Kenyatta warns US-China rivalry puts Africa at risk
Kenya and other African countries risk being caught in the crossfire American-Chinese rivalrywarned Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, calling for international cooperation in the face of the coronavirus crisis.
African leaders, facing the continent’s worst economic collapse in a quarter century, have complained bitterly of what they see as a lack of international leadership in contrast to that which emerged after the 2008 global financial crisis. Commodity prices, tourism and remittances have crashed, dragging much of the continent – home to seven of the world’s 10 best-performing economies last year – into recession.
“All we’re saying is don’t fall back into isolationism,” Kenyatta said from Nairobi in an interview with the Financial Times hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “We need each other now more than ever.”
Mr Kenyatta added: “It is unfortunate that this crisis comes at a time when there are so many different global tensions, different trade wars going on,” he said. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
His call for unity came as the US and China engage in a war of words over influence in Africa and Washington and Beijing seek to deal with countries bilaterally rather than at the level. continental. The Trump administration has accused China of seeking to lock Africa into debt, while Beijing has portrayed itself as a development partner reluctant to interfere in the continent’s internal affairs.
Mr. Kenyatta said he was ready to start negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement with the United States as early as next month, angering other African governments who blame Nairobi for going it alone instead of negotiating under the 54-member African Continental Free Trade Area.
The United States has already unveiled its negotiating objectives for the deal, which could take two years to negotiate, citing its goal of ensuring “full market access” to Kenya’s agricultural sector and duty-free access for American clothes.
Mr. Kenyatta praised his country’s negotiating team, which officials said included representatives from the private sector. “Kenya . . . is fundamentally a pioneer, we are not just going to be a dumping ground for goods,” he said, refuting concerns that Kenya risked being outmaneuvered by Washington.
Mr Kenyatta also denied accusations that he was undermining the spirit of multilateralism by seeking to negotiate his own bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. Nairobi had made it “very clear” to Washington that it would not undermine Africa’s nascent free trade area, he said.
China has also sought to deal bilaterally with African countries, especially over debt relief. Mr Kenyatta said Beijing had been part of a G20 deal to suspend African debt payments until the end of the year, “but we say it still hasn’t gone far enough”, did he declare. As a member of the G20, we want this extended.
Debt deferral initiatives announced so far for Africa would only affect low-income countries rather than Kenya, which is categorized as a middle-income country.
At a China-Africa summit on Wednesday, which Kenyatta attended virtually, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the possibility of extending debt relief. “China will work with the global community to provide them with greater support, such as by further extending the debt suspension period,” he said.
However, African officials said Beijing had shown little appetite for debt cancellations and insisted talks would take place on a bilateral basis. China and Western lenders are reluctant to offer debt relief just to use their money to repay others, including private lenders.
The IMF said last month that Kenya was at high risk of debt distress after debt reached around 60% of output. Kenya insists it only wants to postpone rather than cancel payments.
Discussions on African unity have been further undermined by Djibouti’s fierce competition with Kenya for a temporary seat on the Security Council, even though Kenya is the official choice of the African Union. Kenya won the seat after the vote moved to a second round on Thursday.
On constitutional reform in his country, Kenyatta said he was uncertain whether new proposals aimed at overcoming lingering ethnic tensions, which are regularly heightened in elections, would create a hybrid system with a prime minister and a president. . Already in his second term, Mr. Kenyatta is constitutionally barred from running for president in elections scheduled for 2022, but he has not ruled out running for the post of prime minister if such a post were created.
Asked by the FT if he intended to ‘do a Putin’ – a reference to Vladimir Putin’s stint as Russian prime minister before returning as president – Mr. Kenyatta said: “I have no idea if there will be a prime minister in the constitution. ”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington