• Feature

Unlikely allies win campaign to stop state monopoly in Kenya

After two months of protest by business owners and workers in Mombasa, the government rescinded a decision that dealt a major blow to the cargo industry.
Salim Karama, the chairman of the Fast Action Business Community addressing the crowd after the court ruled in favor of their right to protest in Mombasa. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

On Dec. 4, Kenya’s senate committee on transport summoned the cabinet secretary for transport over his directive to haul cargo from the port city of Mombasa to Nairobi exclusively by rail. The meeting — attended by activists, businessmen and leaders from Mombasa — ended with the cabinet secretary, James Macharia, promising to rescind the directive, which has hurt business in the coastal city.

The senate meeting was a culmination of two months of action led by the affected business people in Mombasa. It all started one September morning when Harriet Muganda arrived at the governor’s offices in Mombasa. There was a presentation of findings on the effects of a newly-commissioned Chinese-built railway on the economy of Mombasa by the University of Nairobi. The hall was already full, so she stood near the door with others who weren’t able to get a seat.

It was Muganda’s first time at such a function, as she considered herself apolitical and had never attended a political rally or event before. Since it spoke to her livelihood, this one, however, was dear to her. She worked in Mombasa, a key cargo entry point for East Africa, as a clearing agent charged with handling custom documentation related to shipments getting into the country on behalf of her clients.

For the past year, business has been bad, following a government directive to have all cargo hauled to Nairobi via the government-run railway. The government said it made this decision to reign in malpractices at the Mombasa port, according to the cabinet secretary for transport. Businessmen and activists, however, believe that it was to ensure that standard-gauge railway, or SGR, has as much business as possible in order to be able to repay the Chinese loan that was used to develop it.

Economists have argued that the Chinese-built railway doesn’t make economic sense and therefore the government had to enforce a monopoly in cargo haulage in order to make money. Processing of custom documentation for all cargo getting into the country by ship is now being done in Nairobi, over 300 miles away. This has left many businesses without work, and trucking, bulk handlers and other cargo-handling companies have since moved or closed shop. Muganda estimates that 200,000 people have lost their jobs. 

The University of Nairobi’s findings aligned with what the transporters were experiencing. James Ambok, the CEO of Kenya Truckers Association decries the effects brought about by the state’s monopolization of cargo haulage. “I am telling you that the SGR sometimes does around 14 trips to Nairobi, and in each trip it has got 108 containers,” he explained. “So, it means each and every day, over 1,000 drivers do not have jobs. It means each and every day 1,000 turnboys do not have jobs.”

Harriet Muganda at a Fast Action protest in early November. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

After the presentation, Muganda and a few other business people felt that they had to do something. Salim Karama, who owns trucks for long-distance delivery, asked Muganda to take the contacts of the people who were there. She was also tasked with forming a WhatsApp group to enable them to communicate and deliberate on what to do next.

“It was on a Thursday when we met and by that evening, we had 50 people in the group. They included business owners and their employees. By the next day we were over 256 and I had to form another WhatsApp group,” she said.

They called the group “Fast Action,” and they lived up to their name. Three days later, on Sept. 16, Fast Action Business Community organized its first protest in the streets of Mombasa. They marched six miles from the courthouse in Mombasa to Changamwe and back. The action caused businesses along the route to come to a standstill, and transport was paralyzed as trucks followed them at a snail’s pace, honking in support.

Every Monday since then they continued with their protest. The group uses WhatsApp to fundraise for things like banners, T-shirts and even the water that they need on the days of the protests. They would sing and chant slogans — including “people power” and “no to SGR monopoly” — as they slowly walked their route. Since their first protest in September, the numbers grew every week. On the second week of November, they expected 3,000 protesters, but the rain reduced the number by half, according to Muganda.

Haki Africa — a Mombasa-based NGO that campaigns against land grabbing, police brutality, corruption, gender-based violence and other issues — has been supporting Fast Action’s protests. They assist Fast Action with the planning to ensure that they follow due process with regards to the law governing protests. They have worked to obtain the permit for their protests and offered them free representation in court when they were denied permits by the police.

This campaign has faced serious challenges. Twelve protesters, including Fast Action organizers and Haki Africa staff, were arrested and locked up on Oct. 7 for six hours despite having all the necessary permits to carry out the protest. “I think the main challenge so far have been the police,” said Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid. “We have had some of the protesters arrested here, including the business people and ourselves.”

