For a pittance, Kenya is mortgaged to China

A Standard gauge railway (SGR) Cargo train loaded with exclusive Maersk containers leaves the port of Mombasa. [Maarufu Mohamed/Standard]

There are billboards in Nairobi city that advertise in Mandarin, or some other Chinese dialect. In fact, some parts of Nairobi - particularly in Kilimani/ Hurlingham - could easily pass for towns in China. So, putting up billboards in the ‘local’ language could be considered par for the course. In any event, we’ve invited Chinese domination with open arms. There is a Chinese hand in any number of Kenya’s key industries, not least of which is infrastructure. One infrastructure project that stands out is the Standard Gauge Railway.

The obscenely overpriced Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is the very definition of a gravy train. As my colleague Paul Wafula wrote in ‘The Standard on Sunday’, it costs the Kenyan taxpayer Sh30 million a day to keep the train on the tracks, a figure that comes to an outstanding Sh1 billion a month. And these are just operational costs. Meanwhile, the railway made just Sh590 million from ticket sales in the six months to December 2017. This disparity between revenue and expenditure is beyond ridiculous.

Worse still, the Chinese nationals who ‘own’ the SGR, run operations like masters on a slave plantation. Kenyan workers who spoke to Wafula said that they experience “racism and blatant discrimination.” Kenyans can’t eat at the same tables as Chinese.

And when they’re being dropped off from work, they can’t ride in the same vans either. This sounds more like apartheid than industrialisation to me. And the segregation is made worse by the fact that the lingua franca on SGR precincts is Standard Chinese. Notice boards are printed in it, and records are kept in it.

Job security

Chinese workers also get away with smoking in the cabins, and taking calls on their personal cell phones, two things that would be fireable offences for Kenyans. The job security of nationals is tenuous in general. While there are more than 40 trained local locomotive drivers, they have not been allowed to work.

Steering the SGR ship has been left to the Chinese, both literally and figuratively, and as their influence grows, so do their numbers. Wafula reports that Chinese workers even prune flowers, clear thickets, and cook. Oh, and Chinese cleaners earn more than skilled Kenyan drivers.

The Chinese are clearly at the top of the food chain when it comes to matters SGR. They brought in the money, the expertise, and the skilled labour, and for that, our government is turning a blind eye as they plant fresh seeds of colonialism in a country that claims to be free.

Free speech

China holds 66 per cent of Kenya’s bilateral debt, meaning that we owe it more money than every other lender combined. We turned East, presumably because they are not finicky about small matters like human rights, free speech and democracy.

But now we are beginning to see that they have an ‘empire-building’ gene that is just as dominant as any other coloniser. Because what happens in the event that we default on all these Chinese loans? Can they foreclose on an entire country?


Well, there is precedent. Last year, Sri Lanka handed over its Hambantota Port to China to settle part of a $8 billion debt. Closer to home, China has been angling to take over Djibouti’s Doraleh Container Terminal, a port of strategic value to big players in the global community.

In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and even neighbouring Tanzania, Chinese investment has been bartered for huge stakes in the countries’ mineral, oil, and land wealth.

Back at home, in addition to deals that saw the Chinese construct Thika Highway, and the SGR, Kenya brings in products worth billions of shillings from China. This includes produce like fish, which we are capable of providing for ourselves. In contrast, what we export to China is a drop in the ocean.

Even Uhuru Kenyatta admits that there is a skewed trade relationship between China and Africa. In fact, he is on record asking the Chinese government to redress the balance. But at the same time, it is during his tenure that our debt to China has shot through the stratosphere, meaning that our descendants will be paying it off for generations to come.

What we are witnessing is the selling-off of Africa’s future for a few bob. African leaders in many parts of the continent are not just selling their resources, they’re selling their people.

At some point, we will need to wake up and say no to this madness. These debts will not be settled in heaven, where some people say they are investing. For us mere mortals, the debtors will come calling right here on earth.

Ms Masiga is Peace and Security Editor, The Conversation Africa