Authors: Joseph Ndungu & Wang Li
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]lthough China highly spoke of its first African built railway from Tanzania to Zambia during the Cold War heydays, it is a rare occasion for China to link a railroad to a grand design, such as “the Belt & Road Initiative” proposed by President Xi Jin- ping in 2013.
Recently, after the completion of the railroad from Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya, to its key port city Mombasa, a three-part documentary produced by Xinhua News Agency in a title of “My Railway, My Story” made its debut on Kenyan television on 29th and 30th May respectively and on Chinese international television New China TV. The major public state broadcaster in Kenya, the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation also showed the two parts “Bridges” and “Stations” documentary which revolve around the 79 bridges and many stations along the 480-km long railroad with stories of people who were dedicated to its construction during prime time slots. Kenyan observers lauded the initial two part documentary which aired and showcased spectacular Chinese workmanship in the construction of Standard Gauge Railway. For sure, the legacy of the railway line would live on, as the SGR is set to transform the country’s socio-economic bearing for many years to come. However, the question that comes into focus in the many minds of many and the subject of this article is why did China invested 3billion US$ into the huge East African rail-network and how does the world perceived the railroad in East Africa within the backdrop of Chinese-initiated “Belt and Road” strategy?
Politically, 2017 marks a seminal year for the implementation of the outcomes acceded to at the Johannesburg Sino-Africa summit held in 2016, for China its plans to promote her comprehensive ties with Africa en bloc to proximate a strategic partnership are on course. Due to this, the primary purposes of the railroad from Mombasa to Nairobi marked the attainment of consensus with African countries in view of further advancing long-term cooperation between China and Africa. Though, the first Chinese-built railroad in Africa was the Tanzania—Zambia Railway Authority (TAZARA) which was completed as a turn-key project between 1970 and 1975, and the project was financed through an interest-free loan of RMB 988 million (equivalent to US$ 500 million) from China then. Actually, it was Premier Zhou En- lai’s Safari during 1963-1964 that laid down the key tenets of China’s aid programs to Africa. Due to China’s decades-long development programs, the majority of newly- independent African states not only extended recognition to Beijing as the legitimate government of China, but also demonstrated unwavering endorsement of Beijing’s ascension as a permanent occupant of a seat in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since then, with its burgeoning power, China has become proactive and more ambitious in attempts to expand Chinese engineered infrastructure in Africa with the feature projects of building railroads and high-speed highways.
Accordingly, the railroad from Nairobi to Mombasa and the subsequent transformation of African-Chinese cooperation are not only essential but also inevitable. Yet, unlike Western foreign-aid policies, which generally prioritize political issues and social values, Chinese external aid have been primarily driven to the economic issues. On one hand, this is consistent with China’s adherence to non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, since China and its African friends have worked closely with the enhancement based on terms of “mutual trust, win-win and cooperation”, as reiterated by the Chinese government. On the other hand, Kenyan officials are looking forward to a future of unprecedented transformation upon the launch of the Nairobi–Mombasa railroad. As stated, the newly–built railroad line not only revolutionized the transport sector of the country, but more important in expanding to stimulate investments in advanced manufacturing in Kenya and the region involved. It is widely hold that this modern railway has already boosted Kenya’s capacity, prestige and attractiveness to investors. Upholding the sentiments, Munene Mungai, a senior assistant director for infrastructure in Kenyan government, hailed the launch of SGR project for setting a precedent for other Africa countries aspiring to achieve middle-income status. ‘’Now Kenya is to enter a critical milestone in its history since the first modern railroad has been in operations’’. As Mungai told Xinhua news during a recent interview, “This is a new dispensation in our transport sector and Kenya will experience rapid transformation as the SGR is operational from the first day of June.” As an economically strong state in East Africa, Kenya is banking on the SGR to ease congestion at the port of Mombasa and reduce cost of transporting bulk cargo and passengers to the hinterlands and the neighboring states.
