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Kenya’s Roads Lead to China

How China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” strangles a country and undermines human dignity. Part II.
November 29th, 2022

By Jim Towey

Driving around Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, has the feel of a safari adventure.  During my trips through the city visiting various Missionaries of Charity homes, I saw a camel, giraffe, baboons, zebras, deer and antelope grazing side-by-side, goats, herds of cattle, roosters, and buffalo.  Occasionally traffic would be stopped by cows blocking roads, even highways.  On one occasion, several baboons batted around an empty water bottle, oblivious to the passing cars fifteen feet away.

I was intrigued by the “feast or famine” nature of Nairobi’s system of roads. It seemed you were either on a nice, modern, multi-lane highway, such as Outer Ring Road or the Southern Bypass, or you were having your spine adjusted on the secondary roads as your car navigated pock-marked pavements, speed bumps, and potholes the size of moon craters.  It rained every day I was there, and this led to muddy roads in much of the city, solidifying its reputation for horrific traffic.

China “Belt and Road” initiative

How did Nairobi have nice highways that help alleviate the chronic traffic problems of this metropolis?  China.  China’s multi-trillion dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” it inaugurated nearly a decade ago, coupled with its massive railway project there, now have Kenya mired in tens of billions of dollars in debt.  China holds two-thirds of Kenya’s external debt today.  Kenya now issues bonds to produce cash to service its debts.  Ever heard of the term “debt trap diplomacy”?  That’s the vise in China’s hand that is squeezing Kenya.  The more Kenya spends on debt service to China, the fewer Kenyan shillings it has to invest in other important commerce and domestic spending priorities.  And in a country so poor and undeveloped, the list for essential spending grows by the day as villagers move to the city in search of work – or food.  A century ago, there were 25,000 residents in Nairobi; today the metropolitan area of this sprawling city boasts a population of over 10 million.

Debt-trap diplomacy

Debt-trap diplomacy is how China leverages the cash it dangles before desperately poor countries in Africa, all to its economic advantage.  It is not hard to imagine that China wants Kenya’s natural resources and access to its markets. Think “extract and export.”  Such predatory lending by China in African countries solidifies its influence on their economies and leverages its assets, particularly its natural resources.  China is the world’s largest importer of oil, and over 25% of its oil imports comes from Africa.  All of China’s loan arrangements are clouded in secrecy.  It is hard to believe that China is not holding Kenya’s economic future and natural resources hostage while it abets the country’s infrastructure development, and the more urban Nairobi becomes, the more important a functioning highway and rail system is.  All of this is to say that I was quite conscious that I was taking advantage of the nice highways Kenya has built by way of Chinese loans.  No Kenyan I spoke with believes China’s motives are benevolent.  China, after all, must look out after its own interests when negotiating commercial matters.  That is understandable when dealing with large trading partners like the U.S. and the E.U., but when the country on the other side of the bargaining table is a developing country like Kenya, then such a power differential has moral consequences. 

One-two punch

Kenya’s economy is staggering from the one-two punch of the debt trap and how it managed Covid.  In the next Nairobi installment, I will write about the damage its Covid public health policies inflicted on the economy.  China can fairly be blamed for this problem, too, for by its negligence in its Wuhan laboratories, it unleashed a contagion upon the world that is as hard to manage as huge debt payments.


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