Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently rolled out the red carpet for Chinese premier Li Keqiang, the highlight of whose trip was the signing of a financing deal for a mega railway that would spur the economy but which has been dogged by controversy to no end.
Significantly, Kenyatta invited three other regional leaders to witness the $3.8 billion first phase deal: Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
The $14 billion railway would also extend to their countries, but it was not lost on keen commentators that these leaders all have been accused of repressing the opposition at home and have in recent months increasingly taken to beating an anti-Western drum, while placing a low premium on political freedoms in favour of development.
It seems Kenya, widely seen as one of the more democratic African countries, is about to join them.
The 52-year-old Kenyatta has in his first year in office aggressively courted the Chinese, offering up their investment eagerness as a bulwark against Western criticisms. Kenyatta faces charges at the International Criminal Court, and he has devoted immense resources to painting the court up as an imperialist instrument.
The West played into this narrative, making utterances that did not go down well with the winning side of the Kenyan electorate in the March 2013 ballot. Unsure of the reliability and nature of the support of its erstwhile allies, Nairobi has hungrily wooed other allies—Kenyatta has by one count made 28 foreign trips so far, spending over two months on them.
Half of these have been to African countries as he pushes for more regional integration, while in November he chose to instead travel to oil-rich Kuwait rather than attend the British-led Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka.
But it is the renewed romance with China that has given a pointer to his overall plan. His Beijing trip in August was at the behest of President Xi Jinping. Five months earlier Xi had made his first trip to Africa, but did not stop in Nairobi, instead visiting largest regional trading partner South Africa, Tanzania with which China has long maintained ties, and the Republic of Congo, where it has natural resource investments.
Li’s visit to Nairobi this month would appear to be some sort of diplomatic compensation. The Kenyan presidency left no doubt as to the gains of the trip, in a triumphant media commentary heralding the signing of 17 bilateral deals worth $5.7 billion.
“We told you! We can now agree that the government’s devotion to a ‘Look East’ policy has paid off big time,” the president’s communication unit said.
“Without denying or belittling the contribution of any bilateral partner, China happens to have a spectacularly impressive implementation CV in Kenya, Africa and the rest of the world,” it added, noting that the Chinese deals were a reiteration of Kenya’s stature globally.
Kenya was now virtually China’s headquarters in Africa, it further noted, while emphasising Beijing’s “more business, less ideology” approach.
But looked at from the Asian giant’s lenses, the Kenya deals were largely routine. China’s trade and investment with Africa accounts for only five per cent of its global foreign economic activity. In real political terms, the continent is of little strategic importance to Beijing, which is more preoccupied with its immediate Asian neighbours, and with the key world powers of the US, Japan and Russia.
Any dealings with Africa look at it as a rung on its ladder to achieve global power status. As such the region’s support is important at the stage for this, largely multilateral forums such as the United Nations, and for validation of its One China policy, and its alternative ideological model of communism.
Indeed Africa would be mortified to know that its issues rarely reach the Politburo, being dealt with instead at a ministerial level, specifically in the commerce and foreign affairs docket.
The economic emergence of China in Africa is thus a newer phenomenon, marked by the “Going Out” strategy of tapping international markets coined in the mid-1990s and which was later confirmed as national policy in 2000. Africa’s natural resources, market and labour are seen through this prism, propped by strong bilateral relations borne of a shared history of colonial experience, and burnished by China’s developing country credentials.
The “Going Out” strategy has been crucial in the ramped up economic ties that have seen China-Africa trade exceed $200 billion in 2012, twice that of the United States’ trade with the continent.
But as with most world powers, China’s foreign policy exists to serve domestic purposes, essentially to make its citizens rich enough to appreciate—or overlook—its authoritarian nature. Stability for economic growth is thus emphasised in lieu of elections, and the acceptance of this model by other governments seen as proof that there is an alternative to western democracy.
Given the rich pickings the system has brought—hundreds of millions rapidly lifted out of poverty, a robust middle class, technological and infrastructural gains—and all without the headache of regular elections, China has had no shortage of admirers in Africa.
Kenyatta, whose country last year traded $2.15 billion worth with China, grossly imbalanced in the Asian giant’s favour, would appear to have embraced this path. His government has in its first year moved to narrow space for dissent in a country that had seen ten years of widened political freedoms under predecessor Mwai Kibaki.
Highly-criticised laws to regulate the media have since been rolled out, and which have been speedily challenged in court. As a result, the country slipped 18 spots in the latest World Press Freedom Index. On World Press Freedom Day Kenyatta, himself a wealthy media owner, told gathered media executives there is no “room here for absolute freedom of the press” and that the government would step in when necessary.
Civil society have also been targeted, with an unsuccessful attempt to cut foreign funding, while his tight leash on his troops in the legislature has ensured little dissent, leaving the outnumbered opposition largely sterile. In a move seen as recentralising power in a new constitutional dispensation that in 2010 devolved functions to some 47 regional counties, Kenyatta has strengthened the government’s role by carving out powerful—and illegal—county commissions.
Critics say it harks of the omniscient structure run by former president Daniel arap Moi, who ruled the country for 24 years with an iron fist.
Amidst all this, Kenyatta has staked his legacy on mega infrastructure projects, regularly extolling the virtues of economic growth to a population that is seemingly disillusioned by a high cost of living, terrorism internal security threats and the after-effects of last year’s divisive election.
On the back of lukewarm appraisals of his first year in office, Kenyatta quickly needs strong economic numbers, and his second budget will be closely watched. The share of infrastructure, for which he has gone to big lengths to clear the way for a $2 billion Eurobond issue, should be astounding.
But in keeping with the China Model he needs “space” to work, and political freedoms will likely continue to be sacrificed at the altar of economic growth, joining the increasingly massed ranks of strongarm regimes that include the likes of Ethiopia.