Kenya's controversial Expressway speeds past budget while displacing thousands

Kenyan Elite runners competing at the Nairobi City Marathon that was organised as part of the Nairobi Expressway launch. Photo credits; Richard Wanjohi

Kenyan Elite runners compete at the Nairobi City Marathon that was organized as part of the Nairobi Expressway launch. Photo credits, Richard Wanjohi (co-author)

The Nairobi Expressway, a dual carriageway that was meant to decongest traffic on the main artery into Nairobi, has come under heavy criticism from environmentalists, economists, and human rights organizations. The USD 668 million expressway was launched with fanfare and ceremony in May 2022. However, news has emerged that the expressway is already set for a redesign just weeks after its opening.

During its construction, the expressway drew criticism for displacing thousands of residents and going over budget. Since its opening, residents have complained of a poor design, non-functional payment systems, and exorbitant toll rates.

The expressway — a 27 Km two-lane carriageway whose construction started in October 2019 — is one of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy projects and was expected to revolutionize mobility in the Kenyan capital. Managed by the Kenya National Highways Authority (Kenha), it has been fully financed by the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), the parent firm of China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). In order to recoup its investments, the CCCC set up Moja Expressway group, a subsidiary that will operate the road for 27 years and collect toll fees.

In 2019, Nairobi ranked as the second most congested city in the world according to a 2017 Traffic Index list by the Serbia-based website numbeo. A report by Nairobi Metropolitan Area Transport Authority released the same year revealed that vehicles stuck in traffic potentially cost Kenya almost USD 1 billion a year in lost productivity.

“A road for the rich”

For years, various proposed measures such as the planned car-free day, the light-railway programs, and the relocation of buses and Matatus (privately owned minibusses) away from the central business district have either stagnated or failed to solve the city’s traffic nightmare.

The Nairobi Expressway is the first of its kind in Eastern and Central Africa. It is the second-largest toll road in Africa after the 32-kilometers long Dakar Toll Highway

Unfortunately, a majority of Kenyans can’t afford to use the new road due to high costs. In a city where walking is the default means of transport for many who cannot afford the bus fare, private vehicles account for only 13.5 percent of commuters compared to 45.6 percent who walk and 40.7 percent who use Matatus. 

According to transport and infrastructure experts, more priority ought to have been given to mass public transit systems. An efficient public system would help manage and ease movement within and beyond the city. 

Felling 4,000 mature indigenous trees

An impact analysis revealed there were significant physical and environmental consequences of the construction and highway.

According to estimates, more than 4,000 mature and young trees were cut down to pave the way for the expressway. Environmentalists protested the “green space plan” to no avail. To compensate for the loss, the National Environmental Management Agency (NEMA) ordered the contractor to plant trees in all the places affected by the construction. This has yet to happen, and with the president’s term coming to an end in August, it is unlikely to be realized

Residents are also contending with increased air, noise, waste, and sewage pollutants due to the construction and highway.

Sections of the road’s columns holding the expressway were fitted with plants and flowers on pipe cubes as a beautification attempt. 

However, while speaking to the BBC, Nature Kenya’s Paul Gacheru pointed out that it was not enough.

They are doing beautification. They are putting some grass, some flowers. But the value of those flowers versus the tress that have been cut cannot be equal.

Africa’s highest paying marathon

In a quest to endear the new road to Kenyans, position Nairobi in the global marathon circuit, and market Kenya as a tourism destination, Kenya’s Ministry of Sports, Heritage, and culture staged the first Nairobi City Marathon in May 2022 as part of the road’s inauguration.

Christened “The Uhuru Classic,” the marathon took place mostly on the new expressway. Organizers set out to match the elite status of The Abbott World Marathon majors, which include the Chicago, London, Boston, New York, London, and Tokyo marathons. 

In its quest to match the major marathons’ prize purse, the Nairobi City Marathon became the highest paying marathon in Africa, offering USD 389,500 in total prize money. The cash prizes were awarded to the first 20 winners of the 42-kilometers marathon and the first six in the 10-km and 21-km Half Marathon. The race drew over 10,000 elite and recreational runners.

Soon after the news about the “expressway marathon” (as some Kenyans online asked that it be renamed) emerged, a new narrative using the hashtag #NairobiCityMarathon soon drowned out the voices that had been persistently questioning the highway’s viability and cost.

Tweets from recreational runners, including well-known Kenyan personalities, hailed the highway for its beauty.

Kenyans outraged

Though the beauty and wonder of the road enthralled many running enthusiasts, the marathon couldn’t entirely mask the project’s troubles, as the road’s engineering, financial and logistical woes came to light.

Ahead of the project, there were widespread forced evictions and thousands of homes were demolished to make way for the expressway. Many went online to question the level of professionalism (or lack therefore) that went into planning and engineering the project.

For Richard Kitheka, a Kenyan writer and TV host, the contrast was too stark to ignore.

There has been more outrage following news that the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the same contractor who built the expressway, had won a KSH 9 Billion (USD 76.9 million) contract to rehabilitate the lower section of the 27-km road that was damaged as a result of the expressway construction. This came only a few days after the Kenya National Highways Authority officials told parliament that taxpayers would not bear the cost of restoring sections of the destroyed road following works on the expressway. 

Riaz Gilani, a Nairobi resident and entrepreneur, believes that either way, Kenyans will end up paying for the fixtures on the old road:

Steven Mutoro, the Secretary-General of Consumers Federation of Kenya — a consumer protection agency — called it “Daylight unarmed robbery.” 

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