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The Beijing connection

A guard at the Mombasa terminus of the Chinese-financed SGR railway. Saturday is one of the busiest times on the line, as Kenyans travel from Nairobi to the coast to visit family.
Credit: Luis Tato/Bloomberg/Getty

One recent Saturday morning I took my grandmother to the Nairobi terminus of the Chinese-built and financed Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a gleaming edifice of glass and steel rising from the dust on Old Mombasa Road. Saturday morning is one of the busiest times at the station, as Nairobi residents travel down to the coast for the weekend, for business, pleasure or to see their families.

We were already late, having underestimated the traffic. This meant that I had to gently rush my 80-year-old grandmother through the robust security checks, which involved laying down one’s bags in a straight row and standing behind a yellow line, as the security guards had their dogs sniff the bags one after the other.

Luckily my grandmother got on the train in the nick of time, but only because the ticket guard let her to the front of the queue by virtue of her age and my boisterous appeals.

I walked back to the car feeling flustered, smarting from the intimidating presence of the guards, especially their dogs. It felt unnecessary: a pompous flexing of power, as passengers were lined up like criminal suspects.

Wrong side of the tracks

But my frustration was perhaps, at a deeper level, an incarnation of my feelings about the SGR itself: that it was never actually needed and would not be value for money. The 472-kilometre railway was completed two years ago, at the cost of $3.2 billion, considered Kenya’s largest single infrastructure project since independence, amounting to 5.4 per cent of GDP.

The project’s ostensible benefits were that it had a much higher capacity than the old ‘Lunatic Line’ that had served the East African interior for over a century. Another key selling point was that freight would be cheaper and faster to transport, in turn saving the Kenyan road network the wear and tear caused by large haulage trucks.

However, these promised benefits were ‘always doubtful’, according to the economist and public intellectual David Ndii, who has argued that ‘the railway will require both state coercion and a massive public subsidy to stay in business’.1

Some of the coercive efforts are already underway: in August 2019, the government announced that all cargo destined for Nairobi had to be loaded directly onto the SGR. Importers baulked and the order has since been suspended, underscoring how much Kenyan authorities must be scratching their heads as they try to make the railway viable.

But this isn’t the only concern. The SGR construction was implicated in complaints about racism against African workers, including segregated workspaces and highly qualified Africans being relegated to menial jobs, as journalist Paul Wafula documented in The Standard. Wafula, who went undercover at the railway’s headquarters, said he did not believe the allegations at first.

‘I couldn’t imagine that this could be happening right here in Nairobi and yet no-one was talking about it,’ He tells me. ‘But then I went there and saw it for myself – Chinese workers being exempt from security checks but Kenyan workers having to be searched; Kenyan locomotive drivers who spent their time picking up garbage and cleaning the premises.’

‘The worst that I saw – which I left out of the story that was published – was at the segregated shower area, where the cargo workers clean up before going home. There, Chinese workers came in and cleaned their dogs on the Kenyan side, which was a huge insult to the Kenyan workers.’

Elsewhere in Africa, other Chinese investments are also running into headwinds.

In Ghana, protesters have opposed a $10-billion deal that would allow Chinese companies to mine bauxite in a forest reserve, the home of a number of rare flora and fauna, as well as being the source of three major rivers that serve five million people.

In Zambia, there have been anti-Chinese riots as the country edges towards a sovereign debt crisis – 28 per cent of which is owned by China.

On top of this, there are regular accusations that Chinese designs in Africa are neo-colonial: using its economic might to burden states with debt, all to secure new markets for Chinese capital.

Red scares

China hasn’t always had a bad reputation in Africa and railways are a core element of this story. In the 1970s, China funded and built the TAZARA railway, linking copper-rich, landlocked Zambia with the port of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania.

After the US, UK and Canada refused to fund it, China provided a $222-million loan ($3 billion in today’s currency), and 16,000 Chinese workers. Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere vigorously defended this large Cold War-era infrastructure project undertaken by a communist country in Africa. He argued that African countries, as independent states, had a right to determine who to associate with, and what the terms of engagement should be.

As the New Internationalist reported in 1973, Joe Lusinde, Tanzania’s transport minister at the time rejected the claim that China was ‘negatively influencing’ Africa using infrastructure projects as an insult to the intelligence of Africans: ‘[The British] sometimes think of us as being immature young children who take everything they are told without thinking.’ The TAZARA railway ended up being, as Nyerere envisioned, a testament to Global South co-operation. It is important to note that at the time, China was poorer, per capita, than both Tanzania and Zambia.

Much has changed since then. Over the past four decades, China has lifted 850 million people out of poverty and the percentage of those in extreme poverty has fallen from 88 to 1.8 per cent – an astonishing feat by any standards.

But some things remain the same, such as anxieties about a ‘red scare’ which characterize a lot of Western reporting on the modern-day relationship. Since the late 1990s, China has become Africa’s biggest investment partner. When we consider China’s engagement with Africa not just in mega-infrastructure projects like the SGR, but also trade, investment and aid, there is no other country with such depth and breadth of engagement in Africa.

In fact, twice as many African presidents attended China’s Africa summit in 2018 than the UN General Assembly in New York the same year, while Beijing chose Djibouti as its first-ever overseas military base. This is likely to be part of China’s attempt to back its economic interests in the region with military might.

China Inc?

A 2017 report by McKinsey, one of the most comprehensive to date, found that Chinese investment operates across many sectors. There are more than 10,000 Chinese-owned firms in Africa, and an estimated 90 per cent of them are privately owned, ‘calling into question the notion of a monolithic, state-co-ordinated investment drive by China Inc’. These companies are nimble, ambitious, and willing to take on a level of risk that would discourage many Western companies.

Chinese firms bring to African markets new technologies, or familiar technologies at a much lower price. Take Chinese smartphone manufacturer Tecno. ‘What sets Tecno apart is that it specifically and exclusively makes phones for the African market,’ digital strategist Mark Kaigwa tells me. Tecno’s photo software is designed to capture darker skin tones better as well as having a louder speaker for a market where radios are hugely popular.

The phones have a longer-life battery, crucial in places that do not have regular access to electricity, and the company was the first to introduce an Amharic-language keyboard in Ethiopia: all for the price of less than $50. The contrast between Kenya’s SGR and Tecno could not be sharper, but it underscores that it is important to consider China’s engagement in Africa with nuance – it is not monolithic nor does it look the same everywhere. Criticizing one project does not mean opposing China in Africa in totality.

New futures

Even more important is for African governments, and African people, to centre themselves in these discourses, as Nyerere insisted. Africa should not be framed – nor should it see itself – as a passive arena where the intentions of others are projected. African governments need to define what they want from the China-Africa relationship and design a strategic plan to get there.

This should be a real partnership, not one that is driven by short-term political expediency on the African side and geopolitical gamesmanship on the other. ‘Right now, the power dynamic is very one-sided,’ journalist Paul Wafula tells me. ‘If you are borrowing money from a bank, they don’t come to direct your business, as long as you are paying the loan. But with Chinese infrastructure investment, they loan you the money but also do the feasibility study, procurement, civil works, operations and supervision. How is that a partnership?’

African governments must strengthen their capacity to negotiate deals that put their countries’ long-term welfare first, both that of the citizens and the environment. Ultimately, this must go hand in hand with broader reforms to make African governments more democratic, transparent and responsive to the needs of citizens, instead of deals being negotiated in secret and then their terms being announced to citizens as a fait accompli.

A recent novel published by Kenyan author Yvonne Owuor can help us reimagine the relationship between Africa and China for a new century. The Dragonfly Sea reframes the East African coast not as China’s arena in which to flex its muscle, but as a thriving, autonomous region that was in diplomatic relationships with China as far back as the 15th century.

The past, present and future all mingled as I waved goodbye to my grandmother – the oldest living member of my immediate family – on this brand new railway line.


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