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ANALYSIS: The road not travelled – conflicting data threatens Kenya president Uhuru Kenyatta’s infrastructure narrative

Publicly available official data on the roads built in Kenya since 2013 is inconsistent and incoherent, leaving even the president confused over a key plank of his nine-year legacy.

In his final address on a national day on 1 June 2022, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta ticked off what he said were his most significant achievements in office. 

Kenyatta will stand down after August elections, having served the constitutional maximum of two terms.

Infrastructure development has been a key focus of his administration, and on 1 June he returned to a favoured talking point: road construction.

Kenyatta said his predecessor, Mwai Kibaki, had built 2,000 kilometres of roads but his government had “accelerated his achievement by building over 11,000 kilometres”. 

“In fact, truth be said, we have built more roads in nine years than what the previous administrations combined, including the British, built in 123 years. Wapende wasipende hiyo ndio ukweli wa mambo,” he said. The last sentence, in Kiswahili, translates to: “That is the truth of the matter, whether they like it or not.”

Kibaki, in office between December 2002 and April 2013, is hailed for transforming the economy, including its infrastructure. Kenyatta said he had set the bar “even higher” with “world-class infrastructure from elevated expressways to floating bridges”. He was referring to the Nairobi expressway in the Kenyan capital and the bridge in Likoni at the coast.

Did Kibaki build 2,000 km of tarmac roads in 10 years?

In 2003, there were 8,940 kilometres (km) of bitumen roads, according to the official statistics agency. Data from the planning ministry supported this, at 8,937 km. (Note: In Kenya the terms bitumen and tarmac are used interchangeably.)

The agency gave the length of bitumen road as 11,230 km in 2013. Kibaki’s administration therefore built at least 2,293 km of tarmac road. 

And has Kenyatta built 11,000 km in nine years? 

Kenyatta first took office in April 2013. In his state of the nation address three years later he updated parliament on progress.

“In the last three years, my administration has tarmacked approximately 3,000 kilometres – or an average rate of 1,000 kilometres per year,” he said on 31 March 2016, according to the Hansard, parliament’s official transcript. 

The 2016 edition of the official data agency’s flagship annual economic survey gave the bitumen network as 13,900 km in 2015, or an increase of 2,670 km, so Kenyatta’s figures up to here largely add up. 

But from this point, the data is a Tower of Babel.

  • A year later, on 15 March 2017, Kenyatta returned to parliament with a revised figure of 1,950 km of roads completed during his first term. He promised that “another 7,000 kilometres” were being built. These same figures were repeated two weeks later by his then finance minister Henry Rotich in a budget speech to parliament.
  • Only ten days after Rotich’s figures, roads minister James Macharia kept the roads under construction to 7,000 km, but swelled the number built under Kenyatta to 2,500 km. Kenyatta’s government was on course to build 9,500 km, Macharia said. (Note: The president’s manifesto promised to tar even more – 13,000 kilometres –in five years.
  • In June 2017, Kenyatta launched his re-election manifesto ahead of that year’s election. It recorded that his administration had built a “record-breaking 1,950 kilometres of new roads”. 

Second term brought further confusion

The contradictions continued in Kenyatta’s second term. 

  • In his state of the nation address to parliament on 2 May 2018, the president said five years into his term his government had tarmacked 3,000 km  and 5,000 more were under construction. 
  • But the 2018 economic survey showed more roads – 3,300 km – had been built in a shorter period of four years – from 11,200 km in 2013 to 14,500 km in 2016. 
  • The survey also estimated that by June 2017, completed bitumen roads were at 20,600 km, or 9,400 km more than in 2013. An analysis of roads funding by this researcher did not find corroborating evidence of such a significant increase. 

For months, Africa Check tried to obtain reliable roads data to gauge road construction under Kenyatta. We wrote to the Kenya Roads Board which provides data to the statistics agency. They referred us to the transport ministry, where we had already come up against a brick wall. 

We put in an access to information request as provided for under the constitution in August 2018. This has at time of writing been pending at the ministry for nearly four years. 

We have not been successful with fresh efforts to get data, including on a roads map put up by the board to track progress since 2013. The data informing the map is closed to the public.

8,000 kilometres of new roads in Kenyatta’s second term?

Kenyatta’s second term started in November 2017. The data remained jarring.

  • Speaking at British thinktank Chatham House in February 2019, deputy president William Ruto said the government had “constructed 7,000 kilometres of tarmac in the last five years”. 
  • Nine months later in November 2019, the official data agency published data that showed tarmacked roads had increased by 5,800 km since 2013, to 17,033 km.
  • But the agency gave bitumen roads as 21,295 km in 2019, in its 2021 economic survey, or 11,000 km since 2013.
  • On 1 June 2020, the president claimed his government had built 1,000 km of new roads every year. For the seven years between 2013 and 2018 that would work out to 7,000 km.
  • On 30 November 2021, Kenyatta told parliament his administration had built 10,500 km of new roads since 2013.
  • In May 2022, the statistics agency published its most recent economic survey. This estimated the road network at the end of 2021 to be 21,826 km. Using it, the increase from 2013 would be about 11,500 km of new bitumen roads. 

But just a month later, in his last speech on a national day, the president claimed his administration had “completed close to 8,000 kilometres of new roads” in his second term and “over 6,600 kilometres of tarmac roads” were under construction. 

However, data from the roads board shows that the increase between 2018 and 2021 – the bulk of his second term – was 3,171 kilometres. 

Conclusion: Available data on roads infrastructure is clear as mud

The president has given conflicting data on roads several times.

In 2016 he claimed his government built 3,000 km of tarmac roads in his first term, only to turn around ahead of his 2017 re-election and say it was only 1,950 km.

Interestingly, data from the national statistics agency showed tarmacked roads up to 2017 increased by significantly more – 5,800 km. 

For his second term, the data agency shows tarmac roads increased by 3,171 kms, yet Kenyatta claimed 8,000 km. The agency sources its data from the roads board which is under the transport and infrastructure ministry. The minister reports directly to the president. 

Without detailed and coherent data from the ministry, which Africa Check has sought for years under the premise it is public data, it is near impossible to verify delivery on such a key plank of Kenyatta’s legacy. We are all the poorer for this.

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