In snub to Washington, Kenyan president visits China, Russia in first official visit outside Africa

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta begins a visit Sunday to the country that is fast becoming this East African nation’s biggest economic engine. It’s not the United States, one of Kenya’s biggest aid donors. Nor is it former colonial power Great Britain. It’s China.

Kenyatta’s choice of Beijing as one of the first places outside Africa to pay an official state visit to since his inauguration in April speaks volumes about China’s growing presence in Kenya. It also highlights the United States’ waning influence in a country vital to U.S. interests, say analysts.

“The Chinese government and people are eagerly expecting the arrival of President Kenyatta,” wrote Liu Guangyuan, China’s ambassador to Kenya, in a recent opinion piece published on Kenya’s Capital FM Web site.

“As long as we work hand in hand, China-Kenya friendship will become more magnificent than Mount Kenya, and the prospect of China-Kenya mutually beneficial cooperation will become broader than Maasai Mara,” added Liu, referring to Kenya’s tallest mountain and one of its best-known game parks, respectively.

Given what has unfolded over the past few months in Kenya, it’s not surprising that Kenyatta, 51, has chosen to visit China, as well as Russia, before Washington. He stopped in Moscow late last week before heading to China.


Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta arrives for the Special Summit of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region held at the United Nations Office in Nairobi, Kenya, July 31, 2013. (Ben Curtis/AP)

Both China and Russia have been silent over allegations that Kenyatta and his vice president, William Ruto, committed crimes against humanity at the time of Kenya’s disputed 2007 elections.

Kenyatta and Ruto are accused of orchestrating and funding mobs to kill and pillage. Both men face charges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague; Ruto is scheduled to face trial next month, Kenyatta in November. Both have said they are innocent.

During the run-up to this year’s elections, Johnnie Carson, then the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, cautioned that Kenyans’ choice for president would have consequences because the victor “must work with the international community.” That prompted Kenyatta and his advisers to declare they would look to China if the United States and its allies were unwilling to work with his government.

President Obama’s decision this summer to bypass his ancestral homeland of Kenya during his first extended visit to sub-Saharan Africa since taking office provoked anger and frustration among many Kenyans. Many Kenyans felt Washington was punishing them for electing Kenyatta and Ruto. Senior White House advisers said Obama was reluctant to visit Kenya and meet with Kenyatta because of the ICC charges, though Washington remains willing to work with him.

China has no such concerns. In fact, Liu is seeking to elevate China’s diplomatic relationship with Kenya to a strategic partnership, which only a few African nations enjoy, according to local news reports. In his op-ed, Liu touted how Chinese investment in Kenya had reached $474 million, representing Kenya’s largest source of foreign direct investment, and how bilateral trade had reached $2.84 billion last year.

Today, China is Kenya’s second-largest trading partner, and its investment has created thousands of jobs for Kenyans while building up Kenya’s infrastructure, repairing roads and erecting schools across the country. Chinese media organizations have set up offices in Kenya, and the Chinese government offers more than 200 scholarships to Kenyan students annually, Liu wrote.

“Analysts will likely confirm the long-held viewpoint that Kenya looks to China as a counterweight to the fallout with the West, particularly in the wake of the ongoing arraignment of President Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, at the International Criminal Court,” wrote political analyst Bob Wekesa in China Daily last week. “From one viewpoint, Kenya’s look-East stance is seen as a means of fashioning alternative sources of development assistance in view of strained relations with the traditional Western sources.”

The Chinese have been more engaged across sub-Saharan Africa than the United States, and this is happening at a time when the continent is becoming more important than ever to the United States, analysts say. The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about Islamist movements and terrorism on the continent. The region is also an important source of oil and other mineral resources, and home to six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies.

The Chinese have been making several high-level visits a year to African countries, including at the presidential level. Kenyatta is visiting China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Kenya wants to strengthen ties with China and Russia “to grow new markets that focus on the East,” according to a statement released Thursday by Kenyatta’s office. Accompanied by 60 Kenyan business people, Kenyatta also plans to sign economic agreements and gain support from China for a planned $2.5 billion railway from the southern Kenyan port of Mombasa to neighboring Uganda, as well as a nearly $1.8 billion dam, according to the statement.

In other words, by the time Kenyatta leaves Beijing, ties between the two nations will be that much closer.

Sudarsan Raghavan has been The Post's bureau chief in Africa since 2010. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Africa, and covered the Iraq war as Baghdad bureau chief.
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