Kenfrey Kiberenge: China taking African fast lane to leave West behind
LAST weekend I went to the Princes Mall in Edinburgh to buy some gifts for my friends back in Kenya. I wanted a gift that is quintessentially Scottish (or British) to confirm that I was in the “land of the Queen”.
I did a few rounds and most of the things I spotted bore the label “made in China”. It’s not that I devalue anything Chinese but my friends know I am in Scotland and not China. Besides, nearly 80 per cent of the items in most Kenyan shops come from that part of the Far East. It doesn’t make sense for me to fly 5,000 miles with items I could obtain locally. To cut a long story short, I had a rough time getting Scottish stuff although I succeeded in the end.
I am, however, baffled by the presence of China here. I was fascinated reading in last week’s Scotland on Sunday how the Scottish Government had taken flak for deals with two controversial Chinese energy firms, PetroChina and Sinopec. Like most Kenyans, I assumed that only Africa was entering into deals with China, and that Britain had what it takes not just to handle all her own affairs but also export to other countries.
In Africa, China has elbowed Western powers aside. Since time immemorial, what the British High Commissioner in Nairobi said would often be splashed on page one by local Press. So entrenched is the British empire that you will find a place in Kenya called Thogoto, a corruption of the name Scotland, home of the first missionaries to Kenya.
Slowly, though, this clout is diminishing. Previously, Chinese diplomats were not taken seriously; today, their opinions count and it’s just a matter of time before they start making it to page one. If a referendum was held today, China would beat Europe and America hands-down as Kenyans’ favourite overseas country. And why not?
Currently, three Chinese companies are putting final touches to a superhighway in Nairobi valued at £231 million. This is the most magnificent road in sub-Saharan Africa, the first of its kind with interchanges, flyovers and underpasses. Kenyans are ecstatic, posting pictures of sections of the superhighway on social media.
The road has also created interest among regional countries, some of which have dispatched teams to asses it and look at the possibility of emulating the model.
So serious is the situation, even accessing Kenya’s President Kibaki is hard for Western diplomats. In March, the French ambassador to Kenya, Etienne de Poncins, complained publicly that President Kibaki had become extremely difficult to reach.
Ordinarily, such a statement would attract an outright apology from State House in Nairobi. This time, the president fell short of telling them to go to hell.
In a tone that was close to conceited, the President said he not been unreachable “to any nation that works for the good of the Kenyan people”. Days later, his roads minister said he had opted to deal with China due to the bureaucratic nature of obtaining funds from the West.
The minister cited a project to construct a bypass in Nairobi that took the government ten years to discuss with the World Bank yet nothing was forthcoming. When he went to the Chinese, the discussions lasted “just three months” and they were on the ground.
Then there is the question of foreign direct investment. In 2010, data supplied by the Kenya Investment Authority indicated that China, South Africa, India and South Korea were the top five sources of foreign direct investment for Kenya, beating the traditional toppers like the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. China pumped a total investment of £308m into Kenya last year, compared to £3.8m from the developed economies.
To be fair, though, while China has concentrated on sealing business deals in the last four years, Britain and her peers have dedicated their energies on “lecturing” Kenya’s leadership about the all-important human rights and corruption issues. China does not care about any of these.
It is therefore not in doubt why African leaders, most with poor human rights and corruption records, are going to bed with the Asian giant. The Kenyan example is one that applies to most other African countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, among others. «
• Kenfrey Kiberenge works for The Standard newspaper in Kenya. He is winner of the David Astor Journalism Award 2012 (www.dajat.org) and is on a fellowship programme with Scotland on Sunday
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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