Opinion: Beware railway; in 1987, Kenya and Uganda fought war over it

On Monday in the coastal city of Mombasa, traders demonstrated against the Nairobi government’s decision to transport all containers from the port to Nairobi Inland Container Deport — via the standard gauge railway.

Critics of the decision to move goods by SGR to Nairobi, after being offloaded from ships, say it’s not necessarily cheaper; it creates a monopoly and will render jobless thousands of people who have invested in trucking and their drivers. The protesters had many supporters. And that’s what piqued our interest. It reminded us that this railway vs. road business is not just about transport or economics; it’s bigger.


Wiser men and women have written and told us for years that East Africa as we know it today, was shaped by the railway. In Kenya and Uganda especially, most development happened along the “railway corridor”. Most early schools, hospitals, churches, mosques, towns, tea, coffee and other big plantations, and mines, were all built 15 to 100 kilometres from the railway.

People from outside the corridors would still get a piece of the goodies brought by railway, but they had to leave their home areas and travel to the corridor. Then they usually stayed along the corridor to pursuit opportunities, and their skills and innovations benefited the Railway Corridor Natives.

The people who live along the railway corridor, by and large, got a leg first in the modern world and its economy. They were the first educated, the first workers in the colonial states, and the best positioned to take over from the mzungu at independence. They became the post-independence elite and power class with all its trappings.

The railway in that sense, was a key organising principle of the modern African state. But, for several reasons, you can’t build railways to many places. For that we needed roads. Roads were largely built to ferry stuff and labour from the interior to the rail corridor. But roads also became the main means by which “development” was taken outside the railway corridor; they were the great equaliser.

By the end of the 1980s, the railway age begun to die out in most of Africa. Coups, corrupt and brutal military dictatorship, disastrous “socialist” experiments, and the global commodity crisis that sent mines and crop commodities into a plunge, wrecked the railways. In the last 15 years there has been a general railway revival, hence the birth of Kenya’s SGR.


Many of the old tensions between the railway and roads are evident in the Mombasa action. When you get on the SGR and do an express ride to Mombasa, you will not stop to buy roast maize and meat on the roadside; you will not stop to pee in the restaurant along the highway and buy drinks and mandazi on your way out; nor will you stop to fuel at the gas stations along the way.

However, beside the arguments about the cost of SGR, and the government interference in a free transport market, the reality is that railway transport is more efficient and makes better economic sense for bulk importers and exporters. And anyone who has travelled to East Africa’s main borders, will be forgiven for thinking that we have reached the limit of moving goods by road unless we make massive new investments in infrastructure.

And, to remind us how serious this railway vs. road feud is, we need to remember that Uganda and Kenya had a brief border war over it.

When President Yoweri Museveni took power in Uganda in 1986 at the head of a victorious rebel army, he didn’t get along much with then-Kenya President Daniel arap Moi’s government. Nairobi accused Uganda of exporting “revolution” across the border. But the real beef was over a decision by the Museveni government that all Uganda exports and imports through Mombasa would have to travel by railway.


Big people in the Kenya government and the ruling party, Kanu, including influential coastal politicians like Sharif Nassir, were heavily invested in trucking goods to Uganda and beyond. Kampala and Nairobi kept trading insults over the issue, and free movement of goods at the Busia and Malaba borders were disrupted frequently, causing shortages in Uganda.

In October 1987, the two countries exchanged fire at the Busia border for two days, and several people were killed. Peace only returned when Kampala gave up on its plans for exclusive use of the railway to Mombasa. In Kampala, officials claim, key Kanu people were also allowed to continue trucking contraband, and for some years, to smuggle Ugandan coffee, without much hindrance.

This arrangement defined Kampala-Nairobi relations until the opposition won and Mwai Kibaki became President at the end of 2002.

In these parts, a railway is not just a railway. Nor are roads just roads.


Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com @cobbo3