When the British decided to construct the Kenya-Uganda Railway early last century, linking landlocked Uganda to Kenya, they ensured that the line extended to the Kilindini Harbour at Mombasa on the Indian Ocean. The port in Mombasa remains as critical a gateway to the whole of East and Central Africa today as it was then.
"The Port of Mombasa is possibly the single most important piece of infrastructure in East Africa and has the potential to become the critical transport hub for the region," the World Bank's lead economist for Kenya, Wolfgang Fengler, says.
The importance of Mombasa's port to the economies of the region has never been in doubt. Historians trace its significance to the 12th century. No wonder any issue touching the port is always news fodder.
Lately, the Port of Mombasa has come under sharp focus from politicians, the business community, think-tanks, the shipping industry and workers at the docks. The key contention is its planned privatisation. The Kenya government, through the Ministry of Transport which manages the port, argues that privatisation will enhance the port's performance and ease the pressures posed by the increased demands of the region.
The proposed privatisation of this all-important port began in late 2009 with a legal notice in the Kenya Gazette calling on interested parties to submit their applications. These plans were opposed by the influential Dock Workers Union (DWU) which lobbied Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who has in turn supported the opposition to the port's privatisation.
"The Gazette Notice was given in 2009. That was a long time ago and it cannot guarantee the privatisation of the port. There is a long process before the port is privatised and I will ensure that does not happen," Odinga says. "So long as I am the Prime Minister, Kenya Ports Authority (KPA) will not be sold."
The Dock Workers Union, however, which also sought the support of local Members of Parliament to their opposition to the privatisation, do seem convinced that Odinga is genuine in his concern as he has not cancelled the legal notice.
"Putting the port in private hands will result in job losses and the region's economy will suffer. Our fears stem from past experiences where such silence has resulted in decisions that have not gone down well with Kenyans," Shakila Abdalla, a nominated MP, says. Her views are echoed by another MP, Francis Baya, who asks: "Why are we