Why everybody wants a piece of alluring Kenya

Evidence of Growing Chinese Economic clout at the port of Hamburg in Germany. Will Kenya benefit from this growth? [Photo by XN Iraki].

This past week, US President Donald Trump hosted President Uhuru Kenyatta in the White House.

The significance of that meeting can’t be gainsaid. He is the third African president to be hosted thereafter Abdel Fatah al-Sissi of Egypt and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari.  

Video clips showed presidents Uhuru and Trump walking around the White House as their respective first ladies exchanged pleasantries.

Even if nothing else came out of the visit, it was a media coup, free publicity for the county. One would hope Brand Kenya was represented in the meeting. 

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President Uhuru also hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May before leaving for China to attend the China-Africa Cooperation forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

These trips beg the question: why has Kenya become so attractive to the three world economic powers all of a sudden? Why now? Why so much focus on a country with a population of only 46 million people?

Interestingly, Kenya has been a magnet to outsiders for thousands of years. The Coast has been a key attraction because of the sea.

Historical connections

The Oman Arabs visited the East Coast and with time gave us Swahili, a language spoken by over 100 million people.

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They traded in ivory, slaves and other items. The Portuguese followed later and stayed on for 200 years. Besides the Fort Jesus and the name mesa, they left nothing else. Britons came calling next and declared Kenya a protectorate in 1895.

Records show the Chinese had come earlier than the Portuguese. Admiral Zheng He arrived in Malindi in 1418 AD. The Chinese have leveraged this historical fact to justify their ties to Kenya today.

One of the weakest points in our diplomacy and international relations is the failure to leverage historical connections.

How many Portuguese tourists visit Kenya despite the Fort Jesus and Vasco da Gama pillar?

How many South Africans visit Kenya despite their monuments in Kenya espoused by churches, schools and in silent graves?

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I know for sure some Americans were in Kenya during the colonial era, including Alice de Janze - a socialite who committed suicide in 1941 and is buried in Happy Valley (Wanjohi) specifically at Satima Primary School.

President Theodore Roosevelt hunted big game in Kenya in 1909, long before Obama became the president.  Do Americans know that?

Such historical connections would bring in investors and tourists.  This is how Europe gets tourists from North and South America. Many tourists have genetic roots in Europe. How often do we remind Indians in the Indian sub-continent that their relatives have been in Kenya for over 100 years and they are welcome “home”? 

Enough digression. What exactly is attracting these economic powerhouses to Kenya? In Swahili, they say, “fuata nyuki ule asali,” loosely translated to follow the bees to get the honey. What honey are these powers following? 

For the US, notice how they want to build a road from Nairobi to Mombasa parallel to the Standard Gauge Rail (SGR). Some observers suggest in silence that the recent negative publicity on SGR was not random.

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This countervailing goes beyond roads and SGR. Have you noted how the National Government got Chinese-made vehicles while the county governments have American models like Chevy and Ford. 

The competition for our attention from the two economic giants is an echo from the Cold War era when small countries were either aligned to the US or USSR. For the younger generation, USSR was Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, 15 of them.  After communism dissolved under its own contradictions in the early 1990s, we got new countries like Uzbekistan, Belarus, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Ukraine.  

It seems China quickly rose to replace USSR as a leading competitor to the US. Luckily, so far the competition has mostly focused on economic issues espoused by tariffs and counter-tariffs. The military dimension is still muted.

Annoying influence

Is Kenya now caught in between the two world powers? After the Chinese admiral Zheng He visited Malindi in 1418 AD, Chinese disengaged from Africa until after most countries got their independence.

This engagement was low-key, involving a few large projects like the TAZARA railway from Dar es Salaam to Zambia.

But after Chairman Deng Xiaoping opened China in 1978, the country grew fast not just economically but in confidence following in the footsteps of Zheng He. 

Africa became China’s blue-eyed boy perhaps because of neglect by the rest of the world. But China has to compete with the US which has been entrenched in Africa much longer. Think of the airlift of 1959 where Americans prepared the next generation of Kenyan leaders to think “American” in politics and economics.

The consummation of this project was the adoption of Kenya’s 2010 Constitution which largely borrowed from the American Constitution, annoyingly calling ministers secretaries. The corporate sector had long retired names like secretaries.

China must face the fact that in our minds and thoughts, we are either American or British. The election of President Obama and a large community of Kenyans in the US mean the latter has an upper hand in our mental space compared with China.

Add religion and the English language and this leaves China playing catch-up. We are yet to start giving our kids Chinese names like Xi or Ming. It is still not cool to talk Mandarin. How many high-end private schools teach Mandarin (Chinese)?

Recently, the US realised that while it had got a mental hold on us, the economic space is not secured. It is against this backdrop that President Uhuru got an invitation to the White House.

Americans’ inroads into our economic space need to be questioned. Behind the visit is an attempt by the US to safeguard her economic interests.

They let the cat of the bag when the row over mitumba with Rwanda came to light. Think of American firms that invested in Kenya as Jubilee and the Opposition wrangled from KFC, Pizza Hut, Hilton, Crowne Plaza, Sheraton, Subway, Burger King, among others.

While terrorism and insecurity were on the agenda, it is the threat to America’s economic interests that featured prominently.

Americans know it is easier to get into your heart and mind through meetings. Do you recall how you got your wife or husband? Do you recall Americans won the Cold War without firing a single shot? 

Americans also know one thing we take for granted - Kenya’s strategic location - halfway between north and south, next to the Indian Ocean, gateway to Central Africa and our vast resources, including the recently discovered oil. What else lies below the surface?  These global powers know one thing - a foothold in Kenya makes it easier to expand into the region.

Mau Mau war

The UK Prime Minister’s visit is easier to explain. We even predicted that after the Brexit vote, the Commonwealth would become more important to the UK economically.

This visit is also about safeguarding the UK’s interests scattered in the Commonwealth. Recall Theresa May was in India recently? Prof JH Kimura explained the visit using a local proverb - “mûka mûkûrû acokagîrîrwo na maithori” (You return to your first love in tears). Kenya was UK’s first love espoused by the mansions they built in the White Highlands and the Mau Mau war.

The return of the UK can be explained further by time; the memories of those who suffered under British colonial rule and its excesses have faded.

The Mau Mau detainees are either aged or dead. Some like Mburu Mwikonyi aged 94 fought for the British Empire in Burma but still got into prison after joining Mau Mau. He has no pension to show for it. The younger generation probably knows more about Scooby-Doo than Dedan Kimathi. 

China is trying to compete with nations like the UK and the US which have culturally and economically engaged with Kenya much longer. China has almost succeeded by building structures that everyone can see and use daily from SGR to the Thika highway. China has adeptly made use of the visible hand of the Government complemented by the invisible hand of the market.

China has followed the American footsteps by getting into our mindset, sending students to study in China.

The problem with this approach is that while Kenyans who studied in the US or the UK brought home the American or British way of life, read capitalism, it is unlikely Kenyans or Africans studying in China will bring back home socialism. 

The language barrier is another speed bump, though China is investing a lot in teaching Mandarin in Kenya through Confucius Institutes.

Being officially atheist also makes it very hard for China to “reach into our souls.”

The British, American and to some extent Romans rode on religion as they spread their influence around the world. What is Chinese equivalence to religion? We hope Kenya can pick a few lessons from its suitors and from it emerge another economic tiger, or better yet, the Swahili Tiger.  

US President Donald TrumpUhuru KenyattaWhite HouseXi JinpingTheresa Mayhina-Africa Cooperation forumKenya