This is why Nairobi, Kampala should love each other more

President William Ruto and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni

President William Ruto and his Ugandan counterpart Yoweri Museveni at State House Uganda after he arrived for the county's 60th Independence Day celebrations.

Photo credit: PCS

The numbers are out; now, the politics. Kenya’s goods trade surplus with the rest of Africa reached record levels in the first three months of 2023, driven by the fastest growth in exports in 12 years, provisional data from the Central Bank of Kenya show.

Kenya sold goods worth Sh98.85 billion to African countries in the January-March period against an import bill of Sh61.72 billion. There was an old storyline to it, though. Uganda remained Kenya’s largest destination, accounting for nearly a third of goods exports to Africa. Ugandan imports—such as dairy products, eggs, sugar and wood—amounted to Sh10.62 billion.

Some years ago, looking at a similar picture in Kenya-Uganda trade data, the chairman of Nation Media Group, Wilfred Kiboro, after seeing Kenya bend over backwards to receive a visiting president from the West, mused that such pampering needed to be preserved for the Ugandan leader because of how critical the country was to Kenyan trade. He added that the Ugandan High Commissioner in Nairobi needed to be the first among ambassadors. I imagined that if Mr Kiboro had his way, the highways from Malaba and Busia borders with Uganda to Nairobi would be lined with petals daily. 

None of those scenarios is true. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni wouldn’t be guaranteed to sit at the same dinner with the American president if he happened to visit the Kenyan State House at the same time. If you stopped 1,000 people on Nairobi’s streets and asked them the name of Uganda’s High Commissioner to Kenya, it would be a miracle if one knew it. Ask about the British and American ambassadors and at least 100 will know them. But how many times has the Ugandan envoy appeared in the lead item in TV prime news or on the front pages of prominent daily newspapers in recent times? Zero.

That said, it would be surprising if this weren’t the case. For one, the Kenyan High Commissioner isn’t the most important diplomat in Kampala either. A visit by President William Ruto is an ordinary affair; Museveni wouldn’t break the bank to put on a banquet for him. Uganda’s air space would not be closed as it would be if US President Joe Biden were dropping in. The US does something for Kenya that Uganda doesn’t; it gives aid, feeds school children and very many Kenyan HIV patients get their antiretroviral drugs thanks to the American taxpayer, to name a few.

It demonstrates the subversive power of free things—and why winning a lottery jackpot feels so special. If you make Sh20 million after working 14 hours daily for months, you will be proud of your achievement. But you’ll hardly feel great joy because you worked hard for it. But it’s different if you win Sh20 million after buying a Sh20 lottery ticket. You feel special. The chosen one is the only one out of 50 million anointed by God for the rich gift.

Kenya-Uganda border

The givers often feel more ennobled by handing out charity than by exchanging money in trade. Giving Sh1 million to help a desperate family who isn’t your relatives or constituents or paying for the surgery of a child after you saw the appeal on social media is more likely to make you feel morally superior and close to doing the Lord’s work than if you bought sacks of maize from them. Still, there is room to do substantial things, beginning with the situation at the Kenya-Uganda border. For the truckers who carry the goods we trade in, the Customs at the two countries’ Busia and Malaba borders are penal colonies.

Trucks line up over 10 kilometres and drivers wait days to clear and cross. And since the queues move continuously at snail’s space, they can’t go and take a nap at a nearby motel. They spend days in the trucks, playing cards on the roadside and eating as other vehicles whiz by, throwing dust at them. This, by the way, is after considerable improvement over the past 15 years. But these conditions are still in the Stone Age. They should be a disgrace for Nairobi and Kampala yet they endure, year after year, the complaints with disdain and snortiness by the powers that be.

Immigration, fortunately, is more in tune with the times. It is quick; you can cross with your national ID or passport through the One-Stop Border Point in less than five minutes. However, it only illustrates the absurdity of the situation. It doesn’t make dollar sense for someone crossing the border—and, as President Museveni likes to say, is carrying only rumours—to do so in five minutes yet somebody driving a lorry with Sh15 million cargo does in five days.

There are, of course, exceptions. On both sides of the border, you get to eat Ugandan pineapples. Going by the accounts of some of the seasoned pineapple eaters in the world, Uganda’s are among the sweetest. Thanks to a little cross-border common sense—and small mercies.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3