The Washington Post

Mombasa, Kenya:

REMADE BY FOREIGN POWERS

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The designs of foreign powers have molded African cities for centuries, especially along the continent’s coasts. From narrow-alleyed old towns to gleaming new container-shipping terminals, port cities like this one are layered with evidence of how budding empires, in the Arab world, Europe and now China, sought to remake them.

It was dusk in the plaza and histories were blending together in the dimming light. Dozens of men had gathered under the chinaberry trees to talk politics and chew khat, a mild stimulant beloved in the communitie­s that skirt the western Indian Ocean. The call to prayer emanated from a nearby mosque built by Omani tradesmen more than 450 years ago.

A crumbling fort built by the Portuguese, who wrested this port city from the Omanis in the 1600s, loomed behind the trees, which also enshrouded a monument to a British regimental commander killed in World War II.

An auto rickshaw raced by, briefly interlacin­g the Islamic recitation and the murmur of gossip with a nostalgic music choice: the 2012 Bollywood hit song “Hookah Bar.”

Like many port cities, Mombasa is infused with distant cultures. From its centuries-old core, its expansion has been spurred by sultanates, seafaring mercantili­sts and great world powers, which all saw economic opportunit­y in its protected inlets.

Each has left an indelible mark on the Kenyan city. In the past decade, the biggest ones have been made by Chinese government-backed loans.

Beijing’s burgeoning economic might has contribute­d to an infrastruc­ture boom across the continent, in cities such as Djibouti; Luanda, Angola; and Lubumbashi, Congo.

Chinese institutio­ns invested more than $200 billion in the transporta­tion and power sectors across Africa between 2000 and 2017, according to the Aiddata initiative at William & Mary, the Virginia college.

At least 46 ports and 34 airports in Africa received direct investment from China, according to Aiddata and a separate data set from the Center for Strategic and Internatio­nal Studies in Washington.

At least 13,000 miles of railroads, highways and bridges have been built or renovated with investment­s from two Chinese state-owned banks, according to a third data set, from Boston University’s China’s Overseas Developmen­t Finance Database.

China’s growing role in shaping African cities is driven by unfulfille­d local needs for trade and transport infrastruc­ture. But expansion also serves China’s need to export labor and goods, and its desire to gain diplomatic clout in dozens of nations.

The implicatio­ns for Africa’s urban future are highly visible and tangible — a stark difference from the subtler effects of aid money, which represents Western countries’ largest unilateral investment­s on the continent.

Since the colonial era ended in the 1960s, African countries have struggled to collect tax revenue, stem corruption and accumulate savings, driving reliance on grants, loans and aid. Simple yet vital infrastruc­ture, especially in transporta­tion, is lacking even in some of Africa’s biggest cities.

Chinese loans have enabled African cities to refurbish their infrastruc­ture, making transporta­tion easier and cheaper for people and goods.

China’s state-owned lending institutio­ns have put more money into African government­s over the past decade than all Western aid combined, and China has become the largest trading partner for most African countries. Many of the loan repayments are resource-backed, meaning the borrower commits future earnings on bauxite, oil or some other resource as collateral.

The shifting dynamics have been a source of concern in Western capitals, which have seen their cachet on the continent decline. And the changes have spawned warnings from those same capitals to African government­s that they are being tricked into debt traps that leave strategic resources and infrastruc­ture vulnerable to Chinese takeover.

That view has been increasing­ly discounted by scholars, in part because Chinese lenders have not requisitio­ned any major infrastruc­ture projects even as debts continue to mount. Chinese loans to Africa also have declined after a high in 2013, the year China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to link its markets with the rest of the world.

“There’s an interest particular­ly in Washington to portray Chinese actions in as malign a light as possible,” said W. Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister, who is now a fellow at the Center for Global Developmen­t in Washington. “The U.S. struggles to outline a positive vision of what the world should be. The easiest way they’ve found is through comparison to enemies: ‘We are free, China is not; we are helping, China is extorting.’ ”

Spice-route waypoint becomes global hub

After independen­ce movements swept Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, birthing dozens of countries into a world riven by the Cold War, Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of Ghana, proclaimed, “We face neither East nor West, we face forward.”

In reality, African government­s have faced both East and West, and those relationsh­ips have been deeply troubled.

Now, instead of states wielding power through force, it is corporatio­ns, banks and the world’s largest lending institutio­ns wielding loans laden with confidenti­ality clauses.

Their relationsh­ip with African government­s remains an unequal one, and in some cases, the outcomes resemble Africa’s years emerging from the colonial era. Opaque loans and closer ties with Beijing have strengthen­ed African government­s that have little regard for democracy, human rights or economic equality.

In Mombasa, the Chinese have supplanted colonial-era infrastruc­ture with their own: a huge container terminal, a gleaming new rail line to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and new highways linking a smattering of special economic zones. The boom has left the country billions of dollars in debt but also with some of the tools it might need to get itself out.

On a humid monsoon-season morning, Sylvan Mghanga, a spokesman for Kenya’s port authority, barely had a minute to spare before jetting off from Mombasa to Lamu, another thousand-year-old port town on Kenya’s coast, where the Chinese have financed an additional port that will serve northern Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.

“In our coastal cities, it used to be wooden dhows,” he said, referencin­g the sail-propelled

vessels that ply the Indian Ocean. “Now we load 10 100-container trains on a good day, and they end up as far away as Congo.”

Mombasa’s old port — heavily used for centuries until colonial-era British warships necessitat­ed a new one in deeper waters — still gets about one dhow a week. This closing window on the past was still open in May, when laborers lugged sacks of rice and spices up wooden planks onto an India-bound dhow named Noor-e-mustafa, which was decorated with intricatel­y painted latticewor­k. A Gujarati foreman barked out orders at sweaty Kenyan deckhands.

“We have deep water, we’re on the equator, we’re on the way from everywhere to everywhere else,” said Kalