Promises of economic prosperity for all as Kenya launches $3.2 billion China-built railway

On Wednesday morning, the first train departed from the Kenyan port city of Mombasa to the capital of Nairobi on a new China-built railway that promises to one day link together much of East Africa, ushering in a golden era of prosperity for the region.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was on hand to take part in the launch of the Madaraka Express which was built in just three-and-a-half years by Chinese contractors, opening 18 months ahead of schedule. The 470 km line cuts the trip from Mombasa to Nairobi to just four-and-a-half hours, compared to 12 hours aboard the old, outdated railway built by the British over a century ago.

In the future, the comfy and modern Standard Gauge Railway will link Kenya with its neighbors, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia. In a speech in front of the Mombasa railway station, Kenyatta said that the rail line signals a new chapter in his country’s history.

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“A history that was first started 122 years ago when the British, who had colonized this nation, kicked off the train to nowhere… it was then dubbed the ‘Lunatic Express,'” Kenyatta said. “Today… despite again a lot of criticism we now celebrate not the ‘Lunatic Express’ but the Madaraka Express [named after the day Kenya’s attained internal self-rule] that would begin to reshape the story of Kenya for the next 100 years.”

As Kenyatta admits, while the railway’s construction was quick it was not quiet; surrounded by allegations of corruption and criticism about its high cost. The railway is Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project since the country achieved independence in 1963, costing $3.2 billion raised from Chinese backers.

However, the project’s supporters claim that the railway will bring more than enough economic returns to justify the high price tag. Kenya’s Transport Minister James Macharia told Al Jazeera that the railway will boost the country’s GDP by 1.5%, so that Kenya will be able to pay back its loan from the Chinese in around four years.

“I think that is a little bit of wishful thinking,” economist Kwame Owino told the AFP, questioning rosy estimates about how much cargo will be available for the rail line to transport. “My feeling as an economist is that it is going to be a white elephant, but as a taxpayer, I hope not.”

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Meanwhile, Kenyatta has said that he is serious about protecting his investment. At the opening ceremony, the president gave his approval for the executions of four people who were recently caught damaging sections of the railway.

“I’m the only one authorized to approve a capital punishment but I have never done it,” he said. “I preferred pardoning the guilty and having them serve life imprisonment sentences. But those who will be sentenced for destruction of public property… God forgive me… I will approve their hanging.”

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Environmentalists have also raised concerns about the railway which slices right through one of Kenya’s greatest natural treasures, the Tsavao National Park. Kenya’s largest national park, Tsavao, is home to a wide variety of the country’s signature wildlife including large herds of elephants.

However, the Kenyan government and the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), which oversaw the project, have brushed off these worries with the CRBC explaining that the migration patterns of the animals were accounted for in the railway’s design thanks to the input of local rangers and zoologists.

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The project continues to make China’s dream of covering the Earth’s surface in rails into a reality. Only last October, a China-built railway linking Ethiopia and Djibouti opened to much fanfare, promising similar economic benefits to African countries, not to mention to Chinese manufacturers. At the opening ceremony, Xi Jinping’s envoy hailed the project as “a railway of Sino-African friendship in the 21st century.”

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