By Steve Biko Abuya with Ogova Ondego
Published June 7, 2014
Questions linger as to how African countries like Kenya are gaining from their new-found love affair with China through their so-called ‘Look East Policy’. But did you know that China’s relationship with post-independence Kenya began when the Communist land of the Dragon became the fourth country to open an embassy in Nairobi in 1963 and that that commitment was renewed during the reign of President Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013)?
As China continues to tighten its grip on the mother continent, critical voices from African artists, writers, economists and other analysts and commentators continue to question the intention of China that just pumped some US$2 Billion into the African Development Bank besides handing a brand new headquarters to the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
According to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, bilateral trade between Kenya and China stood at US$186.37 Million with China exporting US$180.57 Million to Kenya and the latter exporting US$ 5.79 Million worth of goods to the former in 2002. Seven years later, the trade registered a nearly US$1 Billion mark with Kenya importing US$876.5 Million from Beijing while exporting US$29.2 Million to China.
Small scale traders and hawkers took to the streets in Nairobi in August 2012 to demonstrate against what they termed as a Chinese take-over of their livelihood. Calling on the Kenyan government to take action, they alleged that Chinese traders were selling low quality products at throw away prices and in turn spoiling business for them. They further claimed the Embassy of China in Nairobi was not issuing them timely travel documents to China from where they buy their wares. This, they said, gave Chinese traders the chance to take away their livelihood unfairly.
Despite their funding and construction of major infrastructure like the Thika Super Highway in Nairobi to the tune of US$365 Million, critics maintain that China isn’t interested in helping build the capacity of Kenyans as their projects are done with Chinese skilled and African manual labour. It is even said Chinese nationals in Africa do not use local accommodation or food opting to pitch tents and temporary structures for their residential needs. This is what they are said to have done in the Mamboleo area of Kisumu in western Kenya. Just imagine how much a country like Kenya would earn were they to use her hotels, hostels and apartments. Chinese nationals do not usually mix with local Africans. In this critics see an attempt by the Chinese to control the flow of their capital in what can be seen as a ‘plough-back’ effort.
China’s interest in the construction of the Lamu Port as part of the US$29.5 Billion Lamu Port Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSETT) Corridor project that was commissioned by Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan is seen as a trade-led infrastructure gain in line with a planned export of crude oil from the South Sudan to China. This would in turn empower the Chinese energy sector and make it a major player as well.
That China accounts for 70% of global demand for illegal ivory among other wildlife items is increasingly put the country’s presence in Africa in the spotlight. Organisations like International Anti-Poaching Foundation are calling on China to wipe out this trade that, according to The Guardian newspaper of England, is estimated to be worth £11.6 Billion annually.
Indeed, several Chinese nationals have been arrested in Kenya while trying to smuggle ivory out of the country. In 2013 a Kenyan court found a Chinese national guilty of trying to smuggle 439 pieces of ivory out of Kenya and was fined Sh30, 000 (US$375). Another Chinese citizen was arrested at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi in January 2014 with ivory beads and fined Sh1 Million (about US$12, 500). This resulted in a nationwide outcry. Even Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions termed the sentence as being ‘light’ in view of the offense committed. Kenya’s new Wildlife Act that came in force in 2013 mainly to protect elephants and rhinos from increased poaching stipulates a minimum jail term of five years or a fine of Sh1 Million and a maximum life sentence and a fine of Sh20 Million (about US$250,000).
On May 17, 2014, just before the Chinese Premier visited Kenya, Michael Soi, a Nairobi artist whose 18-piece satirical paintings titled ‘China Loves Africa’, wrote on his page on Facebook: “My latest piece, Santa is coming to Town, has finally drawn the wrath of the Chinese. Four gentlemen and a lady from china walked into my studio and one of them went off about how ungrateful I was to all that china is doing for Kenya. ”
Soi, who is currently exhibiting in Seoul, South Korea, sees the Sino-Africa ‘partnership’ as a one-way love affair in which an inexperienced, desperate and gullible girl falls for the wiles of an experienced and cunning older man who abandons her as soon soon as his desire is satiated leaving the girl worse off than before.
“China is hungry for raw materials from Africa. Africa is poor and desperate. African leaders are seeking trade partners who will not ask questions; so in essence, China is Africa’s sugar daddy,” Soi told Stephen Ogongo Ongong’a of in January 2014.
That Kenya Revenue Authority is investigating Chinese companies in the country over tax evasion claims is one of the latest controversies dogging China in East Africa.
The Standard newspaper of Nairobi reported on May 30, 2014 that John Njiraini, Commissioner-General of KRA had “warned Chinese firms over tax evasion.”
“I caution the Chinese business community to desist from activities that contravene tax or customs legal provisions either through under-declaration, mis-declaration or outright evasion of taxes,” Standard quoted Njiraini as having said. “I urge the Chinese business community to observe ethical practices geared towards ensuring fair reporting of business activities and attendant payment of their rightful share of taxes.”