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  • Cashing in on Coal: Kenya’s unnecessary power plant
  • Nanjala Nyabola (bio)

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Samia Omar was born and raised in Lamu County, Kenya, a nature lover’s paradise at the uppermost corner of the country’s coastline, which borders Somalia. She attended college in the U.S. and Canada and traveled to northwest Kenya for work. But, she says, “I always knew I had to go back.”

In 2015, Omar began her dream job as county executive for trade and culture on the Lamu County Executive Council. Her work to boost the tourism industry and local economy involved activities such as planning the eclectic mix of festivals—including the Maulid festival celebrating the birth of the [End Page 69] Prophet Muhammad and the whimsical Shela Hat festival—for which the area is known. But after only two years and just shy of her 32nd birthday, Omar quit.

The Kenyan government had unveiled a project—a massive coal plant—that she believes spells disaster for the county and its heritage. After trying and failing to organize resistance to the plant from within the government, Omar decided to become a full-time activist. “I’m not a tree hugger,” she says, “but I don’t want the blood of Lamu on my hands.”

Lamu is home to one of the world’s largest populations of buffalo in a country known for its national parks and game reserves, as well as rich marine life and beaches. Its attractions also include Lamu town, located on the island of the same name. Founded in the 14th century, the town is the oldest continuously inhabited Swahili settlement on the East African coast. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the town was, until a spate of terrorist attacks on the mainland, one of Kenya’s main tourist destinations.

The 8.8 million megawatt-hours coal plant would be built on the island’s doorstep. It is one piece of an ambitious economic development plan for the coastal region known as the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor. The project is intended to facilitate the transport of goods and services from landlocked Ethiopia and South Sudan to the Kenyan coast without passing through the crowded Mombasa port, which already serves Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. As planned, the LAPSSET scheme includes a deep-sea port, a pipeline, a series of resort towns, and other investments in the region.

At its launch, then-President Mwai Kibaki promised “that this day will go down in history as one of the defining moments—when we made a major stride to connect our people to the many socio-economic opportunities that lie ahead.” He argued that the plant would allow Kenya to generate more revenue from the transport of goods and services to its landlocked neighbors, and open parts of the country’s north to investment. But the estimated $16-billion project is already more than a year behind schedule, and it has stirred an outcry from county residents who fear displacement, pollution, and irreversible damage to their way of life.

The battle over the coal plant is emblematic of tensions triggered by Kenya’s foreign-policy pivot to the East. Under President Daniel Arap Moi (1978–2002), Western governments held significant influence over the country’s external affairs. But that changed with President Kibaki (2002–2013), who began to give China greater sway. Kibaki, an economist, unveiled the LAPSSET project as part of his development plan, Vision 2030. Despite its modern graphics and design, Vision 2030 is essentially a revival of the central-planning approach to economic policy popular in much of Africa and Asia during the 1970s. China, which is today Africa’s main trade and investment partner, still uses central planning, so its reappearance is a predictable part of Kenya’s ideological swivel. President Uhuru Kenyatta, reelected to a second term this August, has further expanded this approach.

The strategy, which privileges economic development over environmental protection, undercuts Kenya’s global leadership in renewable energy. Today, up to 70 percent of the nation’s power comes from renewable sources, such as a massive geothermal power plant...


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pp. 69-75
Launched on MUSE
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