Warming of Ethiopia-Eritrea relations puts proposed LAPSSET mega-project under microscope

26 September 2018

Map of proposed LAPSSET mega-corridor in East Africa. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The rationale for a proposed new East African mega-corridor development, the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor, has been thrown into question by the renewing of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Local campaigners, civil society organisations and researchers had previously raised serious concerns about the environmental and social impacts of LAPSSET, which is partially funded by the World Bank.

LAPSSET describes itself as “Eastern Africa’s largest and most ambitious infrastructure project, bringing together Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.” It consists of seven different infrastructure projects – including a controversial new deep-water port in Lamu, Kenya. Altogether LAPSSET is expected to cost around $25 billion, and, as summarised in a July profile by online media outlet African Arguments, “involves building thousands of kilometres worth of highways, railways and oil pipelines,” to facilitate regional cross-border trade. The World Bank agreed to provide a $500 million loan to finance part of the proposed LAPSSET highway network through northern Kenya in 2017. However, a July report by Kenyan newspaper The Standard pointed out that the recent thawing of relations between Eritrea and land-locked Ethiopia could potentially render LAPSSET “obsolete”, as Ethiopia may gain access to Eritrea’s port in Asmara as a result of this seismic shift in regional geopolitics, thus lessening its potential demand for Lamu Port.

The Bank-financed highway that is part of LAPSSET runs through Turkana county in northern Kenya, between Lokichar and Nakodok (on the South Sudan border). The county is Kenya’s largest and poorest, with 79 per cent of people living below the national poverty line. Oil was discovered in Turkana county in 2012, with a planned 820km export pipeline linking Turkana county’s oil fields to Lamu Port forming a key aspect of LAPSSET. However, as noted by African Arguments in July, “in Lokichar, the epicentre of Turkana’s oil industry, the boom has so far brought more frustration and conflict than hope. The British company Tullow Oil has opened the oil fields, but many are frustrated that this has not led to more jobs and benefits for those who have lived on the land for generations. Members of the herding community around the village of Nakukulas have barricaded roads in protest.” A 2017 report by Oxfam International found that Tullow Oil had failed to achieve free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) from local communities in Turkana county affected by the oil fields. According to Oxfam International, Tullow receives financing from the International Finance Corporation (IFC, the Bank’s private investment arm) for its oil operations in Turkana county, and FPIC is required under IFC’s Performance Standards.

[LAPSSET] involves building thousands of kilometres worth of highways, railways and oil pipelines African Arguments

Concerns have also surrounded the development of Lamu Port, which could affect the UNESCO World Heritage site at Lamu Old Town. Protests have also erupted against plans to build a coal-fired power plant in the vicinity of Lamu Port, with the African Development Bank considering providing finance for the project.

LAPSSET represents just one of many planned ‘mega-corridors’ in developing regions, supported by the Bank and other international finance institutions (see Observer Spring 2018, Winter 2017). As noted by online media outlet AfricaRenewal, the “LAPSSET project [is viewed] as a major contribution to the African Union’s regional integration vision of a … fully integrated continent by 2063,” which will see LAPSSET’s proposed transportation infrastructure eventually extend to Douala, Cameroon, via Juba, South Sudan – enabling the creation of integrated trans-African transport infrastructure between East and West Africa.

As highlighted in a December report by Belgium-based CSO network Counter Balance, however, such mega-corridors risk promoting a model of development that is incompatible with climate action and the Sustainable Development Goals: “The building of planned mega corridors would … mean locking-in the current extractivist development model. This agenda … is largely reliant on fossil fuels, mining and large-scale agribusiness.”