A mile above sea level, the thin Mombasa air refreshed delegates representing the governments of Rwanda, Kenya, Burundi and Uganda as they congregated to hammer out a plan to launch the Northern Corridor Transit System. The year was 1981 and the first inter-state meeting in August resolved to adopt a study report sponsored by the European Economic Community (EEC) to establish the Northern Corridor Transit System in the East African Region. The same report also contained 23 recommendations to ease the flow of transit traffic in the northern corridor.
The Northern Corridor Transit System was to include road, railway an oil pipeline as well as water transport system between these states and would ease the transportation of goods and people from Mombasa to Bujumbura through Kampala, Kigali and continue on to Beni through Bukavu, Goma in the then Zaire now the Democratic Republic of Congo. In November 1985 another meeting was held in Nairobi in which the state parties agreed to establish the Transit Transport Co-ordination Authority (TTCA) and form a permanent secretariat to assist the TTCA in ensuring an effective implementation of the NCTA, with a permanent secretariat finally being established in Mombasa in October 1988. During the meeting in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1989 the member states agreed to meet in Mombasa in 1990 to discuss recommendations for removing the non-physical barriers to traffic flow.
Fast forward to June 2013 in Entebbe, Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya), Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), and Paul Kagame (Rwanda) met to discuss how to co-operate and speed up development in the region and of great concern was the period it took to transport cargo from the Mombasa Port due to various bottlenecks along the way. The Presidents agreed that this transit period needed to be reduced and the infrastructure along the corridor needed to be improved to ease this period and the construction of a new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a common crude oil pipeline and the reduction in the cost of doing business in the region had to be brought down.
The result of this meeting was the renaming of The Tripartite Infrastructure Initiative to the Northern Corridor Integration Projects (NCIP) with South Sudan incorporated as a member and the decision to simplify immigration laws in the region and enhance cooperation on tourism, trade and services with each country establishing a special office to coordinate the NCIP with the Presidents committing to meet every two months as a follow up.
The history of the project puts into context the role Communication has played and will continue to play in ensuring its success. When the Project was first conceptualized in the Eighties, it was the era of centralized Communications, a period where sending a fax to newsrooms disseminating information regarding the State Parties meeting and getting it broadcast on the sole state broadcasters or the tightly state regulated newspapers was adequate information, but in 2013 the communication scenario was different; the modern media cacophony heralded great promise but also posed some challenges. To put it in greater context the rise of citizen journalists and Social media platforms presented a great opportunity for communicating diverse aspects of the NCIP while the challenge of various communication mediums was that of message contextualization in view of the diverse audiences who needed to know about the projects.
Communication Critics of the earlier era when the project began in the Eighties, have pointed out that the centralised and tightly controlled government communication of that era may have resulted in fewer East African Citizens becoming aware of the projects and hence the resultant limited buy-in and ownership of it; but the same critics are pointing out the fact that regardless of the opportunity presented by the rise of various communication mediums in 2016, similar limitations of effective communication about the project may hinder its successful implementation. The communication efforts for the Northern Corridor need to be more robust and strategic in the following ways:
First we must raise the general awareness of the project and the opportunities available for diverse stakeholders. A quick survey will reveal that despite a lot happening in the various project implementation phases, the general awareness of its scope by citizens in East and Central Africa is very limited. A robust Integrated Communication Strategy, that is multi-disciplinary and capable of being deployed on multiple fronts to push key messages regarding the Northern Corridor process, is necessary. The strategy must be geared towards enhancing awareness among Citizens , Investors and the Business Community among others. Secondly it should be geared towards inviting interested stakeholders to be a part of the project and to “own” it, and finally it must ensure timely information dissemination that keeps the stakeholders aware of every step of its implementation.
The Northern Corridor Project also requires Credible Message Surrogates. A keen observation on the interplay of the Northern Corridor’s current communication Strategy, messaging and Audiences, reveals that the major communication efforts have continued to be anchored around the regional Heads of State and becomes more pronounced during their review meetings. The current strategy has neglected a key approach of strategic communications, which is about drawing from the different institutional resources within the region to create a team of credible message surrogates to push the communication agenda of Northern Corridor Project. The Message Surrogates need to be profiled against the targeted audiences and the persons with utmost credibility deployed bearing key messages on the Northern Corridor project.
Finally Good Messaging is of the essence. A Clear messaging gap has been evident. The Northern Corridor message should be simple, concise and easy to understand among the various targeted audiences. A simple survey currently reveals that not many “targeted” stakeholders are aware of various aspects of the project. Perhaps a more decentralized message generation structure that considers the diversity of the countries involved in the Northern Corridor Project needs to be implemented.