WEKESA: Kenya can benefit from China’s ambitious railroad diplomacy

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By BOB WEKESA
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So much ink has been spilled over the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, particularly its impact on the economy.

However, the project has far wider tentacles. 

At the heart of the SGR is China, the financier-cum-developer of the project.

But what has not come out clearly is the intersection of the SGR with the Belt and Road initiative – the global giant’s grand strategy.

Notably, the SGR was launched just two weeks after President Uhuru Kenyatta attended the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last month.

In a nutshell, Chinese President Xi Jinping started the Belt and Road initiative in late 2013 coinciding with the initial moves towards the construction of the SGR.

The Belt and Road initiative aims at new transport infrastructure connecting China with some 68 Asian, European and African countries.

The words “Belt” and “Road” are distilled from the fuller name of the global project: the “Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road”.

This is inspired by the ancient Silk Road which connected China with parts of Asia, Europe and Africa, harking back 2000-plus years.

Chinese strategists have designated the “Belt” as the roads leading from China into South East Asia and Eurasia, all the way to Western Europe.

The “Road” refers to the sea routes that lead from China via the Indian Ocean to Africa and on to Southern Europe.

China is not throwing billions of yuan into the venture to merely satisfy nostalgic memory.

The plan is for the infrastructure to trigger trade along the terrestrial and maritime routes, with Chinese companies in pole position.

China’s geopolitical influence-seeking has also been read into the strategy unsettling global powers such as the US and India. 

Crucially, the Chinese are walking the talk and financial figures are mind boggling.

The Sh400 billion ($4 billion) cost of the Mombasa-Nairobi phase of the SGR is small change compared to $493 billion spent on infrastructure in various countries by the close of 2016.

Financial institutions such as the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, the New Development Bank and the Silk Road Fund with a combined capitalisation estimated at $240 billion have been established.

At the Belt and Road conference in May in Beijing, President Xi announced a war chest of $124 billion.

Indeed, the Mombasa-Nairobi railway is but the latest in a series of infrastructure corridors in various stages of construction in places as far between as Kazakhstan and Djibouti.

The Kenyan coast was the African landing site of the ancient Chinese “maritime” Silk Road.

Specifically, Chinese voyagers made contact with Lamu and Malindi around 1418, a historical occurrence subject to an on-going $2.4 million archaeological research funded by China.

MULTILATERAL INSTITUTIONS

The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway launched in January is part of the initiative.

This explains the presence of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn as the only other African head of state alongside Kenyatta at the Beijing conference in May.

The conference was attended by 28 heads of state as well as delegations from over 100 countries including the US and European Union. 

Endorsements from multilateral institutions such as the UN, World Bank and International Monetary Fund have lent the initiative international legitimacy.

Fortuitously, the SGR means that Kenya is one of the few countries aboard an initiative of global proportions.

It is with the hindsight of the SGR as the gateway of the Belt and Road initiative into Africa that President Kenyatta’s recent Pan-African sentiments with regards to the railway resonate with Beijing.

Far from countries that were not part of the ancient Silk Road being excluded, China is embracing all.

Kenya’s refrain has been on the SGR’s continental connectivity; that it will eventually snake its way to Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and South Sudan.

In even more ambitious rhetoric, the Belt and Road infrastructure projects will connect Africa’s Indian and Atlantic oceans – with Chinese funding.

This offers Kenya a great opportunity to skim off value even as it positions itself as the initiative’s African champion.

Although Kenya has courted China to support the Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport (LAPSSET) corridor, firm commitments have not been reached.

Now is a good time to revive these negotiations. With some strategic thinking, the Belt and Road initiative is a low-hanging fruit for the county governments of Mombasa, Kwale, Kilifi and Lamu.  

While at it, Kenyan authorities would have to keep an eye on inevitable downsides that come with mega projects key among them geopolitical risks and unsustainable foreign debt. 

Dr Wekesa is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, [email protected]

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