WASHINGTON: Kenya’s president said Wednesday that African nations should be free to cooperate with both the United States and China, warning that foreign powers were exacerbating the continent’s divisions.
President Uhuru Kenyatta was speaking on a visit to Washington, where speculation has built that the United States will seek to negotiate a free-trade agreement with Kenya, in what would be a first with an African nation.
On the eve of his talks with President Donald Trump, Kenyatta said he was “very concerned” about a return to the Cold War era when Africans had to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union.
“Western countries, and their counterparts in Asia and the Middle East, are returned to competition over Africa, in some cases weaponising divisions, pursuing proxy actions and behaving like Africa is for the taking.
“Well, I want to tell you it is not,” Kenyatta said at the Atlantic Council think tank.
China has been funding billions of dollars worth of infrastructure around the world, including a modern new rail-line between Nairobi and the port of Mombasa, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States has been increasingly vocal in urging developing nations to be wary, warning that they can be saddled with unpayable debts to Beijing for projects built largely with Chinese labor.
Asked about the criticism of China, Kenyatta said: “We don’t want to be forced to choose. We want to work with everybody, and we believe that there is opportunity for everybody.
“There are those areas indeed where America stands out and has much, much better strengths in certain fields. On the other hand, you have the Chinese who build hospitals in seven days.”
First African trade pact?
The White House said Trump would speak to Kenyatta about “new opportunities to advance cooperation and trade.”
Scott Eisner of the US Chamber of Commerce said the private sector was increasingly paying attention to rumors that the US and Kenya would start free-trade negotiations.
“There’s some big numbers you could hit over the next six to 10 years should a big deal come together,” Eisner, head of the Chamber’s US-Africa Business Center, told reporters on a conference call.
He pointed to Kenya’s medical device industry, tech sector and textiles as areas for trade and said the country had proven to be a “good market entry point” to East Africa.
The United States has free-trade agreements with 20 countries but none are in Africa.
Bob Lighthizer, the US trade representative, said in 2018 that the Trump administration would choose one African country for a “model” free-trade agreement.
Driving the momentum for a trade deal, a US law that sets import preferences for African goods is set to expire in 2025.
Passed by Congress in 2000, the African Growth and Opportunity Act lets sub-Saharan nations export an array of products to the United States tariff-free if they meet conditions such as maintaining a market-based economy, protecting labor rights and combating corruption.
Trump is not known for his interest in Africa. But the State Department announced Wednesday that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would pay his first visit to Africa from February 15 to 19, stopping in Senegal, Angola and Ethiopia.