MWANGI: Sigiri: Living monument of what graft can do

Sigiri Bridge
Section of Sigiri Bridge that collapsed on Monday, June 26, 2017.

The collapse of the near-complete Sigiri Bridge in western Kenya has once again shone the spotlight on overpriced mega infrastructure projects. Its collapse could not have come at a more inconvenient time for the government, with only weeks to the country’s general election.

The $12 million infrastructure project had been inspected by President Uhuru Kenyatta only a couple of weeks earlier and was touted as an example of the Jubilee administration’s development record. The president and his deputy William Ruto have sought to deflect attention from the massive corruption that has characterized their time in power by pointing at grand infrastructure projects being undertaken, especially the standard gauge railway.

Even before Sigiri, the word on the street regarding the quality of Chinese products has never really been favourable. Some evidence of this ill reputation is easily available from any major supermarket: Toys that tear apart after a couple of hours, torches that last a couple of days, and so on.

Rumours of “plastic rice” from China have been rife on social media. Deaths of soldiers from armoured vehicles blown up by landmines have been blamed on the poor quality of Chinese armoured personnel carriers. And the Internet is not short of images of collapsed Chinese-built infrastructure projects.

Still, that bad reputation has been worsened by bitter competition from rivals, especially Western firms that have lost out as the Chinese make their foray into Africa. To be fair, not all the criticism is justified. Roads and bridges do get washed away by a violent Mother Nature all over the world, for instance – though this can hardly be said to have been the case at Sigiri.

The excellent work carried out on projects such as the Thika Superhighway, in particular, has helped to show that the Chinese are indeed capable of executing major projects to satisfaction. The collapse of Sigiri once again threatens to destroy that reputation and lower it to the level of Chinese toys.

Indeed, while the opposition has naturally exploited the Sigiri collapse to advance their campaign agenda, the incident raises a number of pertinent issues. Of paramount concern is the quality of workmanship. The Chinese have been winning huge contracts in Kenya and other sub-Saharan African countries. It has been taken for granted that they bring technical expertise not available locally and that the standard of their multibillion-dollar projects is beyond reproach. That can no longer be said to be the case.

Furthermore, it appears that supervision of public projects by local government engineers is wanting. When any contractor performs a poor job on a project, what is often forgotten is that there is always a government engineer to ensure that the project is completed according to specifications. So, what happened at Sigiri?

The obvious conclusion that cannot be far from the truth is that many of these engineers are usually compromised and collude with contractors to put up substandard works. Isn’t it shameful, anyway, that well over 50 years after independence, East Africa’s engineers cannot build a bridge? Or is it a question of ignoring our own professionals to please foreigners?

There is also the exorbitant cost of projects that has seen the national debt double under President Uhuru Kenyatta, whose borrowing spree has exceeded that of all previous administrations put together. That debt burden and its debilitating effect on future generations and on the country’s sovereignty continues to be debated.

Making matters worse is the suspicion by the public that much of the country’s new debt under President Kenyatta’s watch has been swindled by people close to the heart of government. There is little to show for billions of dollars that has been borrowed on the pretext of undertaking public projects, yet these debts will have to be paid by the Kenyan taxpayer.

As it is, the collapse of the Sigiri bridge was simply one incident that brought all the rot to the surface. That rot can be seen most clearly in the national government, though it is by no means restricted to it. Taking cue from the central government, county governors and their associates have been looting everything they can lay their hands on.                          

But with the elections looming, Sigiri and all other shoddy contracts seem to have become water under the bridge, as it were. The ethnic factor is what counts most in Kenya’s politics, and the country moves on.

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Story By Isaac Mwangi
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