$3.6bn port expansion plan triggers security fears

20 January 2022

Ambitious plans to modernise Kenya’s ports could transform the country’s trade prospects but run the risk of attracting the attention of terrorist groups, experts have warned.

While Kenya’s $3.6bn ports “master plan” would transform the country’s sea, lake and dry ports over the next 30 years, the expansion plans also provoke security fears, according to the EU-funded Enact Africa project, which aims to enhance Africa’s capacity to respond more effectively to organised crime.

Kenya’s showpiece project, Lamu port, is of particular concern. It is currently undergoing a $2.1bn expansion as one of seven mega infrastructure development schemes under the $25bn Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor project.

This in, turn forms a key part of Kenya’s $25bn Vision 2030 plan to transform the country into a middle-income economy.

But Lamu sits near the border with Somalia, a base of the al-Shabaab jihadist terrorist group.

“The terrorist group notoriously focuses on state infrastructure, damaging property and fostering fear in local communities,” wrote authors including Denis Ombuna Simon, principal security enforcement officer at Kenya Ports Authority, on the Enact Africa website.

The al-Shabaab group was behind a raid at the Manda Bay military base in Kenya in January 2020 that killed three American defence staff.

In the attack the group fired at an American surveillance aircraft as it took off with rocket launchers — causing it to explode — and destroyed various other similar aircraft around the base.

Enact Africa said security concerns had been the subject of a meeting between the Institute for Security Studies’ East African Regional Organised Crime Observatory and the Kenya Ports Authority security services department in July 2021.

While Kenya was recently removed from the International Maritime Organization’s list of “high-risk” areas, Enact Africa said al-Shabaab presented a clear danger to the port.

It said the group was known to engage in smuggling of commodities such as sugar and is also involved in trading in illicit firearms and human trafficking, including recruitment drives in Kenya.

“Beside links to terror groups, in 2018, Lamu was noted as a drug trade hotspot,” said Enact Africa. “As a link to South Sudan and Ethiopia, the port presents an opportunity to expand the drug trafficking route to markets in northern Kenya and neighbouring East African states.”

It said key government agencies were aiming to implement a coordinated response to the security threat.

“Safe ports stimulate local, national and regional economies, benefiting both the public and private sectors.

“As such, it is paramount to secure ports to address transnational organised crime. Recent developments indicate that Kenya is making strides to securing ports and its maritime space,” added Enact Africa.

It said security action would reduce insurance and security expenses for companies using Kenya’s ports by millions of dollars annually and would make Kenya an attractive transshipment and destination hub.

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