From Cold War to bosom friends; how Kenya became China’s ally allies

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 19, 2013. AFP
Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (right) and Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) inspect Chinese honour guards during a welcoming ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 19, 2013. AFP 

When it comes to building and sustaining diplomatic relations, Kenya and China’s engagement over the past 50 years can only be described as a complete metamorphosis.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, infighting among the Kenyan elite pushed the relations to a low point which an economist Prof Michael Chege said were headed for ‘cold storage’.

This was the peak of Cold War era and Kenya, under the late President Jomo Kenyatta was leaning more towards the West but some government officials led by his Vice President the late Jaramogi Odinga had their hearts in the East.

The ideological civil war led to the freezing of a number of projects such as a textile mill that Kenya had negotiated with China in the early years of its independence.

However, former President Mwai Kibaki started warming to the Chinese with his successor Uhuru Kenyatta following suit, not only determined to bury that ugly past but also to realign East Africa’s largest economy to the world’s second largest economy.


It is a complete paradox of history that President Uhuru Kenyatta, a son of the founding president who vehemently opposed to the Eastern model of development should want to align Kenya more with the China.


Mr Kenyatta, who is facing charges of crimes against humanity at the Hague-based International Criminal Court, during the electioneering period, signalled that his administration would lean more towards the East for diplomatic and financial relations.

The Chinese delegation— led by Zhang Baowen, vice chairman of the standing committee of National People’s Congress— was conspicuous at Mr Kenyatta’s inauguration as president in April 2013 making the very first statement in the new administration’s diplomatic trajectory.

The West’s representation at the event was conspicuous with few number of delegates and their relegations to the back seats.

Today, Kenya hosts one of the biggest Chinese diplomatic missions in Africa that boast of one of the largest numbers of employees on the continent (outside South Africa).
Equally telling of the deepening commercial relations is the China Trade Centre in Nairobi that is touted as the biggest in East and Central Africa.

While parliamentary records show that Kenya’s second president, Daniel arap Moi was one of the voices most critical of China in Kenya’s parliament in the 1960s, things would drastically change when he took over power in 1978.

Mr Moi visited China in 1980 and came back full of praise for the oriental nation having met no less than the Chinese leader credited with China’s socio-economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping.

Three years later, premier Zhao Ziyang reciprocated with a call on Mr Moi opening up a flurry of diplomatic exchanges. Mr Moi would visit again in 1988 and 1994.

The most outstanding project to come out of Mr Moi’s first visit was the Sh930 million (about $52 million) interest-free loan that went into the construction of Moi International Sports Centre, Kasarani, the venue for the 1987 All Africa games. The facility has recently been refurbished through Chinese financing.

The list of major infrastructure constructed with Chinese financing in Kenya includes the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital and a number of roads in Western Kenya. Egerton University also benefited through the supply of technical equipment.

Unknown to many followers of the Kenya-China relations, Kenya has not been a pure recipient of Chinese assistance but has also offered ‘technical aid’ to the dragon empire in the form of training.

A number of China’s tourism industry officials have trained at Kenya’s premier hospitality services training institution— the Utalii College and a number of agriculture experts spent time studying the country’s tea sector.

When he visited Africa in 1996, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin included Kenya in his itinerary, the first ever visit to Africa by a Chinese president, in an event that eventually led to the establishment of the all-important Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

Mr Kibaki took the relationship a rung higher when he travelled to China in 2003 with 11 trade and economic delegations, signalling Kenya’s turn to the East economic assistance that had stalled under the Moi presidency.

Mr Kibaki and former Chinese president Hu Jintao signed the most comprehensive multi-million shilling agreements ranging from infrastructure and energy, air services, tourism, machinery, media and ICT.


President Hu’s visit to Kenya in a tour that included Nigeria, the US, Saudi Arabia and Morocco went to demonstrate the premium his government had placed on Nairobi.

Probably most notable of Chinese assistance to Kenya in the 2000s has been the expansion of ICT infrastructure — optic fibre cables and rural telecommunications— principally undertaken by ZTE Corporation and Huawei Technologies.

During the 2006 Sino-African summit, Mr Kibaki once more negotiated for a loan that was used for construction of Nairobi roads —some of which (bypasses) are in the final phases of completion.

The face-lift on the roads, last seen in the 1950s, effectively pinned Mr Kibaki’s legacy on infrastructure. Under Mr Kibaki, the volume of trade between China and Kenya grew at an annual rate of more than 30 per cent.

Cultural ties have also deepened allowing Kenya to host the first Confucius Institute on the African continent at the University of Nairobi in December 2005.

In 2006, when Mr Hu made an official visit to Kenya, the Confucius Institute at the University of Nairobi was one of his ports of call. He also made an excursion to the world famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve and as of 2013, China was in pole position to becoming Kenya’s leading source of tourists.

China has recently designated Kenya as an approved tourist destination and this has had the effect of increasing the number of Chinese visiting Kenya.

In addition to the University of Nairobi Confucius Centre, Kenya is the only African country that hosts two more Confucius Institutes—one at Kenyatta University also in Nairobi since 2008 and another at Egerton University that focuses on agricultural research and teaching in partnership with Nanjing Agricultural University.

This is the university that conferred an honorary doctoral degree on former Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka in the presence of his host and then vice president, Xi Jinping in mid-2012.

A number of Chinese state media have also added to Nairobi’s profile by establishing African headquarters in the Kenyan capital. The list includes Xinhua News Agency (1986), China Radio International (2006), China Central Television Africa (2011) and China Daily Africa Edition (2012).

China was one of the capitals that Mr Musyoka visited during his shuttle diplomacy meant to save the ICC indictees from being tried at the Hague-based court.

Since then, Kenya has relied on China’s United Nations Security Council (UNSC) veto power for support on matters relating to the ICC process. Kenya’s former ambassador to China Julius Sunkuli was explicit on the International Criminal Court matters.

“Our role as an embassy (was) to implement the decisions of our government. We sought audience with our Chinese colleagues well aware that they would be sympathetic to our course. However, I think the forces ranged against Kenya were just too strong even for China’s UNSC position to help out,” he said.

China has also stood by Kenya over recent attempts to relocate the Nairobi-based United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

Founding president, Mzee Kenyatta donated the wooded grounds on which the UNEP and the UN Habitat are headquartered in 1972.

The writer is a fellow of the China Africa Reporting Project at the University of Witwatersrand’s Department of Journalism.