It has been about eight years since Islamic extremists stormed an upscale shopping mall in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, killing 62 civilians and five soldiers before they were subdued. But images of that drama, witnessed by millions worldwide thanks to the wizardry that is modern communications, will take a long time to dissipate from memory.
Who can easily forget footage of the tense scenes that played out on that fateful day, with those lucky enough to escape from the mall describing the gory carnage taking place inside as the television cameras rolled?
An outfit called Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility, and sensational reports surfaced at the time that a 29-year-old British woman going by the moniker of The White Widow – real name Germaine Lindsay – was the mastermind behind the attack. I’m not sure why she threw her lot in with the jihadists.
‘Al-Shabaab’ flashed back to memory as I edited a submission from our East Africa correspondent, which appears elsewhere in this edition. The piece is about the first two ships docking at Kenya’s second – and newest – seaport, on the country’s north coast. It’s called Lamu and is part of the Lamu Port South Sudan–Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor initiative, which, when completed – some would say if completed – will include roads, oil pipelines and fibreoptic cabling, a 1 500 km railway line, an airport and a refinery. The final construction tab is estimated at $23-billion.
LAPSSET will position Kenya as East Africa’s trade hub, with export-destined cargo emanating from neighbouring South Sudan and Ethiopia transiting through the new port. The envisaged cargo will include crude from the new oilfields in Uganda.
Those who conceived this megaproject may have overlooked its security vulnerability, given northern Kenya’s proximity to Somalia, Al-Shabaab’s stomping ground. Al-Shabaab has never forgiven Kenya for dispatching troops into Somalia in 2011 on the pretext that its national security was under threat from the Islamist outfit. Indeed, militants have brought violence to the Lamu area over the past few years, resulting in its being highly securitised.
I have seen media reports suggesting that, owing to the security threat posed by Al-Shabaab, South Sudan and Ethiopia seem to be having reservations about export cargo from the two countries transiting through Lamu when all the components of the LAPSSET project have been completed. This, the argument goes, is why Ethiopia has increased its shareholding in the Berbera port, in Somaliland. But the project’s proponents are adamant the reason is a desire by Ethiopia to have its eggs in as many baskets as possible; the country also uses the Port of Djibouti as an export gateway.
For the sake of Kenya, I am keeping my fingers crossed that LAPSSET won’t be dead in the water, that the port – where three berths will have been completed by year-end – won’t become a white elephant, all because of unguaranteed security. The port and the broader LAPSSET project have huge potential to improve the economic fortunes of Kenya generally and northern Kenya in particular.
LAPSSET is not the only African megaproject whose implementation is threatened by Islamic militants. As readers of this column would remember, in March, insurgents said to be aligned with the Islamic State group based in Iraq and Syria overran the northern Mozambican town of Palma, which is in close proximity to Africa’s largest liquefied natural gas reserves.
Following the attack, in which dozens of people perished, French company Total, which is developing a $20-billion gas project in the area, temporarily withdrew all its staff from the site.
The nascent natural gas sector is seen as a game changer for Mozambique, with the potential to attract tens of billions in foreign direct investment. The last thing we want is for this to be jeopardised.