What you need to know:
- You know that fuel is cheaper in Uganda than in Kenya not primarily by the existence of the markets but the sizes of the containers.
- When prices are cheaper in Kenya, on the Ugandan side the number of small bottles packing between one to five litres increase considerably.
The Daily Nation on Tuesday had a familiar, but wonderful, story about the response of Kenyans at the border with Tanzania to the increase in fuel prices. It said dozens of Kenyan motorists and boda boda riders were flocking to Tanzania to fuel up.
“Kenyan motorists who cross into Tanzania for fuel save Ksh27.46 and Ksh14.23 for a litre of petrol and diesel respectively,” it reported, quoting a motorist as saying: “Cheap fuel is being sold on the side streets. We know it’s illegal, but we are forced to buy. It is survival for the fittest.”
On the Kenyan side, petrol stations were deserted and there was little activity, indicating a low level of fuel business, it added.
This is how it has always been in our East Africa, and across the continent. An opportunity in a country can often be an equal opportunity, or a source of peril, in its neighbour.
After Nigerian President Bola Tinubu was sworn in in May, ala Kenya, he dismantled the country’s long-running fuel subsidy that cost nearly $10 billion a year. Pump prices went up by three times.
Nigerian cities, especially the commercial capital Lagos, which had been reputed to have the worst traffic jams in the world, nearly went silent.
Abrupt increases in the cost of living
Subsidies, particularly on fuel in Africa, are a divisive and emotive issue. Its critics in Nigeria held that fuel subsidies in Africa’s largest oil producer only benefited the cartels that sold it for a handsome profit across Nigeria’s borders. One of the biggest beneficiaries of the Nigerian fuel subsidy was its neighbour Niger.
With the subsidy axed, the volumes sold in Niger dropped drastically. Niger experienced nearly a similar rise in fuel prices as in Nigeria. Two months later, on July 26, there was a military coup in Niger that ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.
Tinubu, who had taken over as chairman of the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), 17 days earlier, led the organisation into a tough line against the coup makers. Ecowas threatened military action against Niger if Bazoum wasn’t released from detention and democracy restored.
The irony was that Tinubu’s scrapping of the Nigerian fuel subsidy might well have contributed to the abrupt increases in the cost of living in Niger, which fed the coup.
The impact of these movements in prices have a longer history between Kenya and Uganda, which easily share one of the freest border lines in the region. When fuel prices are lower in Uganda than in Kenya, the same scenes seen near Namanga, with roadside “illegal” markets, play out.
You know that fuel is cheaper in Uganda than in Kenya not primarily by the existence of the markets but the sizes of the containers. There are more jerrycans that pack 10 to 20 litres of fuel, for Kenyans who cross over to buy “wholesale”.
Cars stolen from Kenya
When prices are cheaper in Kenya, on the Ugandan side the number of small bottles packing between one to five litres increase considerably. The Ugandans are now selling the Kenyan fuel to local taxi drivers and boda boda fellows at “retail” level.
With varying levels of complexity and hide-and-seek with the authorities, these dynamics play out with beer, grains, chicken, eggs, flour, bananas, pineapples...name it.
Uganda’s former Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East Africa Eriya Kategaya was a dyed-in-the-wool East Africanist and pan-Africanist who delighted in these subversive ways of the people. Once, frustrated by the pace of East African integration, he remarked that the governments were way behind the people.
Kategaya noted that one of the most integrated people in the region were the criminals. They had established a very intricate system of stealing fishing boats on Lake Victoria and selling them in the ports of neighbouring countries. They had an even better system for stealing and disappearing cars.
Pakwach is a north-western Uganda town famous for its ferry. Very many Kenyan Luos moved and settled there in early 20th Century, when the British colonialists were building the ferry. They formed the largest Kenyan-Luo community outside Kenya. Earlier in the year, I stopped there to investigate this Kenyan phenomenon.
The town is 210 kilometres from the South Sudan border. It is also about 190km from the Democratic Republic of Congo border. Since I was from Nairobi, a Pakwach insider thought it would be of interest to tell me about cars stolen from Kenya.
Pointing to a spot a short distance off, he told me that it was where the line of no return was. “Once a stolen Kenyan car crosses that line, it’s very difficult to stop it. It will end up in DRC or South Sudan”.
I asked why but couldn’t get a clear answer. It seems up there is a trading network formed by Congolese, Ugandan and South Sudanese criminals over a large swath covering the three countries that is almost impossible for the states to beat. East Africa is a creature that thrives in the dark.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. @cobbo3