In just seven days, the geographical and political landscape of East and Central Africa will undergo a major change if Southern Sudan votes to become the region’s newest state.
Southern Sudan’s 3.5 million voters go the polls for seven days starting Sunday, with the entire continent watching but with a keener interest by Kenya, whose interests in Sudan are vast.
Kenya has about 70,000 of its citizens making a living there and investments by the government and Kenyans are so important that the semi-autonomous south has often been described as Kenya’s economic outpost.
All indications are that the Southerners will vote to secede, and Kenya sees this as an opportunity to not only have the country integrate into East Africa but also develop its investment opportunities.
While Kenya remains the biggest economy in the East Africa Community, the recent discovery of oil in Uganda and intensified exploitation of gas and mineral finds in Tanzania mean its dominance as an exporter will be tested in coming years.
In Southern Sudan, Kenyans virtually control the hospitality, banking, aviation and construction sectors, and there have been indications that more are waiting in the wings once the referendum is concluded.
Among the firms in operation there are the Kenya Commercial Bank, which has 11 branches, UAP Insurance with four branches and Bidco Oil Refineries.
“The fact that the Southerners want to run their own affairs independently is better for them since they can then decide to join the East African Community and stand to enjoy the benefits within the trading bloc,” said KCB chief executive officer Martin Oduor-Otieno.
He said chief among the resources that would have an immediate impact on Kenya would be the oil, and the development of infrastructure to better link the two countries would lower the price of oil products.
Oil from the south is currently exported through Port Sudan, 3,000 kilometres away, and the link to Lamu would reduce that distance to 1,700 kilometres.
Mr Otieno naturally looks to helping the new country develop its banking system.
“With independence, the south can manage her taxes and choose a preferred money investment programme,” he said.
Mr Mugo Kebati, the director of Kenya’s development blueprint, Vision 2030, also described Southern Sudan as an opportunity for growth for Kenyans.
“The greatest project that will integrate that country into Kenya’s economy is the proposed Lamu Port and the northern corridor project that are associated with it including the railways line, pipeline and airport,” said Mr Kebati.
“Once complete, it will fully integrate the youngest nation – if Southern Sudan secedes - into the greater East African Community,” he added.
Although acting Foreign Affairs minister George Saitoti stressed at a press conference this week that this is purely for regional integration, one cannot fail to notice the benefits to be reaped from that connection.
The effect of the transport link and the refinery would naturally result in the development of areas along the route, and this to the benefit of the Kenyan economy.
The Kenya National Examinations Council offers examinations to students in Southern Sudan and the expectation of their CEO, Mr Paul Wasanga, is that the country would fully adopt the Kenyan education system.
“Kenya stands to benefit a great deal with the independence of Southern Sudan. If you want to do trade with any country, the best way is through having a similar education system,” he told the Saturday Nation.
“If we have a similar education system with Southern Sudan, then the two countries will be on the same ground going forward. Language and communication is shaped by an education system,” he added.
Kenya Association of Manufacturers chairman Vimal Shah said the emergence of a new state would provide a serious opportunity for everything Kenya does.
“As a new country, Southern Sudan will need basically everything and Kenya among other neighbours stands to benefit in terms of the increased demand. With secession, the country becomes landlocked and Kenya will automatically provide them access to the sea,” said Mr Shah.
Mr Joe Kiboi, the managing director of Cee Express Sudan Limited, a courier service company, said employment opportunities would also increase as the South begins the development of its infrastructure.
“But the Kenyan Government, seriously, needs to do the Nairobi-Lokichogio road so that business people can tap the opportunities with ease,” he said.
But the risk of a violent turn of events remains, and Kenya is already prepared to handle the spill-over effects should things were to go terribly wrong, with the government saying it is ready with humanitarian and logistical support for any refugees.
It would by all accounts be disastrous for the Kenyan economy if trouble was to break out in the country.
According to a recent report by a coalition of African and European economic and political think-tanks, the losses to Kenya would top Sh926 billion in 10 years if war breaks out.
This would be in addition to the loss of livelihoods for the 70,000 Kenyans that live there. Kenya has, however, played a deft political game with Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir whose success would prevent war.
President Bashir was invited to the ceremony of the promulgation of the new Kenyan Constitution, with his surprise appearance almost threatening to overshadow the occasion.
In the wake of that visit and the government’s defiant statement when put to task, analysts said it was a deliberate move by Kenya to assure President Bashir of its support.
The efforts appear to have paid off with President Bashir’s declaration in Juba on Tuesday that he would celebrate the result of the referendum even if the Southerners chose to secede.