Kenya last year bought Sh7.9 billion worth of arms from China, strengthening the East African nation’s engagement with the Asian giant outside civil works and equipment imports.
Military hardware that Nairobi ordered from Beijing includes tanks, armoured vehicles and spare parts, according to a report by a European arms trade monitoring agency, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri).
The purchases signal the Kenya government’s growing appetite for Chinese arms in addition to infrastructure projects and import of machinery, electronics and household goods.
The arms deals have placed China in the league of Kenya’s largest sources of arms which includes Spain, Germany, Jordan, Russia and South Africa.
President Uhuru Kenyatta two weeks ago unveiled a fleet of about 30 new armoured personnel carriers (APC) to be used by the police in fresh efforts to combat rising terrorism threats, but there was no information on their origin.
The Kenyan government does not make public its military purchases, and only Parliament is mandated to scrutinise classified expenditure of the security organs.
This is the first time the police have been armed with the carriers that were previously the preserve of the army.
The APCs can withstand explosion from land mines and improvised explosive devices (IED) that have in the past rocked the capital.
Chinese APCs are far much cheaper than those made in the United States, which cost about $1.2 million (Sh122 million) per unit, according to a Nairobi-based security expert Andrew Franklin.
“The carriers are as efficient as how they are going to be put to use. It would make a lot of sense to deploy them along the Kenyan borders for patrols,” said Mr Franklin, adding that most incidents wouldn’t justify use of APCs by police, not unless Kenya wants to go the Chinese way.
Mr Kenyatta said during the unveiling of the APCs that the carriers would reduce police’s dependence on the military and ensure swift response to attacks inside the country’s borders.
The armoured vehicles, often used to transport troops and weapons to warzones, will move around on tyres as opposed to a conveyor-belt track as is the case with tanks, enabling rapid response to major scenes of crime.
The government has been under pressure to boost security following a string of violent attacks by Somalia-based Al Shabaab militants who are demanding the removal of Kenyan troops from the war-torn nation.
In 2014, Kenya’s military bought heavy arms from Serbia, a Russian ally in Europe, at a cost of Sh2.6 billion, according to Sipri.
The weapons included 18 self-propelled guns (B-52 NORA 155mm) and 15 armoured personnel carriers.
With the Chinese consignment, Kenyan officials seem to be keen to expand the country’s arms stockpile. The Chinese arms imports have, however, only served to tilt bilateral trade between Beijing and Nairobi in favour of the Asian nation.
Nairobi imported Sh295 billion worth of goods from Beijing in the first 11 months of last year but the Asian country bought goods valued less than Sh5 billion from Kenya, according to official data.
Besides arms, Kenya also imported phones, railway materials, construction equipment, lamps, fabrics, medical kits and cables from China.
The Asian nation has firmed its presence in Kenyan commercial space, with intense economic diplomacy that gained momentum with the election of Mwai Kibaki as President in 2002.
Nairobi has since emerged as a hothouse of Chinese foreign direct investments, opening up the Kenyan economy to a range of consumer and industrial goods from the second largest economy while enjoying technical and financial assistance.
Dozens of Chinese firms involved in mega Kenyan construction projects including the on-going building of the Sh327 billion standard gauge railway line between the coastal city of Mombasa and the capital Nairobi.
With last year’s Chinese arms purchase, Kenya is only continuing a trend that has been gathering pace in the past 10 years.
Kenyan military has in the period made a series of purchases from Beijing, including Chinese light attack helicopters (Harbin Z-9), armoured personnel carriers and transport aircraft, Harbin Y-12 — used by the Kenya Defence Forces to deploy troops.
A spectre of past crashes has, however, haunted the Harbin Y-12 planes, raising questions on their safety.
Mr Franklin says a missing component in the latest arms procurement is failure to buy armoured recovery vehicles that are used to recover or repair damaged APCs during battles.
He said that Kenya four years ago failed to grab an opportunity to be an arms manufacturing warehouse that would cut costs in its military modernisation.
In 2012, UK-based Osprea Logistics sought permission to set up a Sh3.5 billion plant in Mombasa to assemble armoured cars and military trucks but the plan ran into regulatory headwinds and never took off.
The firm, whose regional offices are in South Africa, had wanted to assemble the units under Mamba brand — which is commonly used by African Union peacekeepers, private contractors in Iraq and several African countries.
Kenya’s security organs have recently raced to step up their military firepower to combat emerging threats like terrorism, arms smuggling and drugs trafficking.
The Sipri report says that Kenya acquired Sh19.8 billion worth of new stock of arms between 2010 and 2014, compared to Sh919.4 million between 2005 and 2009 — highlighting the big quest to modernise the country’s military hardware.
Nairobi has, however, continued to trail neighbouring Tanzania and Uganda, which have been on an arms spending spree in terms of the value of their consignments, the report says.
Kenya formally sent more than 4,000 soldiers to Somalia in October 2011 in response to incessant attacks by Al-Shabaab militants within its territory — a decision that has recently seen the militants retaliate with deadly gun and bomb attacks.
Government records show that at Sh295 billion, Chinese imports took up a fifth of Kenya’s import bill in the first 11 months of last year.
This saw China cement its position as the largest source market for Kenya’s imports in the year to November, followed by India and the US.
India supplied Sh228 billion worth of goods to Kenya in the same period while imports from the US stood at Sh117 billion. Kenya’s import bill stagnated at Sh1.4 trillion in the first 11 months of 2015 while exports grew by Sh34 billion to Sh530 billion.
This narrowed the country’s current account deficit – the difference between the value of exports and imports – to Sh870 billion last year from Sh904 billion a year earlier.