It has been an extremely busy period of international engagements for President Uhuru Kenyatta. A week ago, he was in the United States for his first face-to-face engagement with President Donald Trump.
A few days later, he hosted British Prime Minister Theresa May in Nairobi. Now, he is in Asia for the China-Africa Forum for Co-operation Summit, which is being held in Beijing.
The significance of these visits rests on the changing global politics and trade. Traditionally, the West dominated global business and politics.
But the dynamics have shifted dramatically in recent decades. China, an erstwhile backwater state, has emerged as the most enterprising and dominant foreign power.
Beijing has achieved this through meticulous and calculated deals with many African nations based purely on business and devoid of conditions such as the enforcement of human rights, transparency and fidelity to the rule of law.
It has been generous in giving huge and attractive infrastructure loans and, for a good measure, exported its companies to execute the projects, arguably timeously and with dexterity.
Kenya made a strategic decision under the Kibaki presidency to turn East and the Jubilee administration followed suit.
The Thika Superhighway and the standard gauge railway (SGR) stand out as the poster signature of China’s influence in Kenya.
However, the reality has since set in. Kenya is reeling under the burden of foreign debt, the bulk of it arising from the mega infrastructure projects by China, which, though making a difference in the lives of the citizens, will remain a thorn in the flesh for years to come. Many countries are beginning to ask themselves if the huge loans are worth it and sustainable in the long run.
Besides the financial pain, China’s influence has extended to the social levels, where they export labour and take up local jobs. Increasingly, Chinese workers have permeated all sectors with a negative impact. At Kenya Railways, for example, complaints have been raised about discriminatory treatment of African workers by the Chinese.
Only a few days ago, Kenya’s tour guides were up in arms resisting the influx of Chinese tour operators, claiming that their business was being taken over by foreigners.
Time has come for African leaders to critically interrogate their relationship with China. We need an honest assessment of the relationship with the emerging powers and all others, for that matter.
They should use the summit to ask tough questions. What are the benefits in this relationship? Is China unfairly exploiting Africa like the others before it?
We have to trade with the East just as we have with the West. But all these engagements must be in the interest of our nations.