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China and Kenya

Sep 06 , 2013
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

Demonstrably thumbing his nose at the West, and at the International Criminal Court’s indictment of him as a suspected war criminal, President Uhuru Kenyatta last month invited China to play an even larger role than before in developing Kenya and strengthening its influence within greater East Africa. As a significant riposte to President Obama, who refused to visit Kenya this summer and organized new trade links with neighboring Tanzania, Kenyatta embraced China in Beijing and there signed a $5 billion deal that will double Kenya’s trade with China and encourage Chinese investors and entrepreneurs to penetrate into the very heart of his country.

Robert I. Rotberg

Kenya and Uganda have newly found oil deposits that will improve both nations’ energy independence but, when they are fully exploited in 2016, will also provide significant export earnings. China always seeks sources of oil to fuel its industrial resurgence, and Kenya’s up-country deposits could hold ten billion barrels of petroleum, Uganda’s about two billion barrels. Thus, the new $5 billion arrangement (whether a loan to Kenya or a promise of Chinese support on which Kenya can draw – no one is saying) anticipates the building by China of a new standard-gauge rail line from Malaba on Kenya’s border with Uganda to Mombasa, its main port and the terminus also of its century-old British-sponsored narrow-gauge (and therefore slower) railway from Uganda and Lake Victoria.

Uganda has found oil in and around Lake Albert, on its own far western border. The Malaba-Mombasa rail line, if extended as expected into Uganda, should allow those smaller petroleum deposits to be exported along with Kenyan ones – and delivered to the region’s best port – land-locked Uganda’s only outlet to the seagoing world.  Already Uganda is dependent on China for large borrowings devoted to infrastructural development – roads, internal rail links, stadia, and so on.  When China builds the new rail link it will also give Uganda a way of shipping oil to China, and thus eventually of reimbursing its massive donor.           

Conceivably, the new rail line could also advance Chinese interests in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where China has major interests and seeks copper, cadmium, and other minerals. And it could provide the major transportation outlet that South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda’s neighbor to the north, desires to lessen South Sudan’s reliance on the contentious Sudanese-owned oil pipeline that now snakes northward from the upper reaches of South Sudan to Port Sudan on the Red Sea.           

If not by rail, Kenya wants South Sudan’s petroleum to travel through a to-be-constructed pipeline to Lamu, an embryonic harbor near Kenya’s border with Somalia. Hence, Kenya expects some of the $5 billion from China to pay for creation of export terminals and a proper port in Lamu, now mostly a backpacker’s tourist destination adjacent to the remains of small medieval city-states.  But the development of Lamu’s port infrastructure is expected to cost about $25 billion. This could be China’s first contribution to making the Lamu project real. 

Kenya is further hoping that China will want to use some of the $5 billion to help to create a technology city near Nairobi, the capital, and to improve Kenya’s limited power generation facilities. Some of the new oil will certainly be devoted to providing energy for local consumption, but Kenya also has geothermal experiments that may merit Chinese assistance. 

Some of the $5 billion is also expected to be spent on conservation upgrades, especially to improve protection for wildlife in a country plagued by the poaching of elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns for shipment, ultimately, to China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Ironically, well-armed criminal gangs, often working across Africa for Chinese brokers, now kill elephants and rhinoceroses and then smuggle the ivory and horn to Hong Kong or other Chinese ports.  There the ivory and horn are fashioned into art objects or used for folk medicinal purposes. 

Kenyatta’s office said that China would help Kenya to improve surveillance around national parks and game reserves and would aid Kenya in adding to the ranks of the current 3,000 wildlife rangers who deal with poachers. 

The announcement that part of the $5 billion would be devoted to protecting wildlife came at about the same time that a Chinese woman, not the first, was caught attempting to board a Kenya Airways flight from Nairobi to Hong Kong with fifteen pounds of ivory pieces declared as macadamia nuts. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two and half years in a Kenyan jail.  Previously, smugglers were more often fined. Indeed, in March, a Chinese man with 400 pieces of ivory was fined a mere $350 and deported.  Of the sixteen other smugglers who have been caught in Kenya this year, eight were Chinese and six Vietnamese. 

Kenya’s parliament, gravely concerned that the country’s diminished population of elephants, down from 167,000 in 1979 to 40,000 this year, and conscious of the fact that poachers this year have already slaughtered 190 elephants and 35 rhino (of the 1,025 still in Kenya), wants to impose 15 year prison terms on poachers and fines of $100,000. 

Until now, most of the Chinese assistance to Kenya has focused on road improvements, including the construction of a ring road around Nairobi. Additionally, and significantly, Xinhua, China’s state news agency, in 2012 began successfully to seed articles in Kenyan dailies and to provide spots to local radio stations. A top editor of the best-selling Daily Nation, Nairobi’s most widely read newspaper, exclaimed “You would have to be blind not to notice the Chinese media’s arrival in Kenya.” 

With $5 billion to spend, Kenyatta and China now have even more impressive bragging rights. 

Robert I. Rotberg is the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Political Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Visiting Fulbright Scholar at CIGI. Robert is the founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was previously professor of political science at MIT, academic vice president of Tufts University and president of Lafayette College.

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