Doubtless, they are asymmetrical in views of the territorial sizes and economic capacity, but the Chinese government regards as advantageous, African states’ potential assumption of non-replaceable participants in the “Belt & Road initiative”. For this consideration, China and Africa have provided as joint statement declaring the establishment and promotion of bilateral relations based on a “comprehensive and win-win strategic partnership”. Among many other strategic measures and bold reform initiatives discussed at the multilevel talks between the two sides, China evidently expects that the railroad from Nairobi to Mombasa would be able to involve certain, if not all, African states into the new silk road economic zones and the 21st century maritime silk road, linking China to Africa through the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Eventually that would link both China and Africa to many other ports on at least three continents. In so doing, the great potential of sub-global if not global interaction would be achieved.
In a long-run, the vision of the project, encompassing its land and maritime aspects, is a remarkable one to the community of participating states. Even at the concept stage, Kenya, especially on the coast region, greeted the collaboration with China with excitement, looking to seize the gargantuan opportunities offered by the “Belt and Road Initiative”. As the project of the century, the “BRI” is expected to open up vast opportunities for Kenya and Africa as well. Now, with the completion of the first phase of the Standard Gauge Railway funded by China and Kenya, Africa is well positioned to reap from benefits that will be realized. To that ends, local government officials, scholars and trade lobby groups are optimistic that cooperation based on the win-win principle will open new frontiers of progress in Africa’s various fields, and the development of further trade linking the Kenyan port of Mombasa with those in Europe, Middle East and China. As a part of this vision, China has been the main guarantor in the construction of mega infrastructure projects in East Africa including the standard gauge railway linking Mombasa in Kenya and Kampala in Uganda. Likewise, China is behind the development of Lamu Port and various projects on the Lamu Southern Sudan–Ethiopian transport corridor (LAPSSET). When fully completed, these infrastructure projects will position Kenya as a regional economic powerhouse. As a result, Kenyan policy makers continue to support the concept of a 21st Chinese Maritime Silk Road and have realigned it with the country’s long term socioeconomic blueprint.
With the construction of the second Chinese trans-African railway and China’s 21st Maritime Silk Road, Kenya seeks to position herself as the gateway to east and central Africa while at the same time positioning itself as a point of exit for all products destined to Asia and Europe through port of Mombasa. Given this, China on her part as a rising power with the second largest economy in the world takes more responsibilities in the world affairs. It is true that potentially the transformation of Africa by high-speed transport and communications that will lift large parts of the continent out of under development, as China sees the matter. But, building up the transnational rail lines, though, demands the suppression of security threats that could disrupt trade flows and even mutual trust. It is widely held that “BRI” stems from China’s confidence in its rapidly-growing economic strengths while it also requires making long-term political stability possible. As African states have shown the strong and sincere desire to draw on Chinese expertise and financing to alleviate critical infrastructure bottlenecks, China as usual sizes up African states as strategic partners. True to this China’s policy-making is careful, conservative and consensus-driven, for its overriding concern is its economic growth which has been seen as the fundamental issue to the security of the country and the legitimacy of the ruling party.
For China the pace of transformation of Africa has been remarkable. Even though China’s short-term intension remains economic and diplomatic, it seems inevitable that China’s basic interests will eventually lead it to far greater involvement in the continent. Though diverse in both economics and politics, Africa remains sided with China on international issues, and this quasi-alliance strictly delimits the scope of Sino-African collaboration and the opportunity to assist in the formation of Chinese conceptions and strategy in the world politics for decades to come. It is unmistakable that Chinese leaders are well-aware of this advantage.
Russia wants to bolster economic ties with Lesotho
In southern Russian city Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesego Makgothi, held wide-ranging diplomatic talks mid-February to understand deeply how to continue to build upon relations in numerous areas especially economic cooperation.
Makgothi, who has been Minister since 2017, made his first official trip to Moscow.
According to the official media release, Lavrov and Makgothi exchanged views on important global and regional issues, including Russia’s participation in international efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Africa and some ways to ensure sustainable socioeconomic development of the continent.
They noted a desire to expand these relations in all areas, beginning with the political dialogue and then cooperation within international organizations, as well as in trade and economic, cultural and humanitarian areas.
