American author Augustine “Og” Mandino once said: “I am here for a purpose and that purpose is to grow into a mountain, not to shrink to a grain of sand. Henceforth will I apply all my efforts to become the highest mountain of all and I will strain my potential until it cries for mercy."
He might as well have had Kenya in mind as the leading economy in East Africa, but that position is being challenged.
Worst of all, Kenyans are not together in this fight. Some citizens are levelling deadly friendly fire. Kenya must act boldly, ignore critics and act decisively to safeguard her position, not just as the regional economic hub, but also as the gateway to East Africa.
We became the gateway to the region because of two things: a working port and a railway line. We need to build on this legacy and not surrender to competitors.
To leverage on our position as a gateway, we need to extend the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) into Uganda and build the Lapsset projects fast.
If we don’t, Tanzania will eat our meal, while in the North, Djibouti and Ethiopia might collaborate to provide an alternative, albeit a more costl route.
To build these projects, we must honour with wisdom of the late George Saitoti: ‘’There comes a time when the nation is more important than an individual.’’
Kenya is the natural gateway to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the DR Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia and even the Central African Republic. These countries should be thinking of how to increase trade with us, not how to build alternative routes to the sea.
Efforts to divert attention from Kenya as the gateway must be resisted. Kenya must reassert itself and thwart any imaginations of undermining her economic lifeblood.
To fight off this emerging problem, we must build a pro-active business case for retaining the existing trade route without antagonising neighbouring countries.
First, an efficient infrastructure like SGR, through the shorter distance between Kenya and her landlocked sisters, would lead to more trade and enhanced mutual benefits.
This is not an issue that the country should waste time debating. Even the worst critic of SGR would agree that any measures by Uganda to shift her age-old partnership with Kenya would be catastrophic.
There are times when one must ignore economic analysis and short-term predictions to make a strategic decision for the country.
Kenya must also actualize the Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (Lapsset) as a strategy for developing a sustained competitive advantage.
Being a dominant economy in the region has its own benefits that Kenya must protect at all times. Some key decisions made elsewhere often favour Kenya because of her dominant position.
If Kenya remains oblivious to what is happening in the region, other countries will easily take over. Ethiopia, for instance, will be the largest regional economy in under ten years.
The World Bank says Ethiopia will be the fastest growing economy in the world in 2016. From an agriculture-based economy, Ethiopia has been pushing to diversify into manufacturing, textiles, and energy generation.
This means it is in need of cheaper, efficient, routes for import and export. Uganda, too, has also been diversifying into manufacturing, while South Sudan needs a reliable route for exporting its crude oil.
Every country in the world is faced with problems similar to those facing Kenya. The difference is that in most fast advancing countries, citizens are clear on what needs to be done and trust their leaders to implement what is in the national interest.
Kenya is consumed with politics and opposition for opposition’s sake. Often, development is stagnated as the country tries to appease critics.
This is where the country goes wrong. Leadership is a risk taking exercise. What is right must be pursued regardless of popularity. As former UK prime minister Margret Thatcher once said: “Too much consensus is a negation of leadership.”
Kenya has had challenges with the development of the SGR from Mombasa to Naivasha. Those challenges should not derail the strategic position of the country to the extent of causing our traditional trading partners to start second-guessing Kenya’s suitability as their gateway to the world.
Nothing illustrates this better than Uganda’s reconsideration of an MoU it had signed with Kenya to build a pipeline through Kenya, and her overtures to Tanzania that the pipeline could go through the much longer route to Tanga through a game park.
There is a case for Kenya to do whatever is possible to retain and improve what has worked for many years. Start by extending the SGR into Uganda, and let no noise derail the plan.
The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business.