Kenya benefits as East and West compete in wooing African riches

By John Gachiri Source:Global Times Published: 2013-4-10 23:38:02

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Kenyans have been entertained by a diplomatic comedy or saga that has seen subtle threats, followed by a speedy change of tack that would make good content for a television series or a political novel.

Before the election of Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto as the president and vice president of Kenya respectively, Western countries had warned of consequences if the duo were elected.

The US made it clear that "choices have consequences" while Britain had said that it would restrict itself to essential business with the two if they were to be elected.

The same line was taken by other European countries.

The stand by Western powers is premised on the fact that the two face charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in Hague, Netherlands.

Kenyatta and Ruto used anti-Western rhetoric during the campaign and are sometimes seen as leaning toward China.

With the pair having just won a fiercely contested general election that was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of Kenya, Washington and London seem to be taking a softer stance thanks to the duo's overture to Beijing.

Whether it was by design or accident the move has paid off. The threat that China could undermine the West in Kenya has found its way to Westminster where debate focused on the need for the UK to protect its interests.

Social media has been abuzz with a majority of commentators all giddy that chest thumping has given way to humility.

But just how big is China's influence? Could Western nations be overreacting? Could China be getting drawn into a diplomatic mess despite its policy of noninterference?

These are the questions that come to mind when you begin to look at the numbers.

To begin with, Western influence on Kenya's economy is massive, which is neither a bad nor a good thing.

In last year's list of the top 10 biggest taxpayers, five were listed firms with a significant UK-ownership. A survey conducted by consultancy Deloitte found that the best paying firm to work for in Kenya is East African Breweries Limited, whose majority shareholder is the UK-based Diageo PLC. Three other foreign firms made the top 10 list.

The survey did not look at nongovernmental organizations which are known as some of the best employers in Kenya, not only in terms of the level of pay, but other perks such as work hours and health cover and so on.

They are donor-funded and it is employees working in this sector and banks, mostly foreign-owned ones, that are fuelling demand in the real estate sector and sustaining the huge shopping malls that are popping everywhere.

None of the 56 listed companies on the Nairobi Securities Exchange has a significant Chinese ownership and Bank of China only has a representative office, not a full-fledged bank branch.

There are no Chinese equivalents of organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Foundation and the Ford Foundation, all of which supplement if not substitute for the government's role in education, agriculture, healthcare, democracy and governance.

Again, what is China's policy of funding healthcare, democracy and governance?  Can it compete with the West in these fields?

It is still too early to paint a vivid picture on how competing interests by China and the West will play out, but the incoming administration is in a very enviable position.

If it is being wooed by investors from both East and West, then it should seize this opportunity to get as much foreign direct investment as possible, regardless of where it comes from. Kenya is making progress but it is yet to reach the point where the state can perform all its functions with external support.

The author is a journalist based in Kenya.

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