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January 20, 2019

Kenya and China: Why we may not have a friend in China

Anyone with a problem with alcohol, considers whoever buys them more booze without judging them, as a good friend. But are they? Africa is like an alcoholic who has discovered a friend who will splash before them lots of alcohol and asking no questions. And China is probably fully aware that its debt-driven diplomacy is only driving Africa further into dependency. Chinese money makes it harder for Africa to make even the smallest things such as paper clips, ear-buds or even toothpicks. All are from China. We now have absolutely no incentive to produce these things. We are not just addicted to Chinese money; we are also desperately losing our ability to hunt, like a fed lion in a zoo that will never survive in the wild.



Jonah Kimaiyo, a confirmed alcoholic from my village, abandoned his church-wedded wife and moved in with the woman who ran the local shebeen - if only to get close to his favourite drink directly from the source. And she supplied it unreservedly. To finance his habit, Jonah put his ancestral land on sale to finance his habit and it was not long before his family was homeless.

Former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson famously stated, “…China’s approach … encourages dependency using opaque contracts, predatory loan practices and corrupt deals that mire nations in debt and undercut their sovereignty denying them their long-term self-sustaining growth.”

Indeed, Sri Lanka has lost its Hambatota port, which it constructed using a facility from China. It soon discovered it could not finance its loan and it now belongs to China for 99 years. Closer home, we have Djibouti, which is about to lose its port due to toxic debt.

The Maldives and also Pakistan are mired in Chinese debts and may not be smiling for long. Also in deep trouble is Montenegro, the tiny Eastern-European nation, which took in Chinese loans to build a highway and it is having trouble repaying it. In Djibouti, China now has a military base and due to its debt, there is talk of a Chinese company taking over the running of the port. Our Lamu Port could just go the same way.



If you have watched Prof Ali Mazrui’s epic documentary ‘Africa- A Triple Heritage’, you will probably remember his great analogy of how European colonialism destroyed Africa’s ability to make its own things. He gives the example of the Balunda, the Baluba and the Basanga people of what is today the DR Congo, who used clay produced by termites to smelt copper from which they made all manner of farming implements, weaponry and even decorations and money. The coming of Western imperialism through predatory capitalism and appropriation of resources killed local industries. Mazrui says, “…and then the Europeans came. Did they want to learn from the technology they found here? Oh no! At least the Baluba and the Balunda had consulted the technology of the termites and benefited from it. But European technology was more arrogant more self-confident and less compromising. It abolished the old technological order and in its wake it left new forms of desolation in Africa.”

Closer home, it was in Britain’s interest that we bought a jembe forged in Birmingham rather than to make one here. China is today the biggest producer of iron implements, sold so cheaply thereby robbing Africans of their incentive to make them. We, like the tame lion, cannot hunt anymore.

Today, you cannot produce anything in Kenya which the Chinese don’t already make, or make better and cheaper. The balance of trade is heavily in their favour. Then they will happily extend loans to develop the infrastructure that will make it easier for their goods to come, and which will also increase the efficiency at which Africa’s resources will get to China.

This is at least the spirit behind the famous Belt and Road Initiative. China is resource hungry while Africa is resource rich. Yet even then, Africa is making little progress in poverty eradication, despite being arguably the world’s richest continent by resources. Chinese concerns are busy around appropriative industries, which further perpetuates the phenomenon that Mazrui had observed in 1986 when he asked rhetorically, “And yet the digging continues: Dig, Dig, Dig, is it for wealth? Or is it for the collective burial of a people?” If Prof Mazrui were to comment on this, he may have asked if the ‘Belt’ was meant to collectively bind a people.



It was not an easy path for China to get where it is. Until the turn of the 20th century, China was under the firm grip of feudal lords and dynastic imperial rulers who were out of touch with the needs of the people. Then the revolution of 1911 happened and the Emperor was overthrown and modern China was born. Ideological differences plunged the young nation into conflict and the vagaries of both wars had a devastating effect on the nation. But in 1949, Mao Zedong triumphed over Chiang Kai-shek and ushered in a Socialist revolution that emphasized on self-reliance. By this time, China was backward, poor and hungry. I dare say that Kenya, under colonial rule, was doing much better than China at this time. Chairman Mao got to work, and redistributed land and socialised agriculture. He created cooperatives and collectivised production and all private property. He also embarked on ambitious industrialisation projects and to enhance localised industrialisation, ordered that each of the collectives produce steel under a programme designed to ‘overtake England and catch up with America.’ Every metal item was smelted albeit crudely and even though the product was not of much use, they were learning something.

After much fumbling, they began to get it right. Industrialising China was now a bottom-up approach and soon they were producing goods at very low costs, which were exported. In between these developments were grave policy errors and mistakes that cost lots of suffering.  The long story short, China was soon making everything the world could use and exports began to make the country rich. The cost of production was also very low; soon every international producer was trooping in to China to set up production plants further aiding its growth.



Today China is effectively the world’s largest economy by any standard and it is standing at the cusp of being the global superpower its founders dreamt it would be. If it began its grand march in 1949, then it will also take the record of having developed in a much shorter period than what it took its rivals in the West — America, Britain, Germany and France — to get to where they are. Today it is awash with cash and lots more to spare and which it is ‘investing’ in Africa entering a continent the Western powers were turning its back to.

Most of the infrastructural development is carried out by Chinese firms using Chinese capital, equipment and to some level, labour. One of the major criticism of this approach is that little, if any, technological transfer is taking place and this perpetuates not just technological but financial dependency. China prefers to work with its own firms and banks to execute projects rather than do so with local firms or even banks. During the Beijing 2018 Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced a $60 billion package for Africa and stated that 25 per cent of the amount will be interest free. He immediately came under international criticism for exacerbating Africa’s indebtedness and slowly edging it into a debt abyss that it may not leave.

If you are a parent, you know that if you give children everything they want, they will never make much of themselves. They will continue on the path of dependency through their lives and you better be there for them until they grow old. No matter how much money you have, it is always a good idea to make children go to work and earn their keep. Photos of US President Barack Obama’s daughter, Sasha, working at a fast-food restaurant, did the rounds on social media sometime back. This is despite her coming from an extremely wealthy family. No matter how much money you have, your children, brothers and sisters, must go to work. And they should not be choosy. Supervise them and let them do mistakes until they get it right. China is Africa’s big brother who became wealthy. And he prefers to reduce Africa’s capacity to work by giving them easy money. None of the Chinese loans are helping say in import substitution. We will still buy clothing pegs from China and we will never make them locally.



Even though it firmly believes in non-interference in foreign matters, its desire for global dominance is undeniable. It realises that to drive up global dominance, it must secure raw materials for its resource-thirsty industries and maximise its wealth. Towards this, China is building global infrastructure in order to ease the flow of resources (raw materials) to itself and finished products to the rest of the world. This informed the formation of the One Road One Belt initiative better known as the Belt and Road Initiative. Although it is recent in formulation, the BRI is only building on longtime Chinese development strategy. It offers many nations money, asking very few questions in sharp contrast to the more stringent World Bank and IMF conditionality-laden lending. It soon became the darling of debt-dependent nations including Kenya, which quickly gained an appetite for Chinese loans. To be fair, the Chinese do offer conditions, like special taxes for our SGR and in some cases, rather absurd ones.



For instance, you must never recognise Taiwan as a nation except as a (renegade) province of China. You must also make sure that the Dalai Lama does not ever set foot on your soil. Kenya very quickly obliged to these conditions even denying the Dalai Lama a chance to visit the Maasai Mara on holiday in 2007. In fact, the ease of accepting such drivel conditions is in itself a measure of our dependency on Chinese goodies.

No nation on earth should be told who to allow as a visitor or have diplomatic ties with. America is notorious for denying others association with her foes (such as Cuba or Iran) but if we insist (like when we imported doctors from Cuba), they will not really mind. Kenya for instance cannot import Taiwanese doctors without risking a major spat with Beijing. This is despite Taiwan having engaged with Africa for a very long time. As we speak, only the Kingdom of eSwatini (formerly known as Swaziland) is Taiwan’s only friend in Africa. It is hosts Taiwan’s only diplomatic footprint on the continent and needless to say, King Mswati III was not invited to Beijing.

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