Bypassing China’s debt diplomacy

While there is still space to do so, Africans can re-negotiate

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Presidents Kenyatta and Xi in Beijing.

By Joel Okwemba

The realization that Kenya has fallen into China’s Debt Diplomacy is unfortunate. The idea that such profound contracts and investments would be made without robust public engagement or indirect public participation brings into question the role of state institutions in oversight of government operations. In light of this, the recent revelations of the gaps in the China-Kenya Standard Gauge Railway Contract by the dailies further suggest that the agreement goes beyond economic interests of Kenya, and that perhaps there could have been political interests at play noting the timing and context of the agreement. This cannot be ignored as Kenya’s legal and international trade aficionados disparage the terms and conditions of the contract.

There are good examples, such as the US Congress’ role to hold President Trump’s Agenda to build a wall as part of enhancing border security between Mexico and the United States. That government would end in a shutdown demonstrates the power and independence of Congress and Opposition in the democratic ecosystem of the country. Contrary to that, the diminishing independence of the Parliament of Kenya has come to haunt the image and prestige of the country as well as the day to day living of Wanjiku, who has to pay more in taxes to meet the negative balance of trade and debt brought by the China-Kenya Agreement. 

What then could be the immediate, medium term and long term stop-gap measures out of the impending predicament?

As for the immediate period, an intense focus could go into the re-negotiation of the agreements and lobbying using political leverage of Kenya and African Countries (perhaps as a political block through the African Union). For Kenya, the Handshake of March 2018 has eased political pressures the Jubilee Administration would have had in 2013 when they assumed office, to imply that more sober decisions can be tested at the Executive level, a balanced position strengthened by the new talents and brains brought on board through the Building Bridges Initiative. Furthermore, the role of the Office of the African Union Special Representative for Infrastructure, as held by the Right Honourable Raila Odinga, and his good offices could come in handy to exercise political creativity on the China-Kenya Infrastructure Agreement in favour of Kenya and African Countries. The political influence of the office, though still young, has the potential to shake up China-Africa relations, noting infrastructure development.

In the medium-term, Parliament’s departmental committees should be re-aligned to better oversight the Economic Foreign Policy Agenda for the country. In the Article “Why Parliament Departmental Committees should be aligned to Kenya’s Economic Foreign Policy” published by the Daily Nation of 12th April 2018, I opined and maintain:

“The effectiveness of the committee on Defence and Foreign Relations can be strengthened by re-alignment to meet the current needs of the Foreign Policy being, Economic. The function of Defence could easily be merged with the current Administration and National Security Committee to form the departmental committee on Administration and National Security Strategy. The function of Trade in the departmental committee on Finance, Planning and Trade Committee could be transferred to the Foreign Relations committee for complete harmonization of principals, focus and leadership. This will create the departmental committee of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Other additional considerations to be made would include the introduction of the submission of the Annual Foreign Policy Statement to be discussed in parliament to expand understanding among the back benchers and the public on the importance of the Foreign Policy Agenda of the government. Going even deeper parliament could enact legislation to have public participation in the Foreign Policy making process observing the spirit of the new constitution.”

As a long-term measure, there is a need to groom international trade negotiators and cognoscente in the young generation and junior government technocrats, across the continent, to avoid a recurrence or even worse forms of international treaties that could put the sovereignty of the country at stake, risking the livelihoods of the man on the streets and at worst mortgage the country.

It might seem that the gaps in the contract could lead the country into a national security issue if the sovereignty of Kenya, her properties, freedoms, prosperity are under threat. As such, perhaps it is not too far to imagine the securitisation of government operations. If this is the case, in whose shoulders would the blame be on? In line with this, the state should actualise Kenya’s grand strategy as a guiding principal and reflection point of where the country is at vis-a-vis where it is headed.

Furthermore, this should serve as a clarion call for the Kenyan and African publics to augment their interest in the international political scene so as to observe trends from other continents, note the mistakes made by other countries and protect against future threats and similar situations. Lastly, countries must find solutions and assist governments willing to accept help, in navigating unpredictability of the international political environment.   (

— Writer is Managing Director, Centre for International and Security Affairs, Nairobi

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