Forgetting The “Big Man Syndrome”

Forgetting The “Big Man Syndrome”
  • PublishedOctober 2, 2012

Just how did traditional Kenyan allies, the US and the EU lose the Kenyan plot and fail to see a new dispensation which is emerging in the East African country? Asks Wanjohi Kabukuru from Nairobi.

In six month’s time President Mwai Kibaki will be leaving the scene and as he saunters into retirement, he will be remembered for many things. One point stands out and even his harshest critics admit – his legacy as “the infrastructure president” is obvious for all to see. In his 10 years as  president Kibaki has transformed Kenya and the hallmarks denoting the various faces of transformation are all stamped: China, India, Japan, South Africa, Brazil and the Kenyans in the diaspora.

Kenya’s major cities, led by the capital Nairobi, the coastal vacation metropolis of Mombasa, Nakuru and Eldoret in the Rift Valley, and Kisumu the lakeside resort city, are all gleaming with new airports, roads infrastructure and expanded radii, complete with fast-growing middle-class real estate suburbs. Much of this infrastructural transformation has been built by the Chinese, Japanese, Indians and funds from the Kenyans in the diaspora.

There is no gainsaying that Kibaki’s leadership style totally differs to that of his predecessor, Kenya’s second president, Daniel Arap Moi, who steered Kenyan for 24 years, during which western diplomats enjoyed unfettered access to State House, Kenya’s seat of power. In Kibaki’s administration, this template no longer holds.

Solid institutions with checks and balances have replaced the narrative that Kenya suffered from “big man syndrome”, while preferential treatment to the East African Community (EAC) bloc and BRICS alliance symbolises the new Kenyan diplomatic and trade dispensation.

A close study of Kibaki’s two terms reveals three paradigms to Kenya’s foreign policy. The first one is his fixation with the East African Community (EAC) bloc comprising Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. The second is his pursuit of a larger Horn of Africa economic bloc through the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) encompassing Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. Kibaki’s final exemplar is his radical 2005 “Look East Policy.” His engagement with the EU and its allies is, to say the least, lukewarm.

While the actual events on the ground have revealed that the Far Eastern economic powerhouses have overtaken the much-frequented western allies, official communication to this effect has never been forthcoming. It is only recently that the gremlins of the cold shoulder given to the EU by the Kibaki administration began to emerge.

Kenya’s foreign minister, Sam Ongeri, told the Parliamentary Defence and Foreign Relations Committee that President Kibaki had rejected an invitation by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to visit the United Kingdom two years ago after scrutinising the invitation and deducing that it was “not appropriate to execute the visit”. This was “diplospeak” as Ongeri told the committee that the full reasons for Kibaki’s refusal to meet the British could not be revealed “in the full glare of cameras”.

Has Kenya ignored her traditional partners or did they just fail to read the signs of the changed times? In a rejoinder, which goes down in history as Kenya’s first ever elucidation of her foreign policy, State House Nairobi, through the Presidential Press Service (PPS) outlined Kibaki’s global outlook. “President Kibaki’s diplomatic policy has been guided by Kenya’s present view of changing geo-political dynamics. This entails an understanding of the West and East confluence on world affairs in an ever changing environment.”

The statement has now been inked as Kenya’s diplomatic mantra.

The EU’s envoys are widely rebuked for trying to deride Kenya’s “Look East Policy”, which has seen the country paying more attention to Far Eastern economic giants. “China and Japan have emerged as strategic development partners of Kenya, especially in the area of infrastructure development that has been a key pillar of the President’s agenda.” This was not just an empty statement borne out of populist rhetoric.

Empirical data from the Kenya Investment Authority (KIA) and the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) indicate that China, India, Japan, South Africa and South Korea were the top five sources of foreign direct investment in Kenya in the last five years, upstaging the UK, France, Germany and Netherlands. Add to this Ongeri’s sentiments and it is clear how Kenyan interests pan out.

The rider that “The results are there for everybody to see” was in reference to the $311.4m modernisation of the former four-lane 50.4km Thika Road into an eight-lane superhighway which has just been completed by three Chinese construction firms, namely China Wu Yi, Sino Hydro Corporation, and Shengli Construction.

Other visible Far Eastern interventions include the ultra-modern Lucy Kibaki Referral Hospital and the $981m construction of Africa’s largest geothermal power plant at Olkaria in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha, 100km from Nairobi, being shared between the Japanese firm Toyota Tsusho, Indian contractor KEC and Hyundai of Korea. These are just three of the major infrastructure projects, which cover airports, skyscrapers and upmarket real estate ventures, being undertaken by Far East conglomerates.

Further to this Toyota Tsusho has already placed its $5bn bid for the 1260km oil pipeline construction contract from Lamu Port in Kenya to Juba’s oil fields. This oil pipeline is part of the $24.7bn Lamu Port-Southern Sudan-Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) Corridor, a flagship project under the Kenya Vision 2030 programme, which is the key government development initiative aimed at transforming Kenya into an industrialised nation by the year 2030. LAPSSET has been dubbed as “the President’s pet project.” It incorporates a 32-berth modern port at Lamu, an oil refinery, a 1620km standard gauge railway line to Juba with a branch line to Ethiopia and a 1720km superhighway connecting to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Other components of LAPSSET include the upgrading to resort cities, together with construction of three international airports, at Lamu, Isiolo and Lokichogio, accompanied by associated infrastructure, notably piped water, and a fibre optic cable and electricity power supply. The PPS statement candidly confirms this.

“Kenya today stands as a frontrunner in efforts to link our neighbours through the Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia development corridor. This is not diplomatic finesse but actualities on the ground. President Kibaki has invited all development partners, be they Eastern of Western oriented, to be active participants in our transformative process.”

And while the major deals have all gone East, President Kibaki has also redrawn the Kenyan diplomatic roster. Kenyan diplomats in the neighbouring nations within the EAC, African Union (AU) and IGAD bloc are ranked higher than those in the once fancied EU capitals. The AU, IGAD and EAC are given preferential treatment owing to the volumes of trade Kenya has with these blocs.

“Kenya’s focus on its neighbourhood, that has seen [an] intensification on projects that will uplift the welfare of the citizens of the East African Community and the Horn of Africa must not be dismissed through inaccurate reports by the EU and other players,” the PPS states, confirming Kibaki’s fixation with the region.

This October marks exactly one year since the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) entered Somalia in pursuit of the Al-Qaeda linked Al Shabaab militia after a series of attacks on Kenyan soil. At the time the US, EU and Kenyan neighbours cast aspersions on the Kenyan military capabilities to wage war with the hardcore militia. Kenya however ignored this disparagement and sent its army across the borders. In explaining President Kibaki’s position regarding Somalia, the PPS statement is quite revealing:

“On the issue of Somalia, President Kibaki has stated that Kenya’s intervention is not based on pleasing any external powers but is a case of helping a neighbour in need. The Somalia issue was ignored by the international community as a hopeless case and for 20 years, the people of that country had given up on any hope of recreating their nation…As a country we look forward to the support of those who would like to see the one million citizens currently domiciled as refugees in Kenya safely return to their homeland.”

It is interesting to note that State House had to issue this “clarification”, which has been an open secret in Nairobi for EU diplomats to understand. Though the Brussels-headquartered EU mandarins are highly fancied, it is laughable that it took them too long to smell the Kenyan coffee.

Written By
New African

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