We are torn between a rock and a hard place. On one side we have a powerful China offering Kenya all sorts of goodies as a nation and our traders buying goods all over China. On the other side, is a restless USA warning that China is entrapping us and at the same time, making it more and more difficult for Kenyans to reach “the land of the free and the brave”. What are we to do?

We love the USA. After all, this is the land that gave us Obama (or we gave them Obama); we watch their movies, TV, play their music and we are culturally attuned to them. Over a million Kenyans have moved to the US – and many more would go there if they could. Getting a US visa is like winning the lottery. Just see the smile of a Kenyan who has had his visa stamped. Once we land there, we feel at home with Kenyan-looking brothers all over the place. There are many Kenyans who call it home.

China doesn’t really welcome us. For sure, they roll out the ‘reddest’ of the red carpets when our president goes visiting. The Chinese are big on protocol. However, the story is different for the local mwanainchi. You now need a certificate of good conduct from Kenyan police, certified by Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then attested by the Chinese embassy – while we welcome every Chinese crook into Kenya with few questions asked. Every African landing in Beijing or any Chinese city is treated with suspicion at immigration and at customs. Africans are sent to the left for scanning while other passports walk straight out. Clear racism – but for some reason we have come to accept American racism but find Chinese racism less tolerable – aren’t we supposed to be brothers? Culturally, we are still poles apart from the Chinese. This is further accentuated by the language barrier

Economic policy

The truth is that the pendulum is swinging in favour of China. Chinese companies are winning more contracts across Africa because they give us what we want at prices that we can afford.

American companies talk of higher American quality which we all want but cannot afford– and the Chinese throw in a few goodies for free as well. Chinese economic policy is increasingly aligned with African interests.
The Bridge and Road Initiative (BRI) fits in with our economic interests. China is building roads and bridges across Africa.

Even if this suits China’s interests, let it be because these roads also opening up Africa and driving economic development to areas left behind in the last 50 years.

Many labour intensive Chinese companies are no longer competitive because the average salary of the Chinese factory worker has risen to around $1,000 per month compared to $150-200 in Africa. They are closing these factories while we would happily take these factories here to create jobs. They may not be the best of jobs, but because of the sheer demand for jobs – any jobs are welcome here.

This leads to a demand for Special Economic Zones so Kenya can become an export hub. Remember that the Asian countries evolved from being cats to tigers when they became exporting giants and then graduated to high tech economies.

I don’t see any American companies or factories moving to Africa. Suddenly, China is looking very very attractive. The cultural alignment can come later while we learn to drink Chinese green tea.

Chinese cooperation

At the last Bridge and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing, China’s president promised that future deals with partners along the BRI economic corridors would be green, transparent and corruption free.

If this happens, Chinese debt and economic assistance would exponentially increase in value to Africa. In our last meeting with Chinese investors, they pledged to maintain European Union (EU) standards on environmental issues.

They have promised transparency on all their loans, thus removing the unwarranted fears that our ports will be taken over. With this new shift, all criticism about Chinese cooperation would become meaningless.

Now, if China would only truly open her markets to our products, the relationship would be more equal.

They allowed our avocados and then put such stringent conditions that our farmers are crying foul. While the West sells us mitumba, China sells us new ‘original’ counterfeits. As they say in China, Microsoft has the copyright and we have the right to copy.

America my darling, where did our relationship go wrong? In the late 1950s, thousands of Kenyans went to the USA on scholarships. That move made most Kenyans pro-American at a time of great ideological differences. Today at a time of commercial dissonance, it is easier to go to China than to go to America.

When you stopped embracing us we fell into the arms of the Chinese. Though Obama was ours, we didn’t feel his love. Now with Donald Trump in power I can hear those famous last words from the movie Gone With The Wind and America is saying ‘frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’.

Hon Suleiman Shahbal


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