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China’s foreign minister in Kenya amid unease over rising debt

China’s foreign minister began a visit to Kenya on Wednesday, received at the Moi International Airport Mombasa by Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Raychelle Omamo.

Wang Yi will pay a courtesy call on President Uhuru Kenyatta and participate in a Ministerial Roundtable Meeting with Cabinet Secretaries. “The visit gives the two countries an opportunity to enhance bilateral relations by signing Agreements and further cement the Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation Partnership,” said Ambassador Omamo.

Kenya is the second of three stops on Wang’s African tour, after Eritrea and before Comoros. Eritrea joined Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a long-term plan to fund and build infrastructure linking China to the rest of the world, in November.

The Kenyan government has relied on Chinese loans to develop infrastructure but faces criticism over the resulting debt burden.

China loans to Kenya SGR TV47
President Uhuru Kenyatta flags off the Madaraka Express train that links port city of Mombasa to Kenya’s capital Nairobi. The railway was constructed through loans from China. PHOTO/FILE

China has lent African countries billions of dollars as part of the BRI, including $5 billion for the construction of a modern railway from the Kenyan port of Mombasa. 

That model has been evolving, partly under the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout and partly because of a backlash from African critics against rising debt levels. China is shifting from hard infrastructure loans to efforts to boost trade. 

Critics of Kenya’s Debt to China

Among critics of Kenya’s reliance on Chinese funding is Kimani Ichung’wa, a ruling party lawmaker who has become a critic of the government.

“It is a debt trap and they should start renegotiating,” he told Reuters before Wang’s visit, complaining that the interest rates on Chinese loans was exorbitant.

Kimani Ichung'wa on China loans to Kenya. TV47
Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichung’wa: “It is a debt trap and they should start renegotiating.” PHOTO/FILE

Ichung’wa is backing William Ruto, estranged deputy to President Uhuru Kenyatta, to take over the presidency in an election scheduled for August, and said that if Ruto won his government would seek new terms for the loan repayments.

Eritrea, one of the poorest and most isolated nations in the world, is involved in the conflict in Tigray in northern Ethiopia that has destabilised the Horn of Africa region.

Restoring Stability

Lina Benabdallah, an expert on China-Africa relations at Wake Forest University in the United States, said Wang’s visit signalled Beijing’s interest in restoring stability to the Horn and in improving access to Africa via Eritrea’s Red Sea ports.

Peter Kagwanja, a professor of international relations at the University of Nairobi, said the Comoros stop was also likely linked to trade interests. The Indian Ocean archipelago sits on the rim of a maritime trade route known in China as the Maritime Silk Road and considered strategically important by Beijing, he said.

-Additional reporting by Reuters


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