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 fa├žade 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.

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