That the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is Kenya’s most ambitious infrastructural project since independence is not in doubt. Besides the impact it is projected to have on the Kenyan and regional economy, the project is considered a symbol of a nation coming of age.
That is because SGR is the first railway line project undertaken by a post-independence Kenyan government, the existing railway line having been a project designed to open up the region to the economic interests of the colonial powers.
SGR should, therefore, be a source of pride for Kenyans. And that has been the position until recent media reports exposed the other side of SGR: the alleged barefaced discrimination, racism, remuneration disparities and general mistreatment of Kenyans working for the Madaraka Express, the public transport component of the project.
If proven to be true, the claims against the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), the contractor-operator of the project, would be very unfortunate.
First, any discrimination against anyone – Kenyan or foreigner – on any basis would be a serious violation of the Kenyan Constitution and other laws. Any organisation or person who is guilty of such an offense must face the full force of the law.
Secondly, there are clear labour laws that protect workers in this country, and Madaraka Express employees are not an exception. The government must, therefore, move with speed to institute investigations and ensure that any infringement of such laws is punished accordingly.
Thirdly, the claims of discrimination along racial lines at SGR, if established to be genuine, would bring to question Kenyan’s pride in the railway project as a symbol of final breakaway from the colonial yoke. Even the name “Madaraka”, which was advisedly chosen as reminder of that fact, would be a mockery.
The reports of the relationship between the Kenyan workers and the Chinese expatriates at Madaraka Express hardly paint the picture of a nation that has been independent for 55 years. Instead, the stories from the organisation are a reminder of an earlier, darker period when Kenyans were hapless servants of a brutal foreign master.
Kenyans have no illusions about the important role that the Chinese government and the CRBC have played to make the SGR a reality. It is also true that besides the railway project, China has become one of Kenya’s biggest development partners, particularly in infrastructure development.
But this relationship must strictly remain what is was supposed to be: a partnership. It should be about shared interests and common goals: Improvement of the lot of the citizens of both nations. That must include the employees of Madaraka Express and the SGR.