Was Uhuru’s trip to China a coded message to the ‘cold’ West?

President Uhuru Kenyatta inspects a guard of honour with Chinese President Xi Jinping upon his arrival in China last week. [PHOTOS: PSCU}
By Jacob Ng’etich

Kenya: President Uhuru Kenyatta might have bagged goodies including over Sh420 billion for infrastructure on his trip to China, but analysts are raising questions over the political and economic message the Jubilee government is sending to Kenya’s traditional allies. 

Political and economic pundits monitoring President Kenyatta’s State visits to Russia and China say there is more than meets the eye beyond the economic deals.

His choice of Russia and China as his first foreign trip outside Africa several months after he briefly attended Somalia conference in London has been construed as a loaded statement.

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Coming after the traditional allies of the West had earlier warned of engaging the Jubilee government only when ‘very necessary’ given the International Criminals Court (ICC) cases against the President and his Deputy William Ruto, the tour is seen as the coalition’s way of showing the alternatives that Kenya has.

Prof Macharia Munene, an International Relations lecturer at the United States International University (USIU) said the message President Kenyatta was passing is that kenya is ready to work with anyone in a relationship guided by mutual respect and reciprocity.

“What has been clearly sent is that Kenya needs a relationship that is mutual and without the master and servant attitude, and that is what China seems to do. This is not to say that it can replace the position of the West,” said Munene.

But Mr David Owiro, a programme officer on economic regulation and competition policy at Institute of Economic Affairs (IEC), said Kenya’s relationship with the West has been dictated by trade and development aid support. He says China cannot easily replace the vital role they play.

Political message

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Owiro says most of the country’s valuable exports, including tea, coffee, horticulture and tourism, go to the European markets.

“One American tourist spends close to 100 times more than the other from Asia,” said Owiro.

According to Owiro, the shifting of foreign policy to face the East would not be assailable and the country risks crippling its tourism market.

“The question is, what roles do the West play in the country and could it be substituted with the East? We have the west supporting programmes in health, water and education that run to billions through Global Funds, Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation. If you compare this with the Chinese or Asian support, it does not measure up,” said Owiro.

Former Assistant Minister Dr Joseph Misoi said China does not have the capacity to substitute the traditional allies and the government needs to be cautious about its move lest it rattled them and argued that the per capita income in Asia was still low. Dr Misoi said what the President and his entourage did was to send a political message that we can do away with the traditional allies if they held their position on the ICC.

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“You can see that. That is political rhetoric,” he said.

Prof Munene said Kenya cannot necessarily do away with the West but is indicating that it is ready to work with anyone as long as there is mutual respect.

Owiro said the government needs to be cautious in the amount of money they borrow and whether it is sustainable to repay it.

“If you borrow to use for the developmental budget, that is a good thing but if the purpose of the expenditure item is social, then it is bad,” said Owiro.

He said National Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich, in his budget speech, said the country spends Sh230 billion to repay debts.

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“If you look at the amount you will realise that this is more than what the government allocated for all the 47 counties. This tells you how the debts are affecting our ability to move fast,” said Owiro.

He said in the midst of borrowing, the government needs to be cautious not to put high responsibility of repaying the loans to the coming generation.

“Apart from putting much responsibility, it would also not be fair for the country to limit the space for future governments to borrow,” said Owiro.

China’s commitment to offer Kenya a Sh425 billion loan will push the country’s total foreign debt to over Sh1.3 trillion, with close to half of it owed to China.

Kenya had accumulated over Sh60 billion from China through the construction of the Thika Superhighway, the Southern bypass and other projects across the country.

The Sh425 billion deal signed between President Kenyatta and Chinese Head of State Xi Jinping will benefit investments like the standard gauge railway linking Mombasa port and Malaba, wildlife protection and energy.

Kibaki footsteps

Given President Kenyatta’s Chinese lending, the Kenyan total domestic and foreign debt has been pushed to Sh2.3trillion, from Sh450 billion 10 years ago.

According to Prof Nyaga Kindiki, an education consultant, in moving to the East, President Kenyatta is following in the footsteps of immediate retired President Mwai Kibaki’s regime that significantly reduced dependence on western donor aid, with the country being increasingly funded by internally generated resources such as increased tax revenue collection and new ties with China.

“It is during Kibaki administration when, China and other non-western countries like Brazil, Iraq and the Asian Tigers became increasingly important economic partners,” said Prof Kindiki.

 “The move to China is not new nonetheless. The relationship was started by retired President Daniel arap Moi and was consolidated by his predecessor Mwai Kibaki and Uhuru is only advancing it,” Prof Munene agreed with Prof Kindiki.

But some analysts have raised questions of whether the President’s visit to Russia and China were political statements other than economic pursuit.

Early in the year, Jendayi Frazer, a former United States (US) Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, warned the US and Europe against playing a dangerous game for their delayed endorsement of Kenyatta’s presidency. Frazer argued that the failure of the US government to formally recognise Kenyatta’s victory only worked against the country because the Kenyan president-elect had other options.

“If the US, the UK and the Europeans don’t want to deal with Uhuru Kenyatta, he has other options,” she said in an interview with American TV channel PBS.

According to Frazer, Kenya is a strategic partner to the US and a key ally in the fight against terrorism in addition to being East Africa’s economic hub which houses American businesses like FORD, General Electric and many others.

“The West risked losing its strategic influence in the region,” she warned.

“The geo-strategic environment has changed entirely and particularly in favour of China, if the US, the UK and European countries don’t want to deal with Kenyatta, he has another option,” she added.

President Uhuru Kenyatta China visit