Haki Africa Executive Director Hussein Khalid addressing the press, as they awaited the court’s ruling on Fast Action Business Community’s petition to continue their protest. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

Khalid said that they have been approached by civil society movements based in Nairobi who want to be part of the movement. However, their immediate plans were to organize protests in every town along the Mombasa-Nairobi route, since they are more directly affected.  As of mid-November, they were meeting and planning with people in the towns of Voi and Mtito-Andei, which are along the route to Nairobi. Their intention was to hold subsequent protests in at least three towns along the Mombasa-Nairobi corridor. These are towns that depend mostly on the trucks passing through for business. They managed to hold a protest in Mtito-Andei in late November which was disrupted by the police despite having the necessary permits.

While protests by civil society and organized labor have been common in Kenya, it is unheard of for businessmen to be at the forefront of a movement. “It is the business community that is taking the lead and agitating for their rights as business people,” Khalid explained. “The economy has really taken a hard hit, and there are concerns that this has affected their businesses and families and livelihoods as well.”

Nevertheless, the actions have struck a chord with the political and civil society groups and drawn attention to the coastal town, which isn’t regarded as a protest capital in the country.

Apart from Haki Africa, Muslims for Human Rights, or Muhuri, another coast-based non-governmental organization that works on land access and gender equality has gotten involved in the campaign. Notable figures from Kenya’s civil society — including Katiba Institute founder Yash Pal Ghai, economist and activist David Ndii, and InformAction Director Maina Kiai — have also come out to support Fast Action’s protests.

Toward the end of October, the Fast Action Business Community had planned to have a public lecture at the Technical University of Mombasa. Ndii, Ghai and Kiai were set to address the crowd, but that morning, the police cordoned off the venue to block anyone from entering. The meeting was then cancelled. The protests now include business people from many spheres including shopkeepers, tuktuk and motorbike taxi operators, among others who indirectly benefit from the cargo business.

Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nassir (middle) with Fast Action Business Community members as they await the court decision on their right to protest. (WNV/Anthony Langat)

Abdulswamad Nassir, a member of parliament for Mvita in Mombasa, has been supportive of the group and went to show solidarity with them in court when the police denied them permits to protest. “People need to express their views and opinions,” he said. “You can’t suppress a whole society and community, and decide without any reason whatsoever that they do not have [the right] to raise their opinions.” The court ruled in favor of Fast Action.

Protesting in Kenya is not viewed favorably by the authorities and instances of injuries or even death of protesters due to excessive use of force by the police are a normal occurrence. A 2018 report by Amnesty International stated that “the police used excessive force to disperse protesters who supported the opposition party and demonstrated against the electoral process, including with live ammunition and tear gas. Dozens died in the violence, including at least 33 people who were shot by police and of whom two were children.”

The leadership of the Fast Action protests were clear in what they wanted: non-monopolization of the cargo transport by the state and the reinstatement of cargo-handling and clearing services to Mombasa. “We just want our businesses back; we want our livelihoods back to normal as they were before the SGR,” Muganda said. “If the government would agree to stop the monopolization of cargo transportation so that there is a healthy competition between the government’s SGR and the private transporters, I don’t think anyone would go back to the street to protest.” However, until something is done, she said that the protests would continue.

The group mobilized more residents of Mombasa and friends from other towns — through social media and by talking with people one-on-one — to join in the protests every Monday. “We will continue with the protests,” Muganda said.  “It will stop being black Mondays and it will be black every day, because we now have no work and all the time to do this.”

On Dec. 2, their protests were disrupted by police as had become the norm. Two days later, they were invited for a meeting at the senate in Nairobi. The cabinet secretary for transport had been summoned by the senate committee on transport. In the meeting, the cabinet secretary promised to rescind the directive on mandatory hauling of cargo via rail. In a statement released a day later, Karama said that Fast Action had postponed the planned Monday protests after the successful meeting.

However, the group is cautious about the victory and not ruling out a possible return to protests. A few days after the meeting, all the cargo was still being ferried by rail to Nairobi, according to Muganda. She is still skeptical about the government’s commitment to lifting the directive. Only a few days after the senate meeting, the government spokesperson vowed to crack down on the protesters on the premise that the they were hurting operations of the port. “We are suspending the Monday demonstrations to gauge and monitor the movement,” Karama said. “We will come up with the final decision when we are satisfied that the situation has improved to bring life to Mombasa county’s economy.”

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