Kenyatta warns US-China rivalry puts Africa at risk

Kenya and other countries in Africa are in danger of being caught in the crossfire of US-China rivalry, Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, warned as he appealed for international co-operation in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

African leaders, faced with the continent’s worst economic collapse in a quarter of a century, have complained bitterly at what they see as a lack of international leadership in contrast with that shown after the global financial crisis of 2008. Commodity prices, tourism and remittances have collapsed, causing much of the continent — home to seven of the world’s top 10 performing economies last year — to move towards recession.

“All we are saying is let’s not be sucked back into isolationism,” Mr Kenyatta said from Nairobi in an interview with the Financial Times hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “We need each other today more than we ever did.”

Mr Kenyatta added: “It’s 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 appeal for unity came as the US and China engage in a war of words over influence in Africa and as both Washington and Beijing seek to deal with countries bilaterally rather than at continental level. The Trump administration has accused China of seeking to tie Africa up in debt, while Beijing has put itself forward as a development partner not prone to meddling in the continent’s internal affairs.

Mr Kenyatta said he was willing to begin negotiations on a bilateral trade deal with the US as soon as next month, angering other African governments that blame Nairobi for going it alone instead of negotiating as part of the 54-member African Continental Free Trade Agreement.

The US has already unveiled its negotiating objectives for the deal, which could take two years to negotiate, citing its goal to secure “comprehensive market access” to Kenya’s agricultural sector and duty-free access for US apparel.

Mr Kenyatta praised his country’s negotiating team, which officials said included representatives of the private sector. “Kenya . . . is basically a trailblazer, we’re not just going to be a dumping ground for goods,” he said, rebutting concerns Kenya risked being outmanoeuvred by Washington.

Mr Kenyatta also denied accusations that it was undermining the spirit of multilateralism by seeking to negotiate its own bilateral free trade agreement with the US. Nairobi had made it “very clear” to Washington it would not undermine Africa’s nascent free trade area, he said.

China has also sought to deal with African countries bilaterally, particularly over debt relief. Mr Kenyatta said Beijing had been part of a G20 agreement to suspend African debt payments until the end of the year, “but we are saying that that still hasn’t gone far enough”, he said. “We are appealing to China in the same way. As a member of the G20 we want this extended.”

Debt postponement initiatives touted for Africa so far would affect only low-income countries rather than Kenya, which is categorised as a middle-income nation.

At a China-Africa summit on Wednesday, which Mr Kenyatta attended virtually, Xi Jinping, China’s president, held out the possibility of extending debt relief. “China will work with the global community to give them greater support, by such means as further extending the period of debt suspension,” he said.

However, African officials said that Beijing had shown little appetite for debt write-offs and was insisting that discussions took place on a bilateral basis. China and western lenders are wary of offering debt relief only for their money to go to pay off the others, including private lenders.

The IMF said last month Kenya was at high risk of debt distress after debt had risen to about 60 per cent of output. Kenya insists it wants only to postpone rather than to write off payments.

Talk of African unity has been further undermined by Djibouti’s fierce competition with Kenya for a temporary security council seat even though Kenya is the African Union’s official choice. Kenya won the seat after the vote went to a second round on Thursday.

On constitutional reform at home, Mr Kenyatta said it was not certain whether new proposals to overcome perennial ethnic tensions, regularly heightened during elections, would create a hybrid system with a prime minister as well as a president. Already in his second term, Mr Kenyatta is forbidden by the constitution from running for the presidency in elections due in 2022, but he did not rule out seeking the premiership if such a position were created.

Asked by the FT if he intended to “do a Putin” — a reference to Vladimir Putin’s spell as Russian prime minister before returning as president — Mr Kenyatta said: “I have no clue whether there is going to be a premiership in the constitution.”

Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington