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Fish supply from China raises questions

By Alexander Chagema | July 14th 2016

Sometime in 1989, there was a maize shortage that was not quite a shortage. At about the same time, an artificial dearth of cement was experienced across the country. Although I did not think of it as such, that is when I first observed the way cartels operate.

On the Kenyan side of the Kenya-Uganda border at Malaba, I would see trailers parked in the bay during the day being hurriedly offloaded in the evening. The merchandise would then be loaded onto smaller lorries, pick-up trucks and handcarts. All the while, the truckers would be going into the ‘Long Room’ (customs offices) with forms that were stamped without much scrutiny. Money would then surreptitiously change hands.

Thereafter, the truckers crossed on foot to the Uganda customs offices where the process would be repeated. That pepped up my curiosity enough to find out what was going on.

It was then I discovered that unscrupulous businessmen would connive with customs officials to formalise the paper trail to show consignments had been cleared for onward transmission to Uganda when actually, everything went back into our market at handsome profits.

Cement that ordinarily retailed at Sh70 for a 50kg bag ended up costing Sh300. The scarcity of cement did not cause too much uproar, but it was different with maize. An artificial shortage had been created by cartels that hoarded stocks hoping to force prices upward.

But somehow their plans unravelled when Ugandan imports arrived following a public outcry.

This narrative brings me to what I believe is a choreographed fish shortage and what could be China's hand in Africa. There are times when I don’t believe in coincidence, especially when a mortise and tenon pattern is discernible.

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That China, a country with a population of about 1.4 billion people, could export fish to Kenya when a simple check would reveal it has almost depleted its fish supplies sounds implausible.

It is suspected that Chinese fisherman have been taking fish from a poor African country without the wherewithal to police its territorial waters, then offloading the loot elsewhere and pocketing handsome proceeds.

The victim in this case, as widely reported in the international media, is Guinea Bissau. China is said to have violated its waters and in the process is destroying marine life.

The political implications of the Chinese fish question in Kenya cannot be missed, especially seeing that this country has become a jungle where only the fittest survive and poverty predisposes communities to believe joining Government is the only viable option to change their fortunes.

Conspiracy theories are bound to emerge, especially seeing that communities living around Kenya's lakes and the ocean that give us fish and depend on fishing as their main economic activity happen to be in opposition strongholds. It is a fact that governments, especially in Africa, have for a long time used poverty as a handle to alter voting patterns, even change a people’s perception.

It is no different locally going by the endless non-productive promises so common at political rallies where voters are targeted. Mortgaging hapless villagers in readiness for 2017 may offer a lever for some.

In February 2015, Kenya held a conference on fish dubbed ‘FishTrade’ that laid emphasis on regional trading in fishing, with advocacy on strengthening an industry that employs over 12 million in Africa. What happened to the resolutions?

I believe China’s association with Africa is potentially harmful. President Barack Obama’s admonition during an interview with the Economist in 2014 that we must be careful to ensure all the beautiful roads that China builds in Africa don’t all lead “to the port and finally Shanghai” rings true.

It is this infrastructure that could be used to bleed Africa.

For instance, our wildlife, especially rhinos and elephants, could be at stake. In September 2015, ivory consignments were discovered in a warehouse in Mombasa, weeks after another consignment destined for China was detained.

The potentially ruinous nature of association with China on Africa is aptly captured in Wilbur Smith’s fictional book ‘Elephant Song’. It details how a Taiwanese diplomat oversaw murder in an African country in his quest to steal ivory.

It also describes the levels to which government functionaries get involved and for what price.

The Kenyan market is full of cheap Chinese phones and electronics. Granted, they have improved connectivity but many of these phones lack spare parts.

There are also fears that some of these gadgets may be harbingers of health problems, especially given the radioactivity associated with them and that they are not always disposed of in a manner that adheres to environmental safety.

Yet we keep decrying an upsurge in cancer cases without interrogating the causes.

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