Saturday

18th Nov 2017

Interview

Building bridges in a 'resurgent' Africa

  • Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and Kenya is forecast to see economic growth of 6 percent in 2015. (Photo: Demosh)

Like many other witnesses of the economic transformation in Kenya, the EU’s man in Nairobi is enthusiastic about what he describes as the “resurgence of Africa”.

“Whenever you speak to people who are really involved in trade or the corporate world it is clear that there is a lot of money waiting to be invested here.”

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  • Bidding farewell to 'resurgent' Kenya. The EU's Lodewijk Briet with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, and Kenya is forecast to see economic growth of 6 percent in 2015. The gleaming new office and apartment blocks that are springing up across the Nairobi skyline and around the EU’s collection of offices in the city’s Upper Hill district are among the indications that serious money is being made and invested in the city.

The country has also discovered oil in the northern province of Turkana, and has new hopes of becoming an exporter of black gold.

Brussels' man

A Dutch lawyer-turne-diplomat, Lodewijk Briet is winding down on a four year stint as the EU’s ambassador to Kenya, having previously been Brussels’ man in South Africa.

“Kenya is the engine of its region, but it is a fragile region,” says Briet.

Featuring the EU’s humanitarian aid programme ECHO, its Somalian embassy, officers from missions mandated under the EU common security and defence policy, together with an office of the European Investment Bank, the EU’s presence in Nairobi is one of its largest anywhere in the world.

Brussels has long seen Kenya as a strategic partner and stable democracy in a volatile region, and an important hub for connections around the continent.

“We have been clear that we have a longstanding commitment to Kenya. And this is not just about an economic relationship,” says Briet.

But Kenya’s relationship with Europe was sorely tested during Briet’s term.

Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, both indicted in 2011 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for crimes against humanity, were elected President and Deputy President in early 2013. They were alleged to have had a role in the tribal violence that erupted following voting in the hotly disputed presidential election campaign in 2007-8.

The cases against Kenya’s leaders have gradually collapsed but have left plenty of bad blood.

In 2013, Kenya’s governing Jubilee coalition turned the indictments into a campaigning issue during the last general election, accusing the Hague-court - and western countries - of meddling in their internal affairs.

To Briet, 2012 and 2013 marked a low point in EU-Kenya relations. “There was a conscious effort by some to connect the ICC cases to the west and suggest we were engaged in neo-colonialism,” he says.

But from that low point there has been a gradual warming in relations such that the partnership is back on track.

Flowers to Europe

“Looking back, there was a lot of ice in the relationship,” says Briet. “What is often forgotten is that we were in favour of a local judicial mechanism back in 2009 - rather than go the ICC route - but the previous leadership in Kenya at the time wanted otherwise.”

The EU is also Kenya’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade reaching €4.3 billion in 2012.

But negotiations between Brussels and the East African Community (EAC) - composed of Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda - on an economic partnership agreement (EPA) for the region was deadlocked for years, creating another source of tension.

Two weeks after Kenya lost its duty-free and quota-free access to the trade bloc after the five-nation EAC failed to ratify an Economic Partnership Agreement from 2007, an agreement was signed on October and the country’s duty-free access was reinstated on Christmas Day.

The East Africa economic partnership agreement will be formally signed by July before final ratification by the European parliament and the five national parliaments of the region.

Chief among Kenya’s exports to Europe are flowers - Kenya supplies about a third of the cut flowers sold across the EU - a market which is worth just under €500 million per year in exports to Europe.

“You have to be modest and realistic about achievements,” says Briet of his time in Kenya, pointing to the need for the EU to reverse the perception that “we were speaking to Kenyans rather than with them”.

Soft loans

One way this is apparent is the way the EU’s development spending is directed. The bloc has moved away from only direct grants in favour of a greater use of ‘soft loans’ and grants which are then leveraged to attract private investors to stump up the rest of the cash to pay for projects.

Together with the World Bank and the Africa Development Bank, the EU is putting up the money to begin work on a $1 billion (€950 million) plan to overhaul Nairobi’s public transport network. The European Investment Bank also co-ordinates several billion euro of investments in a variety of infrastructure projects from its bureau, and provides support for Kenya’s growing financial sector.

“We have to become smarter in how we leverage our money,” says Briet, adding that “the financial backing from the Commission/EIB for the wind farm in Kenya’s Turkana province and a rapidly expanding geothermal energy project in the Rift Valley, reflects the greening of our development programme”.

That said, Briet describes Kenya as “a country of contradictions”, pointing to the fact that it is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, but is still held back by a toxic combination of politicised tribalism and systemic corruption.

Corruption is “a national illness for which there is no medicine yet,” he says.

The contradictions are clear.

No wagging fingers

Nairobi is enjoying a sustained boom in property prices yet crippling interest rates mean that mortgages are out of reach to all but the wealthiest Kenyans and ex-pats. The shiny new buildings are often surrounded by dusty and uneven roads. Kenya has a rapidly growing middle class, but not everyone is enjoying the fruits of the boom.

Despite strong economic growth, Kenya is ranked 136th out of 159 in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business’ survey.

Briet hopes that the new generation of young Kenyans - an ever increasing number of which are urbanized, university graduates - will leave behind the tribal-dominated politics that has been a constant feature of Kenyan governance since gaining independence in 1964, and which he describes as the main “fault line” in the country.

In the first 50 years of independence, three of Kenya’s four Presidents have been Kikuyu - Kenya’s largest tribe - while the slightly smaller Luo and Luhya tribes have tended to be shut out of power.

“South Africa’s fault line is its large, poorly educated and unemployed black majority. Kenya does not have that. But Kenya’s fault line has the ethnic division,” he tells this website. “Kenya’s healing must involve greater unity.”

In a parting letter published over the weekend, Briet commented that “amidst the shifting tectonic plates of international relations, there should be no doubt that the partnership between Africa and Europe is increasingly equal. Today, like never before, it demands a stronger ability to listen to and respect each other. No wagging fingers.”

It is wise advice. If the 21st century is, as so many predict, going to be Africa’s, then it makes sense for Europe to listen if it wants to be listened to.

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