Of course there is nothing new about Chinese investment and involvement in Africa, or its supposed underlying ‘strategy to win African hearts and minds’. If American media commentators have just woken up to it, then one may ask if they have been sleeping during its emergence in the last two to three decades! Could it be that their unspoken concern is that somehow the Chinese are stealing a march on them, and the west generally, in this African dimension of global soft power politics? Well tough luck, because for far too long Africa has been a gigantic playground for concerted European imperial penetration, rule, settlement and much more, with the Americans weighing in when it suited them, as in relation to the slave trade over some four centuries. Things only began to change in the middle of the 20th century with the onset of decolonisation, but with post-colonial versions of earlier forms of exploitation, though this new dawn was soon overshadowed by the cold war and Africa got sucked into it willy-nilly. Then with the end of a bipolar world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new scenario began to take shape across the continent as another scramble began for its resources, this time however with a degree of some reciprocity and negotiation for a more equitable outcome.
Fast forward to the present then: whether new or old, China of course is not the only player in the field. Other countries too are pouring in capital, setting up development projects, making trade deals, and giving aid in all kinds of forms, in return for a share in the continent’s resources. In a nutshell, while the west’s influence and participation in the new face of Africa is diminishing, that of the newcomers is on the rise. That is an inevitable mark of a changing world. China itself of course has undergone a radical transformation, from hard-core communism under Mao to a successful market driven mixed economy that it has become in the last four decades, albeit still as a developing nation. While in the old days, it was Red China that the west feared when it made inroads into its special preserve, such as with the building of the TanZam railway, now it is facing the prospect of being outsmarted and overtaken by a new set of players, of whom China is the most advanced.
To revert to the LA Times article, the particular quote in its headline about China conquering Kenya came from one David Mwangi, a very satisfied customer of StarTimes (ST), ‘a privately owned, Beijing-based media and telecommunications firm’, which in December 2016 had embarked on a pilot programme in Kajiado, as part of a wider scheme ‘to bring digital television to rural Kenyans’, giving ‘free StarTimes set up boxes and subscriptions to 120 households’ there. According to the report, as a digital infrastructure provider, ST has been engaged in transforming Africa`s broadcast landscape from analogue to digital television since 2002, operating in some 30 countries on the continent. It came to Kenya in 2012 and has since captured a huge slice of the market, with a mix of Kenyan and Chinese channels. Another happy customer, Francis Gitonga, echoed Mwangi’s sentiments. ‘I didn't know about China before,’ he said. ‘I can say it's good. They have changed this country in a big way, very fast.’ There was undoubtedly a touch of rhetoric in their view of China, but did what they said distort the basic picture?
The article covered familiar ground – tracing Chinese investment in the new Mombasa-Nairobi railway line and other projects, and their perceived and anticipated benefits, but also discontent among the locals about the long term debt implications and ideological underpinning of all this activity. But while Kenyans have thus been exposed to Chinese technology and economic success, they have remained largely untouched by Chinese cultural influences. For example, even the Chinese content in ST’s programmes beamed into Kenya is dubbed in English! The ‘hearts and minds’ argument may thus be a simplistic gloss on the real quid pro quo for China’s largesse in development aid for Kenya (and elsewhere in Africa) which seems to be more material than sentimental. The paper carries this significant quote from Linus Kaikai, chairman of the Kenya Editors Guild:
‘Kenyans have been separating and placing — if I can put it this way — a Chinese wall between infrastructure and culture,’ he said. ‘Kenyans don’t see [China] as a model in the space of democratic or political processes. But they see it as a very, very good model when it comes to economic growth.’
What this means is that there is little danger that Kenya will look to China for political inspiration, or as anything other than a model for rapid economic development. After all, it is no exaggeration to say that the Kenyans’ world view is largely derived from or rooted in their long colonial experience and a western orientation (not an oxymoron) in terms of education, linguistic appropriation and conceptual thought. These influences cannot be easily overridden by newfound relationships within a relatively short time.
There is little evidence also, in the immediate context of the Kenyan election, that there was any interference in it by the Chinese or, for that matter, the Americans – at least I have not heard or read about any such suggestion. Contrast that with the ongoing and obsessive preoccupation of the Americans on their own home front with alleged Russian interference in their 2016 presidential election. That brings me full circle to a historical past, rich in the irony of the Americans complaining about foreign interference in their democratic process, for their hands are hardly clean in that respect!
Let’s start with Iran, then called Persia. In 1953, its democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown by a coup engineered by the CIA. Then Chile: in 1973, another democratically elected government, this one of President Salvador Allende, was toppled by a military coup, again with American help! I was reminded of the first on a visit to Tehran in January 1971 when my tour guide spoke of the bitterness that event still evoked in the country – and similarly in Chile, on my two visits there in recent years, while walking past the Presidential palace where Allende was killed during the coup.
And again it is no secret that the Americans were involved in the assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s first elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in January 1961, an event that drew protests in London among overseas students of which I was one.
These are just a few cases that have been well documented. There are others, in South and Central America, the Middle East and Asia, and other parts of Africa. So to put it crudely, as the saying goes, what goes around comes around. That said, the modern reality is that the world has become so interconnected, in so many respects, that anything like a change of government, or the prospect of power changing hands, in one country is nowadays likely to have some kind of impact in another country, more so if they are neighbours or linked through migration, ethnicity, commerce, history or continuing connections. That is geopolitics, but it is also true of human and interstate relationships. Winning hearts and minds has a role to play in that, because ultimately it is a game of self-interest and it cuts both ways! Nothing very profound, you might say – well, that is how it looks from afar. How else can one make sense of the, or any, election result?