How the ICC Gift-Wrapped Kenya and Delivered it to Beijing’s Doorstep

In my more Machiavellian moments, I almost think China’s Foreign Ministry must have paid off somebody in The Hague to get Uhuru Kenyatta indicted for crimes against humanity.

I don’t mean that literally, of course. Yet if, like me, you subscribe to the Cui Bono School of International Relations, you almost have to wonder. Certainly, no one has gained more from the now President Kenyatta’s indictment than China.

Here’s what that ODI report has to say about this:

In August 2013, President Kenyatta made state visits to Russia and China. The government profiled the visits as the Jubilee government’s initiative to grow new markets for Kenya’s exports of coffee, tea and fresh produce. The visit to China was to seek new trade agreements and investment opportunities. Kenyatta’s opening to the East came almost a month after the US President had shunned Kenya, the birthplace of his father, and visited the neighbouring Tanzania instead. Earlier in May 2013, Kenyatta had visited London for a Somalia conference, but failed to get what the media called ‘a photo opportunity’ with the British prime minister. These two events were generally seen as humiliating and those around the president quickly crafted a new agenda to intensify contacts with the East.

The ‘Look East’ initiative that then happened was a continuation of what the Kibaki and the coalition government had already established. The visit to China in particular resulted in the government signing a number of agreements worth about 5 billion USD in investments in several sectors, including the building of a new standard-gauge railway line from Mombasa to Malaba on the border with Uganda as well as energy projects. While the ‘Look East’ initiative has a political motive, as a response to how the West has treated the president because of the cases at the ICC, it is also aimed at generating economic opportunities

So, assuming Uhuru’s indictment wasn’t plotted in Beijing, you can only conclude that it has backfired catastrophically. In the first place, because by painting him as a victim of foreign meddling, the indictment actually helped the guy get elected, meaning it closed the door on any prospect that he will one day pay for whatever he did in 2007/8 with jail time. What the indictment did achieve, on the other hand, is to basically put a bow on East Africa’s biggest economy and deliver it to China’s front door.

Let’s just review: back in December 2007, the wheels came off of Kenya’s elite pact. A close, contested election led to a spasm of communal violence, as leaders in the Limited Access Order scrambled to make a grab for as much of the rent-stream as possible. Hundreds of people were killed in violence that shocked liberal internationalist sensibilities, but that was broadly seen as “part of the way things work here” by many Kenyans.

To be clear, that in no way means Kenyans liked or approved of the post-election violence – who would? It’s just to say that recourse to violence when your ethnic group’s access to power is threatened is not perceived as illegitimate in East Africa to anything like the extent it is in the West. So not-a-big-deal was this in Kenya that Kenyatta actually got elected, fair and square, with over 6 million votes, even after his ICC indictment had been published. Some would argue that the indictment was a net positive to him in the campaign, allowing him to take on the mantle of Kenyan nationalism in opposition to a neoimperialist West.

Few people in the West seem to appreciate quite how wrong indicting a guy whose name literally means “Kenya’s Freedom”, and also happened to be the literal son of the father of the nation, would rub proud, patriotic Kenyans.

Worse, almost no one seems to have thought through the way the indictment, and Kenyatta’s subsequent ostracism from polite international society would play directly into the hands China’s ambitious African strategy.

That last observation calls for a tiny detour: A lot of Westerners seem to be under a basic misunderstanding about China’s strategy in Africa. People think China’s studious avoidance of human rights and good governance talk there is driven by values: China doesn’t care about these things back home, so it doesn’t press them abroad. Surely there’s something to that, but perhaps less than people figure. The major reason China never talks about these things is strategic: silence on governance and human rights is the one thing they can offer that the West can’t.

In some ways, China is playing a relatively weak hand as it tries to extend its reach into Africa. It doesn’t have as much capital as the west, or as much engineering expertise or technological sophistication, its people don’t speak English or French as well, it doesn’t have anything like Western military capacities, and it doesn’t have the historical ties Western countries have with their former colonies. China feels hobbled by all of this. Like it needs an Ace-in-the-Hole to overcome all these disadvantages.

Simply shutting up about governance or human rights is that Ace in the Hole. From Beijing’s point of view, it’s all up side. For one thing, it’s free. Not just financially, because it also doesn’t demand any additional scarce technical or human or administrative resources. It’s very literally costless. And it allows China to score killer deals in Africa that the Western powers unwittingly rule themselves out of through their lecturing.

The Chinese really can’t believe their luck. And the West seems oblivious to this whole dynamic. It still has the model in its head where capital equals Western Capital and where lecturing the continent has no consequences.

But why on earth would Uhuru Kenyatta put himself through the indignity of sitting there as he’s called a war criminal, for doing things his constituents don’t think are outside the rules of the game, by a bunch of effete European peaceniks, when he can just look east and get all the investment and technical cooperation he needs from people who intuitively grasp the rules of the game in a Limited Access Order in ways western partners just can’t?

Seriously, why would he?

He wouldn’t. And he doesn’t.

[This post, again, mostly pilfers its ideas from that ODI’s report on East Africa’s Political Economy. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re really missing out: it’s a treasure trove of hard-to-come-by clarity on the real power dynamics in the region.]

3 thoughts on “How the ICC Gift-Wrapped Kenya and Delivered it to Beijing’s Doorstep”

  1. Well, even if the shutting up strategy about governance and human rights is relatively costless, China still pays quite a bit for its entire quest for influence in Africa and elsewhere. There are many cases of documented *exaggerated* over-bidding for acquisitions abroad just to secure potential resources. This is something that the west cannot grasp either, mainly because China operates mostly through state-owned enterprises with a business as much as a national interest strategy at heart.

  2. I note the comment -somewhere on this site- that North, LAO’s don’t get taken on board much by the development world; although ODI would seem an exception; probably also anticorruption blogs like
    Elite pacts have tended to the description of the AU as the commission. This being the description sometimes given to the ruling families of the Mafia. But if you take it at a lower level and duplicate it throughout all levels of some societies then you will find that rent seeking is part of the whole game. Even the village committee for “whatever” is prone to rent seeking for members of the committee.
    Development just don’t know what to do about it.

  3. “Worse, almost no one seems to have thought through the way the indictment, and Kenyatta’s subsequent ostracism from polite international society would play directly into the hands China’s ambitious African strategy.”

    Just because they supported the indictment does not mean Western countries didn’t think about its consequences. My guess is that it was debated a lot internally in foreign ministries. It’s just that, for good reasons, those debates are never held in public.

    Also Kenya may well find there are limits to its Look East policy. ZANU-PF leaders tried the same approach in Zimbabwe and were eventually left disappointed. The Chinese are shrewd businessmen (well, at least some of them are!); if they know you have little alternative but to trade with them they’ll tighten the terms of the deal.

    Overall it is clear that in the short term at least the indictment served more to stimulate anti-Western sentiments in Kenyan politics than it did to deliver justice in Kenya. But in evaluating the decision to indict, I think that is too narrow a lens. The ICC is a global institution that is in the business of establishing new norms. This is problematic for the court because while the immediate shortcomings are generally evident for all to see, it’ll take a while to really see the full benefit. Do not underestimate the very considerable power of precedent!

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