Continuing years of his now seeming working practice, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently returned from a week-long diplomatic trip to Asia. This was reported to be part of ongoing efforts to close deals with some of the world’s emerging economic powers.
The President’s most recent visit to Japan and his participation in a multilateral summit in Russia come in the wake of increased international interest in opening up global markets to Africa.
In recent months, the Kenyan media has vehemently criticised the current government’s allegedly over-reliance on Chinese investment loans and development funding. In fact, China’s growing influence in Kenyan infrastructure projects has dominated discussions for the better part of the last decade.
Former President Mwai Kibaki, signed the milestone deal to construct the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) in 2012. This roughly coincided with China’s grand strategy of engaging more closely with Eastern Africa as part of its One Belt, One Road Initiative.
As the first phase of the SGR project was underway (between Nairobi and Mombasa), Kenya took out billions of shillings in loans. In order to complete the first phase as well as begin work on the second (from Nairobi to Naivasha), other packages were borrowed, which pushed the total figure up to Sh97 billion as of June 2019.
As standalone figures, such numbers are often quoted to convince Kenyans that the country is becoming gradually indebted and irreversibly dependent on China. Reality could not be farther from the truth though.
On the one hand, while the number of loans Kenya took out has increased in the past few years, the money is exclusively pumped into lucrative projects. Carefully evaluated, these are capable of repaying the costs of borrowing in the coming years.
The oft-referenced SGR venture alone is about to spur the economic interconnectivity of major regions of production in Kenya, while also ensuring an increased flow of services between various parts of the country.
Besides the SGR project however, Kenya’s high-tech and education sectors are also benefitting from foreign loans secured by Uhuru’s administration. An example of which is Kenya’s largest data centre currently under construction in the ever-expanding tech city of Konza.
All the while, the most recent report from the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) delegation from December 2018 revealed that Kenya’s economy continues to perform well, with real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth accelerating. In tandem with the assessment of officials of the IMF, Kenya’s National Treasury also confirmed that the country continues to meet its financial obligations. This stands in stark contrast to gloomy headlines and fear-mongering opinion pieces, claiming that our children and grandchildren will be enslaved to loans their fathers took out.
On the other hand, while China has been Kenya’s primary partner in recent years, it is far from the only one. Japan follows in second place when it comes to the volume of investments in our country’s future. Russia has also expressed its desire to significantly expand its economic and financial ties with Kenya in the near future. Apart from its current and emerging partners in Asia, Kenya’s development projects have for long been benefitting from the support of Western financial institutions alone, such as the World Bank and the IMF, to name but a few.
Uhuru’s efforts, therefore, to seize international opportunities and potentially create new ones is not only a sensible strategy but one that has been pursued with perfect timing. The gradual shift in international power relations over the past few decades has slowly but surely invited the conclusion that the hegemonic role of the United States is eroding. Today, we are finally seeing the tangible effects of this process. The unipolar status of the US is currently being challenged by a number of new poles in the global economy—such as those of China, Japan, Germany, the UK, India, Brazil and Russia.
It looks like Uhuru saw this, years in advance, and has been preparing Kenya accordingly.
Multiple poles, of course, also mean multiple business partners that are greatly interested in the opportunities Kenya—and in a broader sense the African continent—has to offer. With growing competition for such opportunities, Kenya, through Uhuru’s already established diplomatic network, will not only see its options for development multiply exponentially but will have the chance to bargain for better and better deals in the years to come.
Mr Mugolla comments on topical issues. Email: [email protected]