In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Enash contemplates transportation problems in Kenya, while stuck in traffic in the capital.
On a hot, sticky Nairobi afternoon, I find myself stuck in yet another congestion for hours on the city’s famous, traffic-cluttered roads.
In recent months, however, this situation has become worse due to the construction of the Nairobi Highway, which has led to a new level of chaos in the capital.
Upon completion, it will be a 27-kilometer (17 miles) expressway, linking the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in the east of the city to the Nairobi-Nakuru Expressway in the west.
The $ 550 million (£ 410 million) project is set to dramatically change the city’s skyline and aims to ease the flow of traffic in and out of central East Africa’s main commercial hub.
Kenyan officials have described the highway as a key infrastructure project that will spur modernization.
The elevated expressway was partially proposed about 10 years ago, but delays meant it was only started in October by President Uhuru Kenyatta.
However, the speed of its construction surprised many Nairobi residents. Indeed, it looks like a gigantic gash across town and the constant buzzing of building noise, trucks raising dust and honking car horns all add to the confusion.
“Toast Zoom in on”
It is funded and constructed by China Roads and Bridges Corporation (CRBC) – The Chinese company will operate the expressway under a public-private partnership.
This means that the four- and six-lane dual road, with 10 junctions along the road, will not be free to use – drivers will have to pay tolls between $ 2 and $ 3.
The goal of improving Nairobi’s roads appears to be a laudable cause, but some argue that it may actually exacerbate the city’s traffic problems and the massive socio-economic gap.
Most residents use matatus – Private minibuses – Or boda boda motorcycle taxis for travel to and from work.
But questions remain about whether these forms of transportation will be able to afford tolls for highway use.
It could mean that they are left in traffic down the highway while the elite overtakes them.
Another point of contention is the environmental impact of the project. An international focus has been on Nairobi’s famous fig tree, which the president rescued after protests.
However, hundreds of other trees are being cut down to make way for the new path, and activists have little confidence in replanting any of them – and it would also mean permanent loss of some green areas and destruction of bird habitats.
Many see this as a wreck of Kenya’s legacy Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, Which is best known for standing up to major government-backed developments in Nairobi.
This highway project is the latest in Kenyan Chinese-backed infrastructure project in recent years.
In 2019, I took the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) from Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa – a six-hour journey in comfort, although the price of the ticket and check-in made it more like a flight.
The $ 3.2 billion railway project built and financed by China was intended to link the coast to Naivasha, 76 kilometers northwest of Nairobi, and then to the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
But this has now been put on hold because Kenya has failed to secure funding from the Chinese to complete the line. Currently, construction work is suspended until finances are settled.
Due to the SGR, Kenya is now largely indebted to China, with Chinese loans accounting for 21% of its external debt.
Some have left wondering about the wisdom of the Nairobi Highway.
However, regardless of the cost to Nairobi’s residents, it looks like this project will end – in fact, the Chinese company announced its opening six months ahead of schedule – just in time for Kenya’s next presidential election in 2022.