Kenyans protesting over jobs end highway blockade from Mombasa port

MOMBASA Kenya (Reuters) - Protesters in Kenya ended a blockade on Friday that had disrupted the transport of cargo by truckers on the main trade artery from Mombasa port to Nairobi and the wider east African region.

More than two hundred residents in Voi, a town located 142 km (89 miles) inland from Mombasa, had halted traffic for several hours with burning tyres to demand jobs from a Chinese company contracted to build a section of a railway in the area.

East Africa’s largest economy is the world’s biggest exporter of black tea and blockage of the road to the port could disrupt shipments.

At least 90 percent of all cargo arriving at the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa is ferried to final destinations in Kenya and landlocked neighbours by road, with trucks the main mode of transport.

John Mruttu, the governor of Taita Taveta County - where Voi is located - told Reuters that youths in the area around the town were protesting against a Chinese contractor who they accused of denying them jobs on the standard gauge railway line.

He said the protesters were angry that the contractor had “imported labour, including drivers, which are jobs the locals are entitled to. They also say the few locals who have been employed are being paid poorly, and sacked without reason”.

Officials at the company, China Road and Bridge Construction Company, were not immediately available for comment.

Police said they convinced the protesters to clear the highway and to take up the matter with the contractor directly.

“Transport on the highway is back to normal now,” Richard Bitonga, Taita Taveta county police commander, told Reuters. “Our officers also cleared the mess of rocks, twigs and burnt tyres which they had used to barricade the highway.”

Kenya’s government has said about 30,000 Kenyan workers would be employed to build a multi-billion dollar standard gauge railway from Mombasa to Nairobi, with only a few hundred Chinese specialised workers hired for the project.

East African leaders and China signed agreements in May related to the construction of the railway, which will continue from Nairobi to the border of neighbouring Uganda and other landlocked states.

The project to link Mombasa with Malaba on the Ugandan border is designed to cut transport costs and boost regional trade. Kenya’s government has said the portion of railway from Mombasa to Nairobi would cost 447.5 billion shillings ($5 billion) including financing costs.

Mombasa port is the main trade gateway to east Africa, and handles imports such as fuel and consumer goods destined for landlocked Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Reporting by Joseph Akwiri; Writing by James Macharia; Editing by David Clarke and Pravin Char