Kenya is right to look East, but still needs its old friends

Thursday June 12 2014

Finance Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich (Seated Right) with Chinese Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng signing Standard Gauge Railways constriction agreement at State House Nairobi on May 11, 2014. Two activists are seeking to stop the execution of an agreement between Kenya and China for the construction of a railway. PHOTO/BILLY MUTAI

Finance Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich (seated right) with Chinese Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng sign an agreement for the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway at State House, Nairobi, on May 11, 2014. PHOTO/BILLY MUTAI  

By MICHAEL MEYER
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A certain stridency has crept into the rhetoric that Kenyan authorities these days reserve for their European and American friends. Travel advisories? We will find other tourists, maybe from China.

Western investors growing hesitant? Again, we will look to China. To Westerners, it all sounds unconvincing. After all, Europe alone remains Kenya’s biggest trading partner.

It is by far the country’s largest source of development funds as well as the major source of remittances from Kenyans working abroad. And yet Kenya has good reason to look East, not West. For that is indeed the shape of the future.

The irony is that most Westerners do not realise it.

This is the theme of an important new book by Howard French, China’s Second Continent. A former correspondent for the New York Times in China, French knows both worlds. The realities he sets forth — visibly reshaping our globalised world — should be required reading for anyone who hopes to understand the future of this vast continent.

China’s push into Africa is neither new nor unanticipated. In 1933, a far-sighted journalist named Hedley Chilvers contemplated the likely trajectory of Britain’s colonies in Africa and, in The Yellow Man Looks On, predicted that China would one day rise to supplant them.

A generation later, in the 1970s, Deng Xiaoping issued his famous dictum. “Go out,” he instructed his countrymen, setting in motion the great exodus that inspires the sub-title of French’s book: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa.

If China’s rise is one of the miracles of the past century, its drive to empire will be the story of the next.

Outsiders view it in almost neo-colonial terms: A national strategy to lock up natural resources, of which Africa is the world’s great storehouse. Today, however, there is a new imperative: To tap into (and even create) future markets for China’s export industries that, one day, will pick up the slack from the stagnating economies of the US and Europe.

CHINESE-AFRICAN AXIS

French spent a year travelling the continent, following the currents of the swelling Chinese tide. What do they see that others do not? The answer, for one, is Africa’s potential. #

In the West, it is fashionable to talk about Africa Rising. For most Chinese, Africa has risen.

From Lusaka to Addis, Lagos to Accra, they are riding an African boom — in home and office construction, extractive industries, the emergence of a new African middle class.

In Kenya, it is the proposed standard gauge railroad, in Tanzania, the Bagamoyo super port, in Ethiopia, a new telecommunications network and the African Union headquarters.

Less well-known is the newer and transformative force of people power: The one million individual Chinese officially estimated to have immigrated to Africa and, unofficially, many more.

A generation ago, investors salivated over the Chinese market. An American widget maker would look to China and dream of selling billions. A fortune is there for the taking! Today, Chinese look to Africa with the same appetite — not only major multinational exporters, but countless small business people and ordinary Chinese seeking more prosperous lives than can be found at home.

This is a role reversal of unprecedented proportions. For this new generation of Chinese pioneers, now is the moment. Africa is the place.

The Chinese-African axis will transform the continent and, over time, the global economy. Yet its benefits will not be equally spread, nor will it be an unadulterated public good.

Chinese investment tends to be in (literally) concrete things — showcase investments like stadiums, dams, or highways. This is in stark contrast to the projects Western governments generally support: Humanitarian relief, say, or social programmes to educate children, relieve poverty, wipe out malaria or treat Aids — not to mention a host of development efforts involving everything from security to good governance.

The obvious bottom line: Kenya needs all its friends, not casting one aside only to become dangerously dependent on another.

Michael Meyer is dean of the graduate school of media and communications at Aga Khan University in Nairobi.