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Friday, August 8, 2008

The South Africans should have taken a walk long ago

By JAINDI KISERO

I understand he has not quit willingly. It is part of a proposition which a group of local investors led by the Transcentury Group have made to the Government and the two international financial institutions supporting the concession. KFW of Germany and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) had totally lost faith in Mr Puffet’s ability to steer RVR to profitability and operational efficiency.

Mr Puffet had to go because both the Uganda and Kenya governments were threatening to cancel the concession on the grounds of non-performance. Clearly, the parties had come to the realisation that, as long as he remained at the helm, it was going to be next to impossible to unlock the billions of shillings which key international financiers had committed to the concession.

I understand that a group of local investors, including leading freight companies, have now decided to join hands with the Transcentury Group to raise fresh capital for the project. The intention of the shareholders is to reach the capitalisation threshold big enough to make the international financiers comfortable enough to agree to unlock the funds. But does RVR have a realistic chance of surviving?

It will all depend on whether Mr Puffet’s exit and the proposed entry of new shareholders will provide the assurances which long-term lenders such as IFC and KFW want. The initiative by the local shareholders deserves our full support. In hindsight, we should not have allowed these South Africans near the railways in the first place. This thing was a mistake right from the beginning. I still remember how the initial signing of the deal with the Ministry of Transport had to be hurried to circumvent a case which the pensioners of the Kenya Railways Corporation had lodged in court against the privatisation.

It was to turn out later that Mr Puffet had snookered the two major shareholders in the winning consortium, Mirambo Holding and Prime Fuels Ltd by going ahead to sign with the ministry before concluding a shareholding agreement with them. Cautious voices warned that the Government had taken a major risk by agreeing to cede control of such a large utility to one man. Just before he was allowed to take over the actual running of the railway, it turned out that Mr Puffet did not have the money to pay the $5 million entry fee as stipulated in the agreement.

According to that agreement, Kenya was to receive $3 million and Uganda $2 million. Mr Puffet took over the running of the railways without paying a cent in entry fees. Nor did the South African fulfil all the conditions which the two international lenders had imposed. Under the agreement with the lenders, partial risk guarantees should have been signed and handed over to the Government before the takeover by the South Africans. The saga about the entry fees was intriguing. Until the very end, the South Africans were promising both Uganda and Kenya that they had the money. As a matter of fact, the two governments were even requested by the South Africans to send wiring instructions to Sheltam’s bankers in South Africa so that the money could be sent and received before the takeover.

A day before the takeover ceremony, however, it turned out that Mr Puffet could not raise the $5 million. And, how did he explain it? A long-winded spiel on how one of his South African partners had dropped out of the deal. We should have told the South Africans to take a long walk. But what did we do? We changed the rules and revised entry requirements to allow Mr Puffet to take over. Government officials from both Uganda and Kenya, lawyers and transaction advisers representing both parties spent one whole night at the Treasury crafting separate agreement with new conditions to make it possible for Sheltam to take over without having to pay an entry fee. By the next morning, the new agreements were ready, in time for the hand-over celebrations at the Kenya Railways Headquarters.

The stage had been set for the celebrations and several tents pitched as early as 6 am – complete with special seating for the police band brought there specifically to entertain guests and play the national anthems of both Kenya and Uganda. As it turned out, the ceremony did not take place until very late in the evening. Apparently, somebody was unhappy with the terms under which the South Africans were being allowed to take over.

The Kenya Uganda railway system is the spinal cord of business in the five East African Community member states. It was a big mistake to entrust it to an individual.

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