Kenya's violence chokes flow of goods to the region

Security concerns are preventing fuel and other goods from leaving a key port.

Peter MacDiarmid/Getty Images
Key port: Workers waited for employment on a recent day in Mombasa. Postelection unrest prevents key goods from reaching inland countries.
Rich Clabaugh

Looking out his office window at Kenya's largest port, Mombasa, Wilson Rading counted seven ships waiting to unload. For the director of DFS Express Lines, a small freight logistics company, it was like watching his money sink to the bottom of the harbor.

Mombasa is the largest port between South Africa and Egypt and an essential gateway for goods to Kenya and growing inland economies like Uganda, Rwanda, southern Sudan, and the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. But the ethnic violence that killed more than 600 people and displaced more than 250,000 in the wake of Kenya's disputed Dec. 27 presidential election has caused a massive buildup in the harbor.

Now, security concerns are delaying the delivery of cargo and fuel across the region, leading to shortages, price hikes, and angry consumers.

In the latest high-level bid to ease tensions, former UN chief Kofi Annan arrived Wednesday to try to end the standoff between President Mwai Kibaki and populist opposition candidate Raila Odinga – who claims that Mr. Kibaki stole the election. As Mr. Annan began his mission, however, mourners who attended a mass funeral in Nairobi for victims of the postelection violence found themselves running from tear gas as the event ended in clashes between police and stone-throwing youths.

Mombasa has seen some protests, especially in its large Muslim community, where Mr. Odinga's opposition party enjoys almost unanimous support. In western Kenya, gangs blocked roads where they could harass or rob truckers, which has slowed delivery of goods. While that situation appears to have improved, the ongoing threat of mass demonstrations has truckers nervous, especially about the roads to western Kenya and neighboring countries like Uganda.

Last week, a driver for a construction company punctured a tire and was attacked by thugs wielding machetes. Many trucks now require police escorts, which can cause further delays and rising shipping costs. As a security measure, says Benson Wasera, who works in importing for Kenfreight, his company is using only its own trucks instead of contracting out.

Rail was another transport option, but last week, protesters in Nairobi's Kibera slum looted a train bound for Uganda and ripped up sections of the track, disrupting the line. "Here, everything is a problem," says Capt. Fiorenzo Castellano, owner's representative in Mombasa for the Swiss shipping giant MSC.

Difficulties moving cargo out of the port have compounded delays delivering it to shore. It's normal for container ships to wait three or four days in Mombasa Harbor before they can unload, and Mr. Castellano says containers often sit in port for a month before the relatively short and secure journey to Nairobi. The election violence has only exacerbated existing blockages at the port and in the country, he says, and that will not be solved until Kenya's roads match up to the shipping facility. "If you have a bigger port maybe you can discharge more, but you need something behind [it]," he says.

In November, Japan agreed to loan Kenya about $228 million to expand the port and ease congestion. When the deal was announced there were 9,419 containers waiting for import or export. This week there were more than 13,000.

The unrest in Kenya has hit major industries like tourism, but neighboring countries suffer as well. As the region's economic hub, neighbors depend on its manufacturing sector as well as its link to the sea. Since the Kenyan election, Uganda has been suffering major fuel shortages and price hikes. The country depends on fuel arriving daily by truck, and truckers are especially wary of this flammable cargo.

"The crisis will be an eye-opener for a number of countries in the region that have pegged their dependence on stability in Kenya," Ken Mutuma of The South African Institute of International Affairs wrote in an e-mail. "It is likely that Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda will begin to explore the possibility of using Dar es Salaam as their alternative port." The Tanzanian port is less advanced but offers political stability.

Additionally, exports from Kenya and its neighbors have also suffered. Major exports from East Africa include coffee, tea, and canned fruit. Countries in the area import essentials such as vehicles, machinery, fertilizer, and staple crops like wheat, maize, and fuel.

Like other companies, DFS has to pay a daily penalty for containers left at the port. For the moment, there's little the company can do. "The political situation is affecting every aspect of life in Kenya at the moment," says Mr. Rading.

To relieve the blockage, the port is working with private storage companies to store excess cargo in government inland points where containers can pass customs, says port spokesman Bernard Osero. Even so, the port's function is only to load and unload containers. Without trains and trucks to pick up the cargo, bottlenecks are inevitable.

"We are depending on our government," says Mr. Wasera of Kenfreight. But even should the ruling Party of National Unity (PNU) and opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) break their impasse he estimates it will take a month to restore a measure of normality to the port.

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