President Uhuru Kenyatta this week returned from his fourth visit to China as quietly as he had left, without the usual razzmatazz that characterised previous tours.
His departure was not announced on the official State House communications channels as had been the practice before, when pictures of him being seen off by government officials would be splashed before he took his flight.
Instead, in what is seen as a shifting communication strategy around the President’s official visits abroad, State House, which now has a new communications team, chose to only give updates on his engagements abroad after his arrival.
The first update was on November 4 when he was meeting his host, President Xi Jinping.
His return was also not announced. The next update was on November 8, when he had already arrived and was in Eldoret to officiate the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) recruits’ passing out parade. President Kenyatta has been to China twice in the last three months. Since he was elected as President, he has visited China at least four times, making the country his most visited nation as head of state.
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It is not just the President who has been visiting China. Opposition leader Raila Odinga and his counterpart Kalonzo Musyoka have also recently been to China in what is understood as part of the plan by China to insulate itself against rising political temperatures. China wants both the government and opposition to read from the same script.
Raila did not give details about his October visit. His spokesman issued a statement on October 13 announcing his departure, but also unlike previous announcements where he would give details of what his boss was up to during foreign visits, he chose to keep the details secret.
Raila came back via Addis Ababa where he accepted appointment as special representative of African Union on infrastructure and development, a role China is deeply involved in. On his part, Kalonzo, who was the second in command in the opposition alliance, accompanied President Kenyatta during his September visit for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
Kalonzo was booked in the same hotel with the President, in what kept many people guessing on what role an opposition leader was going to do at the two-day summit. But no one has accepted to give any comment on the record on what his foreign engagement with china was all about.
China has been facing criticism in the recent past for using debt to control African nations, however it has challenged this narrative on grounds that it was being funded by the west which has been losing its clout on the continent.
Social media has also been getting brutal on the President every time he has announced any visits to China. This perhaps explains why his communications team is changing strategy to focus his messaging on investment deals struck and is keeping off the controversial issue of debt.
An official at the Chinese Embassy said his government is committed to having a long-term relationship with Kenya, but was concerned by negative political and media reports that are threatening this relationship.
During his latest visit, the head of state said he was in Chinafollowing an invite from president Xi to attend the inaugural China International Import Expo (CIIE).
Besides other bilateral meetings, President Uhuru Kenyatta came back having signed a number of investment deals, among them with Guangdong Silk-Tex Group, the world’s largest producer of silk, to set up in Kenya.
The deal will see the company set up a silk processing factory at the Export Processing Zone in Athi River but will also establish a silk farm. The firm will establish a cocoon farm on 8,237 acres of land and is expected to create over 300,000 jobs for Kenyans.
“In another sitting, President Kenyatta met officials of Cherami China-Africa Investment Management, a firm that plans to construct a cancer treatment centre in Kenya, in partnership with the University of Nairobi,” State House said.
Another deal inked was the agreement on food, plant and animal safety - known as sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which clears the way for Kenya to start exporting a selection of fruits and vegetables, flowers and meat to China.
Trade between Kenya and China remains tilted in China’sfavour and the deals are expected to try to change this, albeit in a small way.
China is now Kenya’s biggest trading partner and it accounts for 17 per cent of its annual trade by value or more than Sh400 billion. But it is China that has been the one doing most of the taking.
Last month, the President was also in Beijing to attend the 7th FOCAC summit.
He was also supposed to use the September visit to sign financing for the second phase of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).
But the deal fell through after China asked Kenya to do a feasibility study.
Before this visit, Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia had spoken as if it had been a done deal, that Kenya was going to sign the $3.8 billion (Sh380 billion) financing deal with Beijing to extend the SGR between Naivasha and Kisumu. It is still a puzzle how Kenya was seeking the project funded without the completion of the feasibility study.
An official at the Chinese Embassy says part of the main reason why China went slow on the project was due to the negative media reports from Kenya, rising debt concerns as well as rising hostilities between the two nations.