Thika Road. Forest Road. Mombasa Road. Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani. The African Union headquarters, Addis Ababa. These are just some of the major projects with Chinese fingerprints that US President Barack Obama will step on as he visits Kenya and Ethiopia to speak about entrepreneurship, trade, democracy and governance.
It is unmissable that Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia mirrors the trip Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made to the two countries in the Horn of Africa just over a year ago.
Li spent three days in Kenya and then addressed the continent at the AU headquarters, promising $12 billion in aid and grants to Africa.
Like Obama, who is coming to Kenya on the back of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit and who is accompanied by big-money investors and businessmen from the US, the Chinese premier also came with businessmen and promised billions in investment in infrastructure, trade and technology.
While Li went to Angola and Nigeria, Obama has focused on the homecoming to Kenya, the land of his father, and he will be going to Addis, the seat of the African Union, to address the continent on American policy for increased trade and liberal democracy in Africa.
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The choice of the countries creates the impression that America is in a new geopolitical charm offensive to wipe off or water down the Chinese influence.
Ethiopia, which has a questionable human rights record with dozens of journalists and bloggers rotting in jail, enjoys Chinese influence in major infrastructure projects in railway and energy. Kenya is also struggling with corruption and has been cracking down on civil society groups.
The Chinese turn a blind eye to local politics as they give out cheap loans and grants in exchange for access to raw materials; but the US while it pursues trade also insists on its partners having democratic principles.
It is the reason why it is big news when the key ministers in the Kenyan Cabinet turn up at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport to welcome the US President, but the country’s Number Two, Deputy President William Ruto, is hosting a dinner for a curtain-raising event at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre.
If you consider that it is Ruto who took the Chinese Premier around last year, you now know why the US ambassador left the question of a meeting between Obama and Ruto to President Kenyatta.
If you ask the American ambassador to Kenya Robert Godec if the Chinese are taking over Africa, he will diplomatically tell you what he told celebrity anchor Jeff Koinange in an interview around the Global Entrepreneurship Summit being held in Nairobi this weekend.
“The Chinese have done some things here, I think they are good things, but ultimately African have to judge the relationships between Kenya and China, and Kenyans have to judge their relationship with China,” said Godec.
For Kenya though, it is immaterial who to deal with in theEast-West geopolitical dichotomy. While there was an overt move to ‘look East’ when the government of President Uhuru Kenyatta took power, the business with the West has been on the rise. American companies – Dominos Pizza, Coldstone Creamery, Wrigleys, General Electric, IBM – are flocking into Kenya, looking for huge contracts and a market for their goods.
With Obama’s visit, as law scholar Prof Patrick Lumumba said, it seems America is welcoming Kenya to the community of nations, just months after the International Criminal Court dropped the charges against the Kenyan President for lack of evidence.
President Kenyatta’s view is that Kenya should reap from its relations with all countries in the world.
“We cannot afford the luxury of the old language of East versus West. As Kenya we are aligned to neither; we are firmly and irreversibly aligned to progress. Africa’s relations with the rest of the world must be premised on mutual benefit where our people and our resources are leveraged to secure growth of our economies and prosperity of all,” he yesterday as he jointly opened the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi with the US President Barack Obama.
The US and China are trading partners. The US owes China. US companies make their goods in China because of cheap labour costs.
It is also not lost on Africans that there is a competition for attention by the two world powers. They both have a caucus of Heads of State and Governments through which they cut deals: China has the Forum for China Africa Cooperation; while the US has the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit.
Politically, they are opposites – China is a closed society, where the State pretty much controls everything in that vast country. The US enjoys a liberal democracy.
But the trade and the business for profits is alive in both countries. In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation, Obama acknowledged as much.
“What is true is that China has, over the last several years, because of the surplus that they’ve accumulated in global trade and the fact that they’re not accountable to their constituencies, have been able to funnel an awful lot of money into Africa, basically in exchange for raw materials that are being extracted from Africa,” President Obama told the BBC North American editor Jon Sopel in an interview.
“And what is certainly true is that the United States has to have a presence to promote the values that we care about. We welcome Chinese aid into Africa. I think we think that’s a good thing. We don’t want to discourage it. As I’ve said before, what I also want to make sure though is that trade is benefiting the ordinary Kenyan and the ordinary Ethiopian and the ordinary Guinean and not just a few elites.
“And the Chinese, who then get the resources that they need. And I think that we can help to shape an agenda where China, Europe, and the United States are all working together in order to address some of these issues.”