The simmering conflict over a new electronic payment method at the entrance gates to the Masai Mara Game Reserve has erupted in a way few would have imagined, when protesters blocked the main Sekenani Gate, stranding hundreds of tourists who were left to see rowdy scenes.
The Narok County Council, which manages the reserve notably it is not managed by Kenya Wildlife Service a situation now coming under renewed review following these sad events awarded the collection of funds at the entrance gates to the Equity Bank in a 10 year deal, which promptly roused all sorts of suspicions. Some of the stories told to this correspondent during his present stay in Kenya allege that leakages in revenue collection were the root cause for the country council to go electronic, in other words saying that money was either misappropriated or outright stolen from collection points by colluding officials, and with no more cash changing hands under the new system, the alleged thieves were organizing mobs to halt the system.
In contrast has KWS been using electronic payment systems in parks they manage and individual travelers as well as safari operators use smart cards to effect payment at gates, reducing the amount of cash being handled at often remote locations.
The protestors are in turn claiming that the award of the payment collection deal was irregular, something other officials have since rejected as reported in the local Kenyan media.
However, all that said, the stranded tourists, many of whom were kept waiting for almost the entire day at the access road to the gate, which was barricaded with burning tires, logs and rocks, complained bitterly of their loss of time in the park, and tweets and social media immediately spread the word on the situation. Said a regular contributor from Nairobi last evening to this correspondent: The protestors are incited and misled. This is local politics of the highest order. Those complaining should resort to legal action challenging the decisions of the council, get an injunction. They should not send mobs to the gates and disturb our tourists. This is a very bad portrayal of Kenya tourism, very bad publicity and people sent pictures from the blockage on Facebook and Twitter to the whole world. The traffic must be allowed to flow freely in and out of the park or we risk our reputation, seriously. I hope government sends security down there to sort this out before it spins out of control. The next thing you hear of stone throwing or a tourist being manhandled, we cannot have that happen here.
The situation was not helped by a government minister making accusations over years of looting when appearing before a parliamentary committee. Banking sources are also quoted in Kenyas daily papers of denying that they were collecting gate fees but were only facilitating electronic payment systems as already done by KWS in other parks.
A returning tourist from the Mara, claiming to have seen the melee outside the gate while leaving the park for Nairobi, said to this correspondent, who had asked if they had been in the Mara and witnessed the situation: One of the chaps I asked said they needed to see cash money every day because the new system did not bring in cash and was empty, showing, if true, the extent of misconception and lack of understanding of modern payment methods, where invisible cash changes hands when credit, debit and pre-loaded smart cards were transferring funds from one party to another.
Clearly a case for increased sensitization and information to provide relevant information but of course also a case of misguided politicians trying to make political hay out of things ahead of 2012, which is an election year in Kenya.