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New US, China envoys push for Kenyan pie

The question is how well prepared Kenya is to take advantage of the best arising opportunities to further its own interests

In Summary

• The US, McCarter says, pumps as much as $1 billion annually into Kenya’s productive sectors, including agriculture, health, education and security.

• China has in the last decade intensified efforts to court African countries, including Kenya, a region that was traditionally viewed to be pro-West.

US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter
US Ambassador to Kenya Kyle McCarter
Image: FILE

The US and China, the world’s two leading economies, have deployed new envoys to Kenya against the backdrop of increasing competition for visibility in the country and region.

New Chinese Ambassador Wu Peng was until his posting to Nairobi, serving as the envoy to Sierra Leone. He took over from Ambassador Sun Baohong, the first female envoy to Kenya, whose tour of duty lasted for only seven months — from May to December 2018.

At the US Embassy, Ambassador Kyle McCarter is settling into his new role as President’s Donald Trump’s point man in Kenya and region. According to the embassy website, he was a manufacturing entrepreneur in Illinois, before his Nairobi posting. The former Republican Illinois Senator has over 30 years experience working in Kenya, where, together with his wife, he founded the Tharaka Nithi charity organisation, Each1Feed, that caters for the needs of orphaned, abandoned and abused children.

 
 

Wu and Kyle have since laid down a strategic vision for their countries’ engagement with Kenya.

In a commentary that appeared in the Daily Nation of April 23, Ambassador Wu pledged brighter Kenya-China relations, citing the forthcoming meeting between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

Wu also announced the celebration of the second anniversary since the opening of the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway, Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project since Independence, that was financed and constructed by China.

A  benchmark of BRI in the region, Wu said, the SGR had transported over 2.77 million passengers and moved cargo in excess of 4.21 million tonnes. In addition, the envoy reported that China’s non-financial direct investments in Kenya stood at $520 million in 2018, with more prospects for a healthy balance of trade following the signing of Sanitary and Phytosanitary [plant health with reference to export standards] agreement between the two countries.

A day later on April 24, Ambassador Kyle McCarter penned a commentary titled ‘Kenya poised to be Africa’s shining star.’ Lauding the historic handshake between Opposition leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru Kenyatta, McCarter noted that the ensuing stability in the country had created enabling conditions for additional US investments.

The US, McCarter said, pumps as much as $1 billion annually into Kenya’s productive sectors, including agriculture, health, education and security.

In an apparent swipe at China, the envoy noted that America seeks investments that give value to the population through “sustainable financing, not unmanageable debt”.

 
 

McCarter cited the four-lane Nairobi-Mombasa Highway to be constructed by the US firm Bechtel, which he said would observe best environmental practices while having 70 per cent of its workforce from Kenya. The highway will run parallel to the Chinese-constructed SGR.

China has in the last decade intensified efforts to court African countries, including Kenya, a region that was traditionally viewed to be pro-West, led by the United States.

China is now Kenya’s largest trading partner, investor and contractor. Bilateral trade volumes between the two countries increased by 59 per cent from 2013 to hit Sh5.2 billion in 2017. In addition, more than 400 Chinese enterprises are currently operational in Kenya, providing about 130,000 jobs to residents in various sectors.

Through the BRI initiatives, China has availed significant amounts of money and technology to support infrastructure upgrades in a number of developing countries, including Kenya, where the SGR is the hallmark.

US officials have instead accused China of using its economic war chest to ensnare BRI participating countries into unsustainable debts.

Kenya, for instance, is currently committing over half of its taxes to servicing foreign loans, a move that some Kenyans, international lending institutions as well as the US, blame on China, which they argue has advanced expensive loans to the country.

The recent excitement from a section of Kenyans that President Kenyatta failed to secure additional funding from China for the SGR, therefore, came as a no-brainer.

Interestingly, McCarter has since ramped up publicity for a visit to the US by a Kenyan delegation led by Foreign Affairs CS Monica Juma for the Strategic Bilateral Dialogue. The May 7-8 meeting aimed to push the idea that Kenya has a listening partner in Washington, if Beijing is unreachable.

Given its geostrategic positioning, Kenya is certainly going to experience more jostling from China, the US and other countries. The question is how well prepared the country is to take advantage of the best arising opportunities to advance its national interest.

The writer comments on Kenya’s international relations. Twitter: @Cavinceworld