My aunt recently sent me a strongly worded message containing a litany of complaints about a video she had watched, which was circulating on social media. The video captured a Chinese man whipping a Kenyan employee. The full context of the event may be debatable, but what is not is contestable are the emotions the events captured in that video stirred amongst ordinary Kenyans.
Watching the clip, one was taken back to the era when people were treated as objects, dehumanised and disproportionately punished for small misdemeanours. The struggle for independence, civil rights in other parts of the world and for democratisation were geared towards erasing these backward practices and guaranteeing every human being basic dignity and decency.
Current human rights instruments globally confirm that all human beings are born free and equal and are entitled to basic liberties. The Constitution includes a robust Bill of Rights whose essence is to ensure that everyone in Kenya is entitled to fundamental rights and freedoms. Three of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are the right to have one’s dignity respected and protected; freedom of security that includes the right not to be subjected to violence; and the right not to be held in slavery or forced to perform forced labour.
My aunt’s question was the justification for any Kenyan to be treated in the manner depicted by the video, however, poor they are. She went ahead to question the logic of condoning what she described as pervasive conduct and wondered whether this was not too high a price to pay for Chinese support to Kenya.
In the end she demanded to know from me what those of us who interact with people in public offices with responsibility could do to put a stop such conduct that was unacceptable in modern Kenya.
As I reflected about these events, I recalled events close to 15 years ago, working at a German political foundation based here in Kenya. Part of the work included discussions both about political economy of Kenya, international trade relations and democratisation in the country and within the continent. China was then just starting to make forays into the continent. As a result, there were heightened discussions on the potential impact of China on Africa and Kenya.
While preparing for one such meeting, I commented to my bosses, who were German, that my mother in the village did not care whether she was exploited by Germans or Chinese. What she cared about was that both groups should respect her rights and not treat her as an object of their competition. Consequently, I argued for expansion of the debate to the influence of both the West and East on the Kenyan economy. However, several years later I am not sure whether there was a need to be more critical of the influx of China onto the continent.
To be fair, China is the currently amongst the top donors to Kenya. Its support is also on the face of it accompanied by very little conditionalities. This makes it an attractive partner for the country. However, the support has been accompanied by several negative consequences which inevitably lead to a need to interrogate the logic of the support.
First the terms of most of their loans are normally lopsided resulting in the country being in huge debts. Secondly, there are concerns about corruption associated with the process of procuring those loans. The relationship with China has led to an influx of Chinese into the country. On the face of it, this should not be a big point of concern. However, one sees that they end up performing jobs that do not require expatriates.
When any Kenyan is mistreated, the law should and must take its course. However, when the events are associated with a particular race, then it opens the country to discussions that are both emotional and dangerous for the country. While there are good Chinese nationals in the country, it is unacceptable for any of national from China to treat Kenyans as a second-rate citizens in their country.