During the discussion, both noted geological prospecting, mining and the energy industry as promising areas. The economy is based on agriculture, livestock, manufacturing and mining. Water and diamonds are its significant natural resources.
Both ministers also focused on cooperation in education exchanges. Russia has expanded the quota by five times for students from Lesotho. This will make it possible to meet the interests of Lesotho and to train specialists in healthcare, meteorology and mining starting next academic year, 2019/20.
There was also the possibility of sending law enforcement officers to study in advanced training courses at the educational institutions under the Russian Interior Ministry.
Lavrov informed that an inter-parliamentary Russian-African conference has been scheduled to take place later this year, and Russia would host a general meeting of the African Export-Import Bank’s shareholders.
Lavrov and Makgothi believed that this would make it possible to considerably raise the level of cooperation and to chart specific ways of further enriching Russia’s relations with Africa. He invited Makgothi to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for June.
In general, Lavrov and Makgothi advocated for greater cooperation between Russia and the African countries in all areas, primarily within the context of a proposal put forward by President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, at the BRICS summit in July 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lesotho’s geographic location, the southernmost landlocked country in the world and is entirely surrounded by South Africa, makes it extremely vulnerable to political and economic developments in South Africa.
Relations between the two countries were established soon after Lesotho gained independence in 1966. Lesotho, with about 2.5 million population, is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
‘Endemic’ sexual violence surging in South Sudan
A surge in sexual violence in South Sudan’s Unity state targeting victims as young as eight years old, has prompted a call from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, for urgent Government measures to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.
Despite the signing of a peace deal between belligerents last September, UN investigators found that at least 175 women and girls have been raped or suffered other sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018.
The actual level of violence is likely to be considerably higher, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva on Friday.
“Obviously (it is) not the whole picture, but they found 175, women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways,” he said. “And 49 of those girls who were raped, were children.”
Nonetheless, it warns that such incidents are “endemic” in northern Unity state, on the border with Sudan, creating a sense among communities that it is normal to be a victim of sexual violence.
Victim’s testimony recalls recurring attacks
Citing the testimony of one victim, Mr. Colville explained that many women are raped while fetching firewood, food or water – often more than once – as they lack any protection.
“She said, ‘If we go by the main road we are raped, if we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three separate occasions.”
The surge in conflict-related sexual violence is attributed to many factors including the breakdown in the rule of law, the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement and food insecurity, after years of civil war.
Large numbers of armed young men, a ‘toxic mix’
But one of the main reasons is the large number of fighters in the area, who have yet to be reintegrated into the national army, according to the peace deal.
Most of the attacks are reported to have been carried out by youth militia groups and elements of the pro-Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, SPLA-IO (TD), as well as South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF).
In a few cases, attacks were perpetrated by members of the group affiliated with reinstated Vice President and peace deal participant, Riek Machar, Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM), the UN report says.
“Particularly in this area, there are essentially three main groups who…are involved in these rapes, including the National Government force,” said Mr. Colville. “And a lot of these young men who are heavily armed, are just waiting around…This is a very toxic mix, and there are also youth militia which some of these official groups ally with and you don’t know exactly who they are; they’ve been heavily involved as well.”
Rule of law ‘just not applied’
A key challenge is tackling the prevailing impunity throughout Unity state, which is linked to the volatility of the situation across the country, OHCHR maintains.
“There’s been very little accountability in South Sudan for what is chronic, endemic problem of sexual violence against women and girls,” Mr. Colville said. “Virtually complete impunity over the years, as a result, very little disincentive for these men not to do what they’re doing. The rule of law has just not been applied.”
Mobile courts provide glimmer of hope for victims
Among the practical measures taken to a bid to help vulnerable communities in Unity state, UNMISS has cleared roadsides to prevent attackers from hiding from potential victims.
A mobile court system is also operational in towns, including Bentiu, which has had “some success” in bringing perpetrators to trial, OHCHR’s Mr. Colville said, noting nonetheless that “this is just a drop in the ocean”.
“There are thousands and thousands of perpetrators, there are officers involved, there are commanders who’ve got command responsibility who instead of being investigated and brought to book…have been promoted, and are still in charge of groups operating in this area who are still raping women,” he concluded.
Italy making its way back to Africa
The countries of the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia) have recently been the focus of attention of Italian diplomacy, with the need to find political partners in Africa to resolve the migrant crisis, the signing of a long-awaited peace deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018, China’s rapidly expanding influence in neighboring Djibouti amid the French and US military presence there making the region a strategically important hub.
Rome would like to see an end to Ethiopia’s “landlocked imprisonment” on the Red Sea coast of Eritrea and Djibouti, restore Italy’ presence in the region, based on its colonial past, and ensure Italian companies’ participation in the construction of a strategically important transport infrastructure in the region where they could be entrusted with looking at the possibility of building a railway connecting the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa with the Eritrean port of Massawa.
The share of Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans in the migration flows from Africa to the European Union via Chad, Sudan and Libya has been traditionally high. Italy, which currently ranks third after China and the United Arab Emirates in terms of investment in Africa, wants to help reduce migration by investing in the Horn of Africa countries’ economy and transport infrastructure to improve the economic situation in the region and bring locally produced goods to foreign markets.
With 90 percent of Ethiopian exports going to Djibouti, a country with a population not exceeding 900,000, this helps check the number of Ethiopians heading to the EU, since the country depends on Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia both in terms of infrastructure and also from the standpoint of ensuring political stability in these countries.
While still remaining a poor country, Ethiopia keeps growing fast economically, raking in an impressive yearly growth of 10.3 percent between 2007 and 2017, compared to the regional average of just 5.4 percent. According to experts at the Washington-based Center for Global Development, Ethiopia, with its fast-growing population and relatively cheap labor, will soon emerge as an “African China” in terms of production volumes.
Addis Ababa is also active diplomatically, promoting closer ties with Kenya and Sudan. Italy, for its part, is staking on Ethiopia as an economic and political springboard for expanding its foothold in the Horn of Africa and extrapolating this presence into the Arabian Peninsula via the Red Sea and towards the Indian Ocean.
It is apparently with this goal in mind that, while traditionally maintaining a partnership with Ethiopia and having access to the Indian Ocean, Rome seeks a more dynamic relationship also with Kenya. Italian donor NGOs are currently working in Kenya, and Italian exports to this East African country now exceed €182 million. According to Italy’s Foreign Development Assistance Program (la Cooperazione allo Sviluppo Esteri), Somalia enjoys a priority position here with €270 million worth of Italian grants expected to come in the next 20 years.
Chad and Niger, which border on Libya, are a logical continuation of the Sudan – Eritrea – Ethiopia – Djibouti – Somalia – Kenya geopolitical chain being built by Rome. This explains why Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited Ndjamena and Niamey in January after stopovers in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Chad and Niger play a key role in balancing the international security system in the Sahel region, where Italian troops serve as part of a multinational force deployed there. Since the collapse of the Libyan state, Niger and Chad have been viewed by Rome as Europe’s southern border. Rome credits the 80 percent drop in migrant flows from these two countries to Libya to its cooperation with Chadian and Nigerian partners.
Meanwhile, the broad outlines of a rivalry between European powers, above all Italy and France, for control over strategically important African regions and their resources are already visible.
France fears that Italy’s diplomatic successes in Africa could eventually give Rome political and/or economic control over a vast region stretching from Algeria to Kenya, which in turn could politically separate French-speaking North Africa from Central Africa.
Algeria, Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, which have been a traditional zone of French influence, have not been overlooked by Rome either with an Italian embassy expected to open in Burkina Faso shortly.
Rome’s expanding foothold in Kenya and Somalia is geographically taking it to Madagascar on the east coast of Africa, which is a place where France has its own interests too.
The present cool in Franco-Italian relations, stemming from the two countries’ conflicting views on the migrant problem and the ways to solve it, as well as the degree of political and legal sovereignty EU member states not sharing the views of Brussels, Paris and Berlin on matters pertaining to foreign and domestic economic policy, gives us a reason to expect the competition between Italy and France in Africa to heat up.
First published in our partner International Affairs
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