Voi Highway Blockade demonstrated Government Absence

Published on 16th November 2010

Gridlock
I was one of the motorists that spent the night on the Mombasa highway due to the Voi traffic gridlock that was caused by protesting Taita – Mwatate residents. The question on the lips of every motorist and passenger was: "Where is the government?"  Seated in my jalopy and surrounded by groaning sounds of truck engines, I could not help it but join hundreds of other stranded travelers in sending out the same message to a number of friends. 

I had flown in the previous day from Amsterdam after two months successive flying and opted to drive to stay clear of airplanes. I was headed to Mombasa for IREN's 8th brainstorming session on Africa. With an exciting theme for the year; "How to make Africa take charge" and an enthusiastic delegation from varied backgrounds from all over Africa expected at the forum; I whistled my way on a pothole free road down past Machakos, Emali, Kibwezi and Mtito Andei in great anticipation. That is when I saw ahead of me a long queue of trucks, buses and other vans snaking into the hilly horizons of Voi. I had bypassed several highway patrol police officers; but none had warned me of what lay ahead. Assuming that blockade was due to overturned truck, I attempted to use available space to get past the giants. After 6 kilometers or so; it dawned on me that I was faced with a monster reminiscent of  the country’s post-election violence: smoke, fire and
yelling youth.

A group of 800 or so youth had ganged up and blocked the Mombasa – Nairobi highway using burning tires and railway truck metals. As an optimist, I got out of my car and walked to the front and to analyze the situation. I called one of my delegates that had left by bus earlier only to realize he had been stuck up in the gridlock from 10.00am. I joined him to gain more insight on the situation.

The Taita - Mwatate residents were "peacefully" demonstrating against what they termed as neglect by government (because they caused no damage to property save for damage on my time and that of others). They had a crucial feeder road in the interior that no moon buggy would survive a ride on it.  After several years of petitions to whoever and whomever, through some association or the other, they opted to block an international highway that feeds the region.

The language spoken by the stranded travelers' provided evidence of the international nature of the highway. Ugandans asked whether Kenya has an army or some kind of "chiboko" boys that normally sweep Kampala streets in times of riots. Tanzanians talked of "Kenyan democracy" gone crazy. Truck drivers complained that their bosses take care of their pets (dogs) in a better way than they do them. A young beautiful lady and a young couple that had been cruising ahead of me moaned of a delayed romance at the coast! I was there communicating with my staff on possibility of doing my opening remarks at the Africa Resource Bank reception via phone. For the youth who had imposed the blockade; they were shouting "Haki Yetu!" (Our rights); they were demanding for a government minister or the other to show up and address them. 

The November 9, 2010 highway blockade in Voi cost the region billions of shillings in lost time; goods gone bad and fuel among others. A resultant effect of government holed up in Nairobi. The new constitutional dispensation finally offers hope of delivering government to the people through counties.

By James Shikwati.

The author james@irenkenya.org is Director of Inter Region Economic Network (IREN).


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