By Horst Teubert and Dr. Peer Heinelt
With his current visit to Nairobi, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is participating in U.S. efforts to tie Kenya more closely to the West again.
The East African country, once a fairly close cooperation partner of the transatlantic powers, has greatly intensified its economic cooperation with China in recent years as part of a “Look East” policy.
The People’s Republic is Kenya’s largest trading partner and has invested more there than in Western countries since 2005.
Washington has long sought to push back on Beijing in Africa, with a focus on Kenya.
President William Ruto, who took office after a razor-thin August 2022 election victory that remains disputed to this day, responds approvingly to previous U.S. offers of cooperation and largely focuses his foreign travel and reception of visitors on the West.
It is unclear whether he is merely trying to balance China’s strong influence or to distinguish himself as a comprehensive partisan of the West. In the country, protests against him continue; at the UN, he is classified as “unscrupulous.”
CHINA’S ECONOMIC INFLUENCE
China has gained considerable influence in Kenya and many other African countries in recent years.
The background is generally the “Look East” policy that several Kenyan presidents have pursued since the 2000s, but specifically also the construction of a new railroad line from the capital Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa (Standard Gauge Railway, SGR), which replaced an old rail link dating back to British colonial rule.
By 2019, Chinese companies had invested about US$1.55 billion in Kenya, according to the Kenyan Investment Authority (KenInvest); by comparison, U.S. investment was US$353 million. German investment was €77 million, according to the German Bundesbank. China supplied
just over one-fifth of all Kenyan imports, with bilateral trade hovering around five billion U.S. dollars in 2019, while Kenya’s trade with the U.S. was 900 million U.S. dollars, and its trade with Germany was 490 million euros, with a downward trend.
What proved difficult for Nairobi was that the construction of the SGR had resulted in large debts accruing to the People’s Republic and a large trade deficit.
In addition, there were accusations that mistakes had been made in the planning and construction of the railroad and that considerable sums had been diverted from Nairobi.
RUTO IN WASHINGTON
The United States, for its part, has chosen Kenya as one of its priority countries in its attempt to regain its lost influence on the African continent to push back China.
In doing so, they relied on the then-vice president and current president William Ruto, who had already received an invitation to Washington in early 2022 and negotiated with U.S. government officials there, even before Kenya’s presidential election in August 2022.
Ruto also expressed relief because he should have expected to be arrested in the U.S. capital only a few years earlier.
After more than 1,200 people had died and more than half a million had been forced to flee during unrest in Kenya following the presidential election in late 2007, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague had charged Ruto, among others, with organizing attacks on supporters of political rivals.
The Court dropped the case in 2016 explicitly for lack of evidence. It complained of witness intimidation as well as political interference in the proceedings.
After his visit to Washington, Ruto expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the talks and hope for prosperous cooperation.
(Protests in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi)
ON THE ROAD IN THE WEST
Indeed, after his razor-thin election victory, which remains controversial today, Ruto has intensified cooperation with the United States and other Western countries.
For example, he has visited the U.S. twice since taking office and toured the U.K., Germany, France, Belgium, and South Korea. He has not yet been to China.
Observers wanted to have registered as early as the end of 2022 that he had met with U.S. government representatives about twenty times, but only once with the Chinese ambassador.
Washington is making efforts to induce U.S. corporations to invest in Kenya. In late March, for example, Ruto’s government signed a contract with the U.S. company Moderna, which will invest half a billion U.S. dollars in an mRNA vaccine factory in Kenya.
According to U.S. figures, the United States increased its imports from Kenya to about US$890 million last year, making it the largest buyer of Kenyan products.
Kenya is also one of only a handful of states beyond the Western world that have agreed to participate in the Ramstein-format weapons conferences for Ukraine.
While this move is merely symbolic, Nairobi promised concrete support to Ukraine’s ambassador in early April.
SCHOLZ IN NAIROBI
Germany is also participating in efforts to reassert Western influence in Kenya to push back China there.
Ruto visited Berlin at the end of March, where he negotiated with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and business representatives.
According to his own statements, he was particularly interested in German technologies for the promotion of renewable energies; as recently as mid-March, Kenya concluded “a contract worth 45 million euros for the use of geothermal energy,” he reported in the presence of Scholz.
Tomorrow, Friday, Ruto will receive Scholz in Nairobi – just two days after a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
Renewable energies will also be on the agenda there. In addition, Scholz wants to support work on the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) that the EU is currently negotiating with Kenya.
It is intended to promote the country’s trade with the Union.
The EU’s EPAs with African states are highly controversial because they further open their markets too – often subsidized – EU products, threatening African economies.
Notorious cases include German dumped chicken exports that ruined poultry production in West African countries.
It is unclear how far Ruto intends to push the rapprochement with the West. A common strategy is cooperating with as many powers as possible to get the best deals on all sides.
Kenya’s close economic cooperation with China has increased the West’s urge to rebuild its influence.
Nairobi can try to take advantage of this.
Cooperation with both China and the West would align with the attitude of the Kenyan people, 65 percent of whom view China’s influence favorably and 72 percent of the U.S.’s, according to the latest Afrobarometer.
To be sure, it is conceivable that Ruto wants to turn the country into a close partisan of Washington in Africa.
(Kenya signed a deal with Saudi Arabia and UAE to buy oil with Kenyan shillings instead of US dollars. Earlier, the President of Kenya had told the citizens to get rid of US dollars if they had them.)
That the West is betting so heavily on Ruto in Kenya is admittedly not without its risks. Ruto’s extremely narrow election victory in August 2022 is still doubted by many today.
According to the official results, opposition protests around the defeated candidate Raila Odinga have continued for months, and observers warn of growing unrest.
Ruto also enjoys a dubious reputation, at least among some outside Kenya.
The most recent U.S. leak included statements from a conversation – intercepted by U.S. services – between UN Secretary-General António Guterres and his deputy, Amina Mohammed, in which Mohammed said she considered Ruto “ruthless” and did not trust him.
The fact is that Ruto sought this year’s chairmanship of the African Union (AU) for Kenya but had to halt the plan in December.
He apparently did not have enough support. The AU chair now rests with Comoros and its President Azali Assoumani, whom Chancellor Scholz met yesterday in Addis Ababa for talks.
Comoros maintains good relations with China; its President Xi Jinping promised Assoumani in December 2022 that he would support a stronger role for the island nation in international politics.
Assoumani, in turn, had advocated at the UN General Assembly in September 2022 “that China be allowed to restore its sovereignty over the island of Taiwan.”
This post was published first here.