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China’s role at the heart of Kenya’s election campaign

The two men going head to head to become Kenya’s next president agree on one thing: China is at the heart of next week’s election.

For deputy president William Ruto, it is the spread of Chinese nationals in cities, many of whom are trying to earn a living selling local street food dishes. And former prime minister Raila Odinga has made much of the high cost of the east African country’s borrowing from Beijing, which it is now struggling to service.

Their focus highlights the central role China has occupied during the election campaign. Chinese workers are an increasingly common sight in cities and a large proportion of repayments for debts racked up over the past decade are owed to Chinese lenders. Total debt servicing eats up 3 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

China has embarked on a 20-year lending spree that has made Beijing Africa’s largest source of development finance and a big financier of legacy infrastructure projects in Kenya under current president Uhuru Kenyatta, who is standing down after serving two terms and is backing Odinga after falling out with Ruto.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Ruto defended his sharp criticism of some Chinese arrivals, including a threat to deport those who set up small retail businesses or sell popular street food dishes such as roasted maize.

“That’s my position,” he said, reaffirming the comments he made during a campaign event in Nairobi in June that “we have enough aeroplanes to deport them back to where they came from”.

A senior aide to Ruto, who has been in contact with Chinese officials, admitted that the comments went down badly in Beijing.

Ruto, who has served as deputy president for almost a decade, said: “They [the Chinese] want to protect jobs for their people. We want to do it too.”

His comments come at a time when Kenyans are struggling to cope with a rapidly rising cost of living, with inflation at a five-year high of 8.3 per cent in July.

Presidential candidate Raila Odinga arrives at a campaign rally in Kiambu on Monday © Ed Ram/Getty Images

Odinga, who is making his fifth attempt to be elected president, has focused on Chinese loans to Kenya, which have risen from $4.1bn to $6.4bn over the past five years, according to official numbers.

As prime minister, he negotiated deals with China including a $3.8bn railway linking the port of Mombasa with Nairobi that has been criticised over the alleged opaqueness of its financial terms.

Odinga said he intended to renegotiate loans with some creditors, including China, if he won. Some loans could be converted so they had longer repayment periods and lower interest rates to release money for new development projects, he suggested.

Ruto, by contrast, has made it clear that he is “not looking at negotiating any debt”, referring to existing borrowing.

Kenya’s total external public debt topped $36.7bn, or 34.4 per cent of GDP, at the end of last year, putting the country at “high risk of distress”, according to the IMF. China is among the top lenders, but trails behind multilateral creditors.

An Afrobarometer poll from late last year showed that 87 per cent of Kenyan respondents felt their country had overborrowed from Beijing.

Only last week, Kenyatta inaugurated the country’s first-ever public-private partnership road project, a $588mn highway in Nairobi with pagoda-like toll booths that was designed, financed and built using Chinese funds.

China’s ambassador to Kenya, Zhou Pingjian, said at the inauguration that the “brotherly relationship” between Beijing and Nairobi had reached “a new height unmatched in history”.

Any change in Nairobi’s stance towards Beijing would mark a shift in tone and policy, say analysts, making Tuesday’s vote one of Africa’s most important elections this year.

Despite the campaign focus on China, Hannah Ryder, chief executive of Development Reimagined, an Africa-focused consultancy with headquarters in Beijing, said there had as yet been no signs of anti-China sentiment in Kenya.

“China remains a potential source of finance and Kenya still needs financing. So, China is going to be really important,” she added.

Beijing has recently cut back on lending to Africa, having grown more sceptical of the ability of some countries to repay.

However, Chinese banks still make up about one-fifth of all lending to the continent, concentrated in a few strategically important or resource-rich countries that include Angola, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Zambia.

“I would be surprised, very surprised, if whoever is elected does not quickly try to engage China,” said Ryder.

Ruto and Odinga have travelled to London and Washington, where they met officials and addressed think-tanks, but not to Beijing due to pandemic-related restrictions in the country.

Kenya’s elections have in the past been marred by deadly violence and allegations of fraud that have destabilised a regional power.

Opinion polls put the candidates in a dead heat, and analysts expect a runoff following the election. To win outright, a presidential candidate must win 50 per cent plus one vote while securing 25 per cent of the votes in the majority of Kenya’s 47 counties.

As the election nears, candidates have sought to make clear their differences. While they may agree on China being a key issue, Odinga suggested he would opt for dialogue over deporting workers if he becomes the country’s next president.

“If the Chinese offer better terms and also better prices for the goods and services that we want, we will continue to deal with the Chinese,” he said. “We don’t see that China is a threat.”

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