Makau Mutua makes a powerful statement in this Sunday's Letter from New York. Commenting on the Jubilee leadership's argument that Kenya need not cozy up to the United States or the European Union any longer because it has China and the East as the new suitors, Mr Mutua argues that "you can't swap one master for another and call that progress" (Why Obama has skipped Kenya in his Africa tour, Sunday Nation, 23/06/13.) Mr Mutua points out that the Jubilee stance is a little hypocritical when many of Kenya's elite still prefer sojourns and high-end shopping in the capitals of Western Europe and North America.
It is inarguable that Mwai Kibaki's Look East policy has paid off. The Thika superhighway is just one of a series of flagship projects that have benefitted immensely from China's investment in infrastructure in Kenya without necessarily making corresponding political demands on the Government of Kenya. The continuing construction of the Northern Corridor through Isiolo, Marsabit to Moyale and the border with southern Ethiopia is a vital trade route that will be pf great benefit to Kenya. So too will be the grand LAPSSET project. When complete, it will offer a new route to Kenya's coastline from both southern Ethiopia and Africa's youngest state, South Sudan.
However, the Look East policy takes place in the midst of one of the longest transitional phases in Kenya's politics. With the end of the twenty-four year rule of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi that was marked by great corruption and human rights abuses, the Kibaki Decade was supposed to right many of the wrongs that the peoples of Kenya had suffered under KANU. The transitional period, instead, has been marked with even greater corruption, human rights abuses and civil strife in a scale not seen since the protracted Shifta Wars under the Kenyatta regime in the late 1960s through the 1970s. The nadir of the Kibaki Decade was the violence after the disputed presidential election in 2007 that led to the creation of the fractious Grand Coalition Government between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. With the election f Uhuru Kenyatta to succeed Mwai Kibaki in 2013, it seems that the transitional phase will continue for at least the next five to ten years.
But it is the relationship between Kenya and the West that continues to suffer because of the protracted transition. Despite the apparent desire of the Government of Kenya to seek closer economic and political ties with China and the East, one gets the impression that the approval of the West is still vital to its economic and political survival. While the official view is that it is not a big deal that Barack Obama will overfly Kenya on his way from Senegal to Tanzania, unofficially, Kenyan policy makers are worried about the implications of this move. While Barack Obama has publicly stated that he supports Kenya's right to choose its political leadership, his decision to skip Kenya during his Africa tour is proof that elections have consequences. Rather than lead his captains of industry to Kenya to scout for investment opportunities in East Africa's most robust economy, he will lead them to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania. To add salt to injury, rather than meet with Kenyan officials during the trip, he plans to meet with Uhuru Kenyatta's rival, Raila Odinga, in South Africa. That Mr Odinga refused a roving ambassador's role must bite in the bargain.
Kenyans still refuse to accept that their "sovereignty" argument in the election of Uhuru Kenyatta is meaningless if the legitimacy of the election remains largely a Kenyan construct. China, for all the billions it will lend Kenya in infrastructure development, remains one of the least democratic nations in the world. Its pledge not to interfere in Kenya's internal affairs serves its interests. This author has stated before that China's interest in Kenya is a means to an end; China will continue to invest in infrastructure, especially the Northern Corridor, because it is eying the more promising reserves of oil, gas and minerals in the largely unexplored South Sudan and southern Ethiopia. China, not Kenya, will come out ahead in this relationship. When the relationship founders, as it must, Kenyans will attempt to re-establish closer political and economic ties with the West. The price will be high.