Mombasa, Kenya: One of the first things that strike a resident of Kathmandu about the Kenyan capital are its colorful matatus, the equivalent of the jam-packed microbuses in the Nepali capital. Notwithstanding these zippy vehicles, the seafaring East African country of Kenya, with nearly five times the land area of Nepal and two times its population, seems to have little in common with the landlocked South Asian state. But dig a little deeper and a plethora of similarities become apparent.
For a student of geopolitics, there could be no better place than Kenya to study China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and the Middle Kingdom’s constant tug-of-war with the US, traditionally the biggest outside power in Africa. (Sounds familiar?) The Chinese consider the Nairobi-Mombasa Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) as among the crown jewels of President Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Completed in 2017 at the cost of $3.6 billion, making it independent Kenya’s most expensive project, the SGR is variously described as ‘the emblem of a fast-modernizing Kenya’ or a ‘white elephant’, depending on whom you ask. Cost-wise, the Exim Bank of China footed 90 percent of the bill (with a mix of commercial and concessional loans) while the Kenyan government contributed the remaining 10 percent.
According to the government of Uhuru Kenyatta, over three million passengers and 4.5 million tons of cargo have already travelled on the SGR, bringing in a revenue of some $55 million. The government expects both the passenger and cargo numbers to go up as the SGR line is expanded further, with the eventual goal of connecting the six East African Community (EAC) countries. But that is the long-term plan. Right now there is a raucous debate in Kenya about whether the next phase of the SGR project, connecting Nairobi with Malaba at the border with Uganda, and totaling another $1.5 billion, is worth it.
If the Chinese railway ever enters Nepal, we could face the same questions that the Kenyans confront today. The SGR contractor, China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), was accused of hiring Chinese nationals in all top posts while the middling jobs went to the Kenyans (the imbalance has been reduced of late). More recently, it was rumored that the CRBC would take over the Mombasa port as Kenya failed to repay its SGR debt (China insists “Kenya is in fact ahead of the payment schedule”). The opposition parties and a section of the press also accuse the Kenyatta government of not providing right information about the SGR, making it impossible to determine its financial health. As it is, Kenya’s trade imbalance with China is stark (with imports 33 times larger than exports), though not as bad as Nepal’s (100 times). As in Nepal, the Americans have been trying to convince Kenyans not to fall into China’s ‘debt trap’, and just as in Nepal, Kenyan officials say they know what is best for them.
Meanwhile, the railway seems to be doing just fine (daily tickets are often sold out). As the luxury train bearing the flags of Kenya and China pulls out of Nairobi and chugs through two national parks on the way to Mombasa, you think: surely, such big projects entail agonizing tradeoffs.