“The good news? U.S. President Barack Obama is making his second trip to Africa, the continent of his father’s birth. The ummm… ‘other’ news? He’s not coming to Kenya. What’s that? Yes, other news. Not bad news thanks, we’re Kenyans. We don’t really care whether he comes here or not (sniff). We don’t need the West. We have other trading partners… like China. And have you already forgotten what we did to Botswana? Leave us alone with our Uhurus and our Rutos, Kenyans know what’s best for Kenya…”
The paragraph above summarizes Kenyans’ reaction to the news that Air Force One will not be touching down at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport during President Obama’s upcoming trip to Africa. The President’s trip is scheduled for June 26th 2013 to July 3rd 2013 and will take in Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. Undoubtedly, Obama’s avoidance of his father’s land is a snub – the second such snub if we count his trip to Ghana in 2009. What seems to rankle most is that Obama felt it wise to accord our neighbours to the South, Tanzania, a State visit. Why would he do this? If we dig a little deeper, we can start to understand (in particular) why Tanzania.
It may surprise most Kenyans to know that foreign direct investment inflows (FDI inflows) to Tanzania and Uganda have exceeded FDIs coming in to Kenya for most of the last decade. The table below shows FDI inflows to the three countries from 2001-2010 (figures in USD):
This table is a sobering read. It shows that Tanzania and Uganda have both attracted about 4 times the foreign investment that Kenya did during the 2000s. In other words, because of Tanzania’s natural gas, Uganda’s oil, and both nations’ relative stability, for every 1 million dollars foreign investors have invested in Kenya, the same investors have invested another 8 million dollars in Uganda and Tanzania, shared roughly equally. Although the fact that Kenya has now discovered oil deposits may change the broad outlook of this table over the course of the current decade, there is still cause for concern about these figures. And if we do have oil, shouldn’t that be enough to make the US/China fall over themselves to visit us?
The second point is this: remember the Chinese we said we’d trade with instead of the West? Well, China’s (new) President Xi recently went on a state visit that took in Russia, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), and South Africa. Oh, and Tanzania. Yes, China’s (new) President Xi also visited Tanzania recently. While it is true that socialist Tanzania has a long history of ties with China, it is still instructive that President Xi paid Dar-es-Salaam a visit; President Obama actually appears to be playing catch-up to the Chinese in this regard.
Thirdly, those selfsame Chinese recently pledged to help build a port at Bagamoyo, northwest of Dar, that’ll make Mombasa look like a small puddle. This week’s article in the East African on the matter states that the Bagamoyo port is set to cost USD 11 billion (nearly one trillion shillings). In tandem with this, Tanzania is revamping her rail network as well. If we are not careful, we ourselves will be importing and exporting via Tanzania before long.
The nation of Kenya has lost crown after crown economically speaking. We were on a par with Singapore and South Korea at independence. We’ve let them go. Fifty years later, our last remaining crown is “East Africa’s largest economy”. What are we doing to retain this status? Not much, it would seem. Here we are playing tribal games and thumbing our noses at the world by electing questionable “watu wetu“, and yet it is merely a matter of time before we lose our final claim to fame: that of “economic capital of East Africa”. Already Rwandan importers are saying that it takes them 3 days to import via Dar es Salaam, and 7 days to import via Mombasa. In all likelihood, our kids may study Economics knowing East Africa’s largest economy to be Tanzania.
President Obama’s snub should be waking us up to these realities. But much as we did during the Botswana incident, and instead of asking ourselves why the Presidents of the world’s two largest economies are queueing up to visit our southern neighbours (a nation we have grown up labelling an “economic backwater”), we’re busy saying “Kwani Obama ni nani? (Who is Obama anyway?)”. I urge us to realize that this is bigger than Uhuru. This is bigger than Ruto. This is bigger than Kogelo and Mama Sarah and serkal. It’s not a joke folks, this is about our land, our nation, and where we all are headed.
God bless Kenya.