President Uhuru Kenyatta’s visit to Russia and China this week constitutes a major political statement to the world that Kenya, as a sovereign nation is prepared to go full blast in nurturing its official ties with the East regardless of what the West says or thinks. In many ways, Uhuru is taking a big gamble especially at this time when Kenya’s relations with its major allies -the United States and Britain – are wavering. The timing of the visit could easily be interpreted as Kenya’s way of thumbing its nose at the West- not a very good way of handling international relations with your major allies.
And this is not to say that we should not dialogue with all friendly nations, regardless of their ideologies. What I am saying is that we should be more careful in dealing with the East than with the West. I am sure London and Washington are following closely every step Uhuru will take in Beijing and Moscow.
Kenya’s final thrust to the East has been building up for sometime now. It picked up speed when relations with the West began to thaw during the Grand Coalition government and worsened when Uhuru and his deputy, William Ruto – both facing charges against humanity at the Hague – were elected president and deputy president earlier this year.
For almost two years before he left office, President Mwai Kibaki, had clamped a complete black-out on Western embassy officials wanting to consult him on bilateral issues. He kept envoys in abeyance without telling them the reasons why he had withheld diplomatic hospitality. That by itself created a major disconnect between the two divides. It is possible that Kibaki felt let down by the West for coercing him into signing a coalition agreement with Raila Odinga, the man he believed he beat in 2007. That agreement, to end post election violence and create a government of national unity was the creation of the West. That explains why Kibaki’s dealings with Raila were often so erratic and sometimes stormy during the entire five year period of the Grand Coalition government.
But relations between Nairobi and Washington took a dramatic turn when US officials warned Kenyans that there would be consequences if they elected the duo; and Britain declared that it would only maintain “essential contacts” with Nairobi if Uhuru and Ruto came to power. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to visit Kenya – the country of his father -during his first term also did not help much. He visited sub-Saharan Africa for the first time as president in 2009 but skipped Kenya, supposedly because he was unhappy about the conduct of the 2007 polls.
In the meantime, the ICC issue came into the picture and the two people alleged to have been most involved in the post election violence of 2008 were elected. Perhaps because of that, Obama once again saw no need of including Kenya in his recent itinerary to the continent. The fact that he came to Tanzania, just across the border, and avoided Kenya did not amuse Kenya leaders who made it clear that they really didn’t care.
It is now obvious that the Jubilee government will not be dissuaded by anyone about cooperating with any nation willing to help it fulfil goals it has set out in its manifesto. But while Kenyans are not too worried about the bilateral and business agreements Uhuru is likely to sign with the Russians, they are wary about deals with China.
What has made China so popular in Africa today is because – unlike the West – it does not set prior political or governance conditions while disbursing its aid or negotiating its loans. This has led to the tripling of its trading activities in the continent to more than 160 billion US dollars a year. It buys one third of its oil from Africa and has more African students studying on schorlaships in China – 12,000 of them – than any other country.
Since the Chinese influx to Kenya began 5 years ago at the height of the construction of the Thika highway, Kenya has not been the same. That there has been a noticeable increase in certain criminal activities linked to Chinese nationals is not in dispute. They have been caught smuggling animal trophies, selling fake mobile phones and killing and stewing snakes in national parks. And these are only the publicised cases.
I know that in other countries raids have been conducted and undesirable Chinese nationals have been thrown out. For example, for most of this year, Ghana has been deport hundreds of Chinese nationals for involvement in illegal gold mining. Other Chinese have been expelled for being in the country illegally. No such raids have been undertaken in Kenya. We neither know how many Chinese there are here nor their whereabouts. Chinese nationals can now be found in the remotest of places in the country and no one seems to be monitoring them to know exactly what they are doing.
Another reason why we have to be careful with the Chinese is that their trading culture is fraught with corruption and high-handedness. They are good at issuing huge loans without any initial conditions, but once the dotted lines have been signed, they quickly turn around to insist that tenders must only go to Chinese enterprises.
Presently, Kenyan officials are being arm-twisted to agree to a 1.2 trillion shilling deal for the modernisation of the railway line, when there are clear signs that the so-called Thika superhighway is turning out to be the biggest fraud ever performed on Kenya by a foreign government. I hope Kenyatta remembered to carry with him pictures of the recently flooded highway as evidence that the work the Chinese did was shoddy
Through dirty deals in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, China has been able to secure tenders for major infrastructural, agricultural, energy and water projects that have put a big question mark on the actual motive behind such magnanimity. They even spent billions to construct what they call the “gift to Africa” in the form of a 20-storey complex for the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
It is no secret that China is doing all this in order to exploit Africa’s raw material which it desperately need for its growing energy sector. And what does it do in return? It floods the continent with cheap, low quality goods including toys, useless jewelry and even basic household goods such as bath soap and matches.
But even more worrying to me is the bee-line of Kenyan officials planning to tour China. Recently, our MPs, seeing that everyone else is headed there, also thought of travelling to Beijing to buy furniture for their offices, a thought more driven by greed than anything else. There have also been reports that some cabinet secretaries have already been to Beijing for this and that.
Uhuru must therefore be very careful. He should not allow himself to be arm-twisted by the Chinese into putting his signature on any dotted lines without a second thought. With the discovery of commercial oil and other rich minerals, Kenya should be in no hurry to clinch deals with either China or Russia before very careful cost/benefit assessments are done to the satisfaction of Kenyans. More importantly, any deal that may lead to the destruction of our natural resources should not be allowed to pass.
Perhaps the only deal we should allow Uhuru to negotiate with the Chinese at the moment, is one that will allow convicted Kenyans in Chinese jails to come and complete their sentences at home. That would be on a reciprocal basis, also to benefit any Chinese criminal currently in our prisons.
Finally, Uhuru must find a way of lowering the temperature of misunderstanding between ourselves and the West. Britain is our traditional ally so is the United States of America. Both countries have stood with us on every aspect of our lives since independence. They have helped us with security, food and health. Many of the other European countries have also assisted us in a variety of ways. It is my view too that the West should also soften its stand, in recognition that both Uhuru and Ruto were popularly elected and they deserve to rule until we know the ICC verdict.
And that is my say.