Kenyatta Expressway could make Nairobi feel like Los Angeles

By Charles Onyango Obbo

Former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki built Kenya’s Great Infrastructure Church and left. President Uhuru Kenyatta succeeded him and is now the Pope of the Church.

The Kenyatta government and a number of county governors are diehard infrastructure fundamentalists and have been building roads, bypasses, freeways, expressways and some railroad tracks as if they were going out of style.

It seemed like the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway was going to be Kenyatta’s big trophy. Then, about 18 months ago, work began on the Nairobi Expressway, the 27-kilometer toll overpass connecting Jomo Kenyatta International Airport with various suburbs. It has reduced the time to the airport from two to four hours to around 20 minutes in many places.

At a price of $668 million, that’s a tidy sum. At first it seemed opposition from environmentalists and activists, who saw it as a wasteful vanity project, would kill it. Then came Covid-19. With the country under lockdown, the Kenyatta government injected steroids into the project. By the time opponents emerged from Covid prison, Kenyatta had his thing set up.

Recently, Kenyatta patted himself on the back and said the project would have taken four years under normal circumstances, but his government pulled it off in 18 months.

However, skeptics remain unconvinced, deeming it a monument to political madness. The expressway raises the same questions that have raised other expensive projects in East Africa; the Kigali Convention Center in Rwanda; the revival of once hopelessly failed national carriers such as Uganda Airlines and Air Tanzania; the upgrade of Julius Nyerere International Airport and the numerous other infrastructure gems in the region.

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Some of these, like the Kigali Convention Centre, have broken even within two years. Infrastructure Church followers say they always pay off, and sometimes the biggest rewards are easy to overlook.

In a recent encounter, a Bishop of the Infrastructure Church in Uganda disarmed me with his sermon on the beauty of building or simply with a promise that you would put a lot of concrete and mortar on it.

As an example, he cited the announcement by President Yoweri Museveni’s government that 15 cities are now cities. Many of them had extremely dubious claims to city status. If you look at a city like this, it must have a reputable theatre, a few cinemas, a competitive high school and university, a few shopping malls, a sizable middle class with suburbs to match, an airport and a modern bureaucracy. Don’t look at the new Ugandan cities .

However, the infrastructure bishop said that simply designating the towns as towns had a significant impact. Many residents immediately no longer saw themselves as small town people, but as city people. They began eating differently, which fueled consumption of certain foods, including rice and ice cream. They started dressing differently. Chaps build even more elegant houses. These behavioral changes have been transformative for some urban economies.

If he’s right, the Nairobi Expressway could make Nairobi feel like Los Angeles or Shanghai, and become one of them in the process. This could be the church Kenyatta will leave behind as he rides into the sunset after August’s election.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. Twitter @cobbo3

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