US leader Donald Trump and President Uhuru Kenyatta have one thing in common: they are wealthy.
But while one is a self-made billionaire, the other is a beneficiary of inherited wealth. Though they have vastly different personalities, they have another less remarked about similarity. They are the most pro-business presidents compared to many of their predecessors and contemporaries, though in Trump’s case his policies are dangerously protectionist.
Uhuru returned from his latest US visit with a $238 million (Sh24 billion) investment commitment from two American companies, one dealing with wind power and the other with food distribution. Both ventures will be financed by a US government agency, Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The money may look cool in Kenya, but in America’s scheme of things, it is peanuts. (In fact, $238 million is just a fraction of Trump’s personal fortune).
The challenge for Uhuru’s government is to leverage its new-found relationship with this self-styled ‘Dealmaker-in-Chief’ (Trump) so as to win bigger business.
The massive $20 trillion US economy offers a whole new universe to tap investment from, and to trade with — if Kenya can play her cards aggressively. With the commencement later this month of direct Kenya Airways flights to the US, new opportunities will open for our flower exporters, and for our tourism sector.
Traditionally, America has looked to Kenya from the point of view of a regional security guarantor.
With Al-Shabaab still active next door in Somalia, counter-terrorism has been the main driver of US policy towards our country.
This aspect got covered extensively in the US-Kenya communiqué signed at the White House, with the latest twist being a new-fangled relationship called a “Strategic Partnership”, which ostensibly is meant to provide “stability” in the Indian Ocean region.
As a trade-off for the long-standing regional security support we provide, America has yearly extended to Kenya one of its highest aid allocations on the continent.
As happens with these aid programmes, most of the money gets recycled back to the donor country by way of goods and services.
The Uhuru government has been determined to change this narrative and deal with the US on terms other than aid.
Specifically this means seeking out greater US investment and trade opportunities. In fact, the signing of the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) by President Bill Clinton in 2000 redefined US-Africa relations along trade lines, with African countries granted preferential access to the US market for certain of their exports.
Agoa has survived every other subsequent US administration, but the arrival of Trump raised fears that he would tear up the agreement at the slightest opportunity. Indeed, Rwanda became a victim of Trump’s savage policies when her Agoa access got suspended in a dispute over — yes — mitumba tariffs.
During Uhuru’s Washington visit, the Trump White House was keenly backing a particular project proposal being pushed by the giant US construction and engineering corporation, Bechtel, which is hoping to build a brand new six-lane expressway from Mombasa to Nairobi.
Trump himself broached the topic twice: first during the White House media photo-op session with Uhuru, and the second time in his introductory remarks at the bilateral talks between the US and Kenyan delegations.
Bechtel, for those who don’t know, has long cultivated very close ties with the highest levels of the US government, going back to the Ronald Reagan years.
That has enabled it to win fabulous multi-billion-dollar contracts across the world, an example being in oil-rich and spendthrift Saudi Arabia.
I would be surprised if Bechtel would drive Trump to take so open a position in its favour because it was desperate for $3.2 billion, which is the estimated cost of the Mombasa-Nairobi superhighway it seeks to build. Rather, the company plays for long stakes.
America has noticed that China’s capture of Africa is through infrastructure mega-projects. Aha, Bechtel is an infrastructure company, too. Kenya offers an excellent toehold. See my point?
When State House was communicating the $238 million wind power and food distribution projects (these were actually signed through a US business lobby group, rather than the White House), it made no mention of the Bechtel proposal.
But when the US embassy in Nairobi posted online the contents of the US-Kenya communiqué signed at the White House, lo and behold the proposed Bechtel contract commanded its own paragraph.
Trump is a guy who won’t stand being told ‘No’, especially by a s**thole country. If the Kenyan delegation observed him closely as he spoke at the bilateral meeting, they would have noticed how he wraps everything around himself like the world is his.
There are two big problems with the Bechtel plan. First, it duplicates what we already have. The present Mombasa-Nairobi highway is adequate.
Additionally we have alongside it the SGR. But the bigger headache is the debt. We simply can’t afford adding another $3.2 billion burden so as to please the Americans.