Why China remains greatest threat to Kenya’s sovereignty

I will say it again – China is about to overtake the United States as the world’s major neo-colonial power. The difference between the United States and China is the latter has nothing to offer except economic bondage. At least the United States, no matter your feelings about it, has had other important values to advance, apart from raw markets. Washington has been the champion – no matter how checkered – of human rights and democracy. I remember when during the tenure of Ambassador Smith Hempstone and Ambassador Johnny Carson, the United States stood with pro-democracy and human rights advocates to open up political governance. China, on the other hand, has never lifted a finger against autocracy or dictatorship in Kenya. 

That’s why I’ve been very concerned by Kenya’s dalliance with China. China isn’t interested in anything else in Kenya except the country’s natural resources and markets. In turn, China has nothing to teach Kenya except how many more widgets to manufacture. Even worse, China isn’t doing that – transferring technology. No – China is adept at exporting its citizens to Kenya to conduct economic activity to displace qualified Kenyans. I was shocked to learn that Chinese nationals are running the SGR, including collecting tickets and sales. Is Kenya an independent country, or not? Do we have Kenyan nationals who can collect tickets on the SGR? This is totally absurd. I want to know the genius who negotiated the SGR contract.

The other thing China needs Kenya for is an export market. But we’ve learnt that many of the Chinese goods exported to Kenya are either substandard, or out of date. Stories abound of expired medicines and other critical supplies, including baby diapers. The Chinese exporters and their Kenyan collaborators work through the bribe to corrupt inspection officials. The Chinese have discovered how eager Kenyan officials are for the bribe. That explains why some Chinese nationals are openly racist when dealing with Kenyans, including those in government. The disdain, racial calumny, and open contempt that Chinese nationals show black Kenyans even in hotels and restaurants would shock even the bigoted whites. It’s the crude, primitive racism of the colonial era.

Which brings me back to the SGR. But let me tell you what China has done to Ecuador, the small Central American country, so that you can appreciate what is about to happen to Kenya. Against the advice of every sane geologist and economist, Ecuador allowed itself to be talked by China into building a huge dam that sits next to an exploding volcano. The dam, sold as the answer to the country’s poverty and energy problems, could be blown away by an earthquake any minute. It’s now splintered with a thousand cracks and clogged with silt, sand, and tree debris. The dam’s price tag with a maze of highways, bridges, schools, and other infrastructure is a whopping $19 billion. 

The problem? Ecuador can’t pay because none of these white elephants have turned any economic benefit, or profit. But China must be paid. However, China insisted on being paid not with dollars, but with oil. So China now gets to keep eighty percent of Ecuador’s oil to repay itself. It gets the oil at a discount and sells it on the international market at a profit and keeps all the dough. Ecuador has been so cash and economically strapped that it has had to go back to China to borrow more money to barely fund essential government functions. Even worse, the government has cut social spending, shuttered government agencies, and cut subsidies on essential goods. Does this sound familiar? 

There’s no end in sight to Ecuador’s bondage to China. In quicksand – where Ecuador is, and Kenya might soon be – the more you wiggle, the deeper you sink. The unsmiling Xi Jinping and China’s Export Import Bank, the country’s financial neo-colonial arm, must be paid no matter that Ecuador is on its knees with squalor and poverty at levels previously unknown. Ecuador’s story was preceded by Sri Lanka’s. The Sri Lankans turned to the ever-ready Chinese to finance and build its port. However, the port was unable to pay for itself for lack of traffic. China stepped in and grabbed the port. Case closed. China has enslaved country after country through unrepayable loans on predictably dummy projects.

A lot of ink has been split over the SGR. The project remainsshrouded in mystery. Recently, the Auditor-General warned that China was on the verge of seizing the SGR if Kenya defaults. Will Nairobi default and give the SGR and the Mombasa Port to China, or like Ecuador go back to China to tether itself more tightly to Beijing? How do we cut our losses before the Chinese turn all of us into their minions? Is Chinaan existential threat to Kenya?

- The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC.  @makaumutua.