. And a stone's throw away will be a key industrial city, and the biggest and busiest port in East Africa.

Come the 2020 census and one thing is certain - Lamu County won't be the least populated.

John Rugoiyo is a freelance writer.

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