MWANGI: The season of mega infrastructure, misplaced priorities is here

MWANGI: The season of mega infrastructure, misplaced priorities is here
MWANGI: The season of mega infrastructure, misplaced priorities is here

By Isaac Mwangi, East African News Agency

The huge infrastructure projects coming up around East Africa have been lifted up as symbols of the successes the region is achieving on the economic front. An ugly side is only now however beginning to emerge.

No doubt, the impressive projects are having a positive impact on local peoples and economies everywhere. The most grandiose of all these projects is certainly the standard gauge railway, which will snake its way from the port of Mombasa to Uganda and perhaps onwards to Rwanda and Burundi.

Each of the five partner states has its mega projects lined up. With Kenya having the largest economy in the region, it is only natural that the country probably has the most impressive projects: Apart from the new railway, a new oil pipeline will connect the country to the oil fields in Uganda and South Sudan, while a brand new port is under construction at Lamu.

This is not to mention the new Thika Superhighway built under former president Mwai Kibaki’s leadership, a project that has reawakened real estate investments in the neighbouring areas. New malls have come up, and the formerly quiet Thika town is now bustling with activity and experiencing traffic jams.

But Kibaki, who started the construction frenzy in Kenya, did not stop there. He virtually turned the whole country into a construction zone. People were impressed, never mind the billions that were lost through corrupt deals in the process.

To varying extents, what Kenya began experiencing during Kibaki’s era is now being replicated throughout East Africa. Young men who would otherwise have been desperate in the slums and villages can now afford to put a meal on the table. And the ripple effect on whole economies cannot be underestimated.

For countries with limited resources, however, the wisdom of some of these projects is questionable. Throughout East Africa, poor people hardly have access to drugs in hospitals, while education is increasingly becoming unaffordable. The question is, given a choice between maintaining a healthy and educated population or building a modern railway, which of these would most propel a country’s development?

Human capacity is the most important resource that any country can have. Innovators, doctors, lawyers and professionals of all sorts and cadres in our midst were created through nurturing our educational institutions, not through roads and railways.

There has to be a balance, of course, but a balance that must lean in favour of human beings as the drivers of development rather than mega projects. That simple lesson, unfortunately, seems to have been lost on East Africa’s leaders. The temptation  to leave a legacy of huge projects – some sort of empire building – appears more attractive to them than a legacy of excellence in the arts and sciences, with accompanying improvement in basic standards of living.

And so, when Kenyan teachers went on strike at the beginning of the new term in September, President Uhuru Kenyatta promptly used every available means to frustrate them, including ignoring court orders. It seemed to matter little to the ruling elites that millions of children were missing classes.

Faced with mounting pressure from a government that did not care about the consequences of disobeying court orders on the rule of law, teachers finally trooped back to class – a frustrated lot. Not exactly the kind of situation for motivated teaching and learning. While the government flexed its muscles, therefore, the country’s future was sacrificed – young doctors, engineers, lawyers-to-be will have to work extra hard through the public school system.

The gravity of the situation was also lost, unbelievably, on a section of the mainstream media. One media , in particular, was celebratory about the frustration the teachers had been put through, gleefully shouting in headline: “Broke teachers return to class.”

Yes, the teachers lost this time round. But Kenya lost, and East Africa with it. Governments in the region have been turning increasingly dictatorial, but ignoring and trying to manipulate the judiciary is a sure recipe for a failed state.

Even more sadly, the trend to favour mega infrastructure projects – most likely because of the opportunities for corruption that such projects avail – shows that we have completely lost our focus on what exactly development is all about. The end result will be increased inequality and a perpetuation of injustices in our midst.

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