Monday, August 18, 2008

Mombasa Port Management: MPs talking with feet in their mouths.

The attempt by coast MPs to kick up a storm over the sacking of Abdallah Mwaruwa as KPA Managing Director is indicative of an idle lot pricked to action only because they fear that their personal interests at the port may be at risk. Other than stir emotions of victim-hood amongst their voters, the demands of the Coast Parliamentary Group that the position be reserved for a local are essentially designed to perpetuate a ‘friendly’ management at the Port.

A number of these fellows are simply fighting to keep running personal businesses at the port and the enjoining of their less savvy colleagues in this noise making is just a thin façade. It is well known that most of the local tenders floated by the port authority are invariably won by companies associated with some incumbent coast politicians. These are for services ranging from the mundane such as garbage collection and lavatory cleaning to ship services and to sensitive ones like security and provision of port entry passes. It is also well known that staff deployed by these contractors largely comprise of locals. This is as it should be and it is dishonest for any of the politicians to allege otherwise. Of course, none of them will be heard protesting why the contracts cannot be won by entities not aligned to the politicians, even if they are owned by coastals. Hassan Joho, with quite a number of such companies, found himself in the eye of a storm a little while back when the Artur brothers breached security at the port. His company provides entry passes to the port.

The demand by the MPs that the top management of the port be reserved for a coastal is also redundant because that has been the practice since the inception of the port authority in 1978. It is possible that they rushed into an ignorant outburst when Mwaruwa was dismissed because they could not quite place the current acting MD’s name in their scheme of thought. John Mlewa is in fact a coastal, blessed with a name that is not given to instant mapping, particularly by the unsophisticated skills of the CPG. Having now confirmed that the man is indeed ‘one of our own’, they have now post-dated their demands, saying that only a coastal should be confirmed in the position!

Former MD Brown Ondego is also a coastal having spent literally all his life here, but he has had to suffer the indignant hounding by CPG operatives who could never comprehend how an “O” could belong to one of theirs. It mattered not, that he had in a few short years managed to steer the port around from near collapse. To their minds, such resuscitation could only have the sinister motive of benefiting the ‘wabara’ (non-coastals).

The previous CEOs at the port have, almost to a man, been from the coast. Apart from P.Okundi, J. Munene and R. Breneisten, the rest are clear evidence that, contrary to CPG’s wailing, no one has been “oppressing” the good folks from the coast. The high turn-over list of CEOs includes R. Sajjaad, J. Mturi, A. Mumba, S. Mkalla, B. Ondego, A. Mwaruwa and J. Mlewa. The current board of directors is also largely coastal, save for two permanent secretaries who are statutory members. They are led by Chairman J. Kibwana with members A. Mwaruwa, M. Jahazi, K. Jillo, K. Karim, N. Waireri, E. Konchellah and M. Mure.

The tribal bias that the MPs are seeking to safeguard is already tilted in their favor and they need not continue bombarding the nation’s collective indulgence with their invective. Indeed, they should ferret out their man, Transport Minister Mwakwere, whose turf they’re pretending to protect, to explain to them in his usual slow pace why it is that he accepted to terminate Mwaruwa’s contract if his wisdom dictated otherwise. Mwakwere, an elder of the CPG, will be involved in no small measure in the hunt for and appointment of the next MD. It is him they should be lobbying, even within the private confines of any number of locations in the expansive coast province, if they desperately want one of their own at the helm.

The Coast Parliamentary Group has over its brief history managed to curve out a colorless niche for itself as a voluble yet impotent consortium. It was supposedly set up to front for the collective interests of the region but has quickly degenerated into a vehicle for its members to seek recognition on the national political landscape. Unfortunately, their fickleness and nonsensical bravado will only serve to promote the stereotyping of the regions citizens as lay-a-bouts.

The good people of the Coast deserve much better leadership.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Mombasa Port: Crossed Fingers for Security

Besides strangling regional trade through a breakdown of its cargo movement operations, the Port of Mombasa could also be a veritable sitting duck awaiting a terrorist attack. Four years after worldwide implementation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security code begun, there are valid concerns that Mombasa Port is yet to attain a level of compliance that can forestall such an attack. Indeed after audits conducted here last year by the US Anti-terrorism Assistance Office, the Kenya Maritime Authority admitted that the Port had security shortcomings that made it a soft target for terrorism.

Container shipping is increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attack and port authorities now need to pro-actively enhance security at their facilities without necessarily slowing down the flow of trade. But the perennial congestion at the Mombasa Port, for instance, can be a cause for poor verification of containers as has been exemplified by the occasional inadvertent discovery of undesirable cargo. A case in point recently was a container laden with unknown toxic substances that started leaking while on its way out of the port, prompting its couriers to dump it along the Makupa causeway. The frenzied antics by poorly clad hired hands to clean the mess helped to contain the wafting fumes that had started to cause panic in the poor neighborhood.

The port has also never really come round to curbing movement of undesirable people within its perimeters. True, it is now more difficult for ‘unauthorized’ persons to enter the port. But is it any difficult for anyone to be authorized by the very same Port? The case of the Artur brothers is still fresh in our minds and there is no doubt that these are the stern blokes that make for terrorists. Much lower down the scale of undesirables are locals in search of casual labour who every once in a while find their way in by simply displaying a borrowed port pass. So long as it’s dangling on oneself, the security men will usually just wave you through the gates without a hassle.

The truth is that the process of getting a valid pass to the port has such a sloppy vetting mechanism that can be circumvented by anyone who wants to. And diverse blokes want to, excluding the fairly harmless folk looking for a day’s job or assorted ‘food suppliers’ trying to nick the odd slack bag from offloaded cargo. Of course those among such folk who aren’t fleet-footed regularly suffer incarceration at the port’s jail facility also known as kapenguria. Unfortunately, the bravado with which the onslaught on these small fish is executed is really just a façade to cover the entrenched network of underworld operators in the port. It is no big secret that these networks enjoy political patronage and complicity of some individuals in the Port’s management. Many of the security men therefore find that their personal interests are better served in protecting these networks than implementing ‘foreign’ codes that can only bring the gravy train to a grinding halt.

At some point, the Port’s management, and the government, must realize that security of the Mombasa Port is crucial if it is to continue enjoying relevance as hub to regional trade. And that point need not be reached only when nefarious plotters, now hovering over the East African coastline, throw up the fireworks. If, and when that happens, the disaster will be unspeakable. Those who have regularly operated at the Port over the years can attest that even such basic exercises like emergency drills at this key installation are practically non existent. Are our managers irredeemably wired to always wait for violent prompting that disaster preparedness is not just a matter of lofty documentation?

Ironically, the man said to have been in charge of reforms at the Port has now taken over as the Managing Director. He could well argue that external forces and internal politics may have hitherto hindered him from implementing tangible reforms in securing the Port facility. He now has a chance to acquit himself. Because at the moment, crossed fingers seem to be the safety symbol at Mombasa Port. And that is scary.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mombasa Port: Heads Roll, Choking Continues

Just as I was expressing dismay at the recklessness of leaving the Port of Mombasa to run on auto-pilot, the MD Abdallah Mwaruwa was being kicked out of office six months before his contract was due to expire. It is actually a feat of sorts for the man to have braved it out this long because it was largely known in the maritime industry that the office was too big for his humble abilities. It is obvious that his appointment was just a token of appeasement for the voluble coastals who never cease to clamor for ‘one of our own’ to manage the port, mali yetu. Indeed, even as his dismissal was being communicated, politicians from the coast had been to see the President ‘discussing issues affecting our people’. I can bet my last shilling that the paralysis at the port was not one of those issues.

Government needs to be firm with the coast politicians and make them accept, even though they may not understand, that the Port of Mombasa is a complex organization linked to international maritime business, regional trade and therefore cannot be run like a Miji Kenda Kaya. Port management has no room for delicate clan balancing stunts like the one executed to compose the current board of directors. The Port must simply be managed by professionals with strong leadership to lift it from its current predicament and build its capacity to handle the challenges ahead. The regular injection of dubious ‘local skills’ into the management ranks of Kenya Ports Authority has been its curse and must be brought to an end as it should now be clear that it is useless.

Mwaruwa’s counterpart at the Rift Valley Railways, one Roy Puffet, has also been jettisoned for single handedly paralyzing the Kenya/Uganda railway system which has led to choking of the port, wreaking havoc on regional trade. Legislators in Uganda are raising a furor, having warned last year that no due diligence had been carried out on RVR before handing over the railway to them. Their Kenyan counterparts are also now pressing for punitive action on the concerned players in the whole concessionaire parody that is now amounting to economic sabotage.

Having slept through their jobs, the two governments are now left with a system ground to a halt by shady characters that will enjoy contractual protection even as regional trade dangerously totters. They are busy making appointments and deadlines and vacuous vision statements that do not even begin to cover their ineptitude.

The only thing that is clear in the RVR deal is that two governments and two parliaments have been duped. It is a disgrace that incompetence of such monumental proportions should cut across borders with such ease. Just how do these fellows run government, let alone the bloody East African Community!

Related article: Mombasa Port-Gateway or Barrier

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mombasa Port: Gateway or Barrier

Cargo movement at the Port of Mombasa is currently strangled to near paralysis and is damaging commercial activity in the East and Central Africa region for which the Port is purported to be the gateway.
A bungled implementation of an electronic port management system has increased the cargo clearance period from an impressive 2 days to 14. About 10 vessels are now reported to be awaiting discharge of their cargoes. This slack is compounded by the non-performing Rift Valley Railways whose uptake of containers is said to be down to 2% from 20% when the Kenya Railways handed over.

The Kenya Ports Authority management is strangely unruffled by these regressive events and says they are only ‘teething problems’ which are being sorted out and expect them to be fully addressed in the next three months. It seems to me that some of the fellows running key operations at that port are unbelievably incompetent and are unlikely to be turned around in the next three decades, let alone months. How they hope to make Mombasa Port “the premier port of choice in the region and hub of maritime activity by 2015“is perhaps a matter of Kaya magic.

The so-called teething problems are such basic issues that would make an IT student weep. That many of the port clients have not been issued with passwords to log into the new system, that a number of the clients do have the passwords and are still unable to log in, that many of the clients have yet to be inducted into the system, that many of the port’s own staff are unable to operate the system and therefore cannot serve or guide their clients and that the system is compatible with only one internet browser. An IT manager that cannot foresee and forestall such “teething problems” leading to a complete breakdown of operations is clearly unfit for the job. And it should have been obvious to such a manager’s superior that implementing an IT solution of such a scale was never going to be easy and that a successful implementation of the project would require strong and innovative leadership.

The Kilindini Waterfront Operating System (KWATOS) that is at the centre of the current mess has been in the pipeline for more than a year now. It is amazing that a system of this magnitude with far reaching consequences can be implemented without a pilot project during which potential hitches would have been identified and remedied. It also seems to ordinary folk like me that installation should have been phased to run parallel with the previous ‘manual’ one until all end users and stakeholders are roped in; a seamless user migration that would have inspired enthusiasm and enhanced operations rather than this bizarre absence of strategy that has sparked resistance and massive loss of business.

Who will professionalize the management of Mombasa Port to help it meet national and regional goals? Certainly not Transport Minister Chirau Mwakwere whose constant refrain to pertinent issues is “that is not my responsibility”. And the port’s Board of Directors is largely composed of individuals whose input in guiding the running of such a complex organization in the maritime industry is suspect. Obviously, the port’s strategies are crafted elsewhere and the ‘council of elders’ only serve to sign on the dotted line which the MD points at.

It is a mystery how MD Abdullah Mwaruwa and his team expect to meet their vision “To be rated amongst the top 20 ports in the world in terms of reputation and performance by the year 2010”. That is two years away and by 2003, the 20th port in the world was handling 3 million TEU’s per year. The Mombasa Port expects to handle 1 million TEU’s by 2015, if KWATOS grows its teeth in time and the container terminal expansion plan succeeds.

As far as visions go, the Port of Mombasa is dreaming badly.