Wolfgang’s East Africa report

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In a rare interview with the National Forest Authority executive director, Mr. Damian Akankwasa, it was pointed out, that the final decision on the use of the Mabira Forest will rest with the country’s parliament. The forest, like many others under NFA management, is a gazetted area and it will take an act of parliament to change or alter its use, before a government proposal to convert a quarter, or over 7,200 hectares of the mature tropical rain forest, into a sugarcane plantation to be owned by the Mehta sugar barons. Meanwhile, the NFA has carried out an aerial survey of Mabira and the results are due to be presented to cabinet, the parliamentary committee on natural resources and the public at large in due course.

The National Environmental Management Authority will hold a public hearing on July 29 in Hoima over the recently signed agreement between government and Tullow Oil of Britain to construct a mini refinery and thermal heavy fuel oil plant near the upcoming production site. The refinery will initially process up to 4.000 barrels of crude oil per day and the thermal plant will have an initial capacity of 50 MW feeding into the national grid. Construction for both facilities is expected to go underway in early 2009 and preparations are reportedly in high gear to meet the deadline and prepare access to the proposed sites.

It was also learned during the week that work for the Karuma Falls hydro electric plant, incidentally a more environmentally friendly tunnel version as opposed to dam version of the Bujagali project, is due to start in 2009 with completion some three years later.

Assisted by the Italian government, research institutions and alpine clubs two weather-monitoring stations, one of which is already using GSM data transmission technology, are now active in capturing crucial data. In an earlier column item reference was made to the ongoing shrinkage of the ice caps covering the mountain range, and new data will help greatly to understand better what the changing climatic conditions mean to the mountainous region. One station is located some 4,000 meters high and was sponsored by the university of Brescia, while the second station sponsored by the Italian Alpine Clubs is located at an elevation of 4,600 meters near the ‘Helena Hut’ on Mt. Stanley. Italian researchers have recently completed field training for park staff to properly manage the environmental sensors and equipment at the higher station and regularly extract and transfer data, as no GSM transmission equipment is in range there, until some additional installations will be complete by late next year. It is understood that some climatic changes have already been noted over the past two years but a longer period of data and indicators will be needed to draw conclusions and establish clear trends.

Following a series of relentlessly critical articles and revelations in the local and regional media it was now alleged, that cargo rail traffic between Kenya’s sea harbour of Mombasa and Uganda’s capital city Kampala has halved since Rift Valley Railways has taken over the management some time ago. The details were revealed by a high-ranking Kenya Ports Authority manager during a meeting of ‘Seamless Transport Committee’ in Kampala. Figures presented would suggest that now just over 8 percent of the entire cargo traffic between Mombasa and Uganda is transported by rail, compared with nearly 17 percent when RVR took over the management. High hopes were pinned on the privatisation of the Kenyan and Ugandan railways and the management by a private consortium, but these hopes have largely been disappointed. While there were mitigating factors like the violence in Kenya and the damage to installations and railway lines during those trying times, there are other underlying factors to be considered. Only recently has the consortium admitted two new partners to inject fresh capital and there is ongoing talk behind the scenes of a partial or full takeover of RVR by overseas investors with deeper pockets. A strike last week of railway workers in Kenya who were not paid in time has added to the woes of RVR, who are also facing a threat of being sanctioned by the Kenyan and Ugandan governments over not fulfilling certain clauses of the agreements, which could ultimately lead to the termination of the contracts by Kenya and Uganda.

Civil society in Uganda has also blamed the railway operator for failing to introduce passenger commuter transport into the main urban centres to bring relief to overcrowded roads and of course passenger traffic between Kenya and Uganda has still not been restored nor have any visible steps been taken towards its re-introduction. This also prevents tourists from taking in the most extraordinary sights along the railway, as it winds its way from Kenya to Uganda, considered a big loss for the range of tourism products the region could offer, especially when comparing the luxurious rail options available for tourists in Southern Africa like the world famous ‘Blue Train’. The ‘Lunatic Express’ as the train between Mombasa, Nairobi and Uganda was called in the old days seems begging for a restoration.

Is it worth mentioning here that the RVR consortium is led by a South African company? Shy to create competition perhaps?

Kenya’s busiest airport, mostly used for domestic flights and flights to the country’s national parks, but also regional charter operations, was running short of JetA1 fuel last weekend, prompting concerns amongst air operators. Various fuels have been hit periodically by supply bottlenecks, and while it is often AVGAS running short or completely dry in Uganda in the past, it is somewhat more unusual and altogether more sinister that JetA1 should run short at Kenya’s busiest airport. No explanation could be received for the suspected causes of the shortage although the international airport in Nairobi was said to be operating normally over the same period of time.

As reported recently some small agitative sections in the Tanzanian parliament once again raised the question of “independence” for Zanzibar, prompting the Prime Minister to make an authoritative governmental statement in parliament in regard of the constitutional situation. However, when the agitation did not end there the ruling party of the United Republic of Tanzania, the CCM, decreed an end to the loose talk in the interest of the nation. Even the Court of Appeals had ruled in past instances along the lines that Zanzibar was part of the nation and the CCM statement pointed out that ongoing squabbling could affect the stability of the entire country. The speaker of the Zanzibari representative chamber too halted the ill-conceived debate, which had raised eyebrows across the region in an attempt to understand what this was all about.

A delegation of Vietnamese tourism operators visited Rwanda last week to study how the country rebuilt the sector following the devastating genocide in 1994 and become a role model across Africa. Rwanda has in recent years won a number of prizes for best exhibition stands and performances in international tourism trade fairs and established itself as a desirable ecotourism destination in the heart of Africa. The delegation also agreed on a reciprocal visit by a Rwandese delegation to explore market opportunities in one of South East Asia’s fastest growing economies.

In a related development it was also learned, that former Kenya Airways CEO Brian Presbury is now deployed in Vietnam and active in building the aviation sector there as he did when at the helm of KQ for several years, during which the foundations for the airline’s current success were laid.

It was learned during the week that former US President Bill Clinton will be visiting Rwanda again later this month as part of an African tour, which will also take him to Ethiopia, Liberia and Senegal. Clinton has been in Rwanda before some years ago and also visited the region, notably Uganda, while serving in the White House. This is another high profile visit to Rwanda, bound to give that extra bit of exposure to the country which then also reflects positively on it’s standing as a tourism destination and supporting its newly found status as an emerging darling nation, setting positive standards and trends for the rest of Africa.

The main border crossing between Uganda and Rwanda is presently open for business from 6 a.m till 6 p.m. only, restricting traffic. From next month onwards the border will remain open initially until 10 p.m. and from January 2009 the border post will operate around the clock to facilitate the growing volume of cargo and visitor traffic between the two nations. It was also learned that he ‘seamless transport committee’, which sat in Kampala last week also agreed to add more manpower and extra daily shifts for the customs and immigration officials at the main border crossings between Kenya and Uganda at Busia and Malaba, to ensure uninterrupted 24/7 operations in the future and facilitate the ever increasing cargo traffic between Mombasa and the African hinterland nations of Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Congo and Southern Sudan.

Proposals have been floated to have Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni mediate in the present Darfur crisis to bring about a peaceful end to the armed struggle, which pinned Arabic militias and Khartoum troops against the African population and their self-protection forces. Following the ICC indictment of the Khartoum regime leader Bashir last week for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity, things have turned from bad to worse in Darfur with what now appears coordinated attacks on UN peace keepers. Only recently were 7 Rwandese troops deployed under AU and UN auspices killed, as was a more senior officer from Nigeria. Two Ugandan police officers deployed in Darfur were also killed over the past few weeks. Any mediation by the Ugandan president would however most likely seek broader involvement from the AU and the UN to widen the chances of success. Meanwhile, the UN has evacuated non-essential staff from Darfur to their African logistics base in Entebbe/Uganda to minimise the growing risk to their staff deployed in the Darfur region. Southern Sudan’s President Kiir, who is also First Vice President of the Sudan, was also in Kampala during the week, assumed to have discussed the ICC indictment and other matters of mutual concern.

It is understood from usually well-informed sources in Kinshasa, that RAK Airways from the UAE has been in talks to take over a presently defunct airline in the Congo DR, in which it appears to have either already held or recently acquired shares. The sources confirmed that RAK Airways seems under the impression, that the non operational airline still holds traffic rights for domestic and African destinations and would be able to resume operations once new aircraft, other equipment and staffing and maintenance structures have been put into place. Conventional wisdom however tells that once an airline becomes non-operational, their AOC is due to lapse after 90 days and subsequently all traffic rights and designations vested into the airline also expire. As mentioned in last week’s column, Congo’s dismal aviation record was described as the worst on the continent by AFRAA and what is “normal and usual” in aviation administration in other countries may of course not at all apply to Congo’s haphazard aviation regulatory department. The airline, once and if revived, would reportedly be trading as Air Congo.
Ras Al Khaimah is one of the emirates making up the United Arab Emirates and their government’s state investment company appears to have a number of other including mining in Congo, possibly prompting their sudden interest in aviation in the sprawling central interests African jungle nation. RAK Airways is now operational after two sustained start up delays, which also cost tow ex-CEOs their jobs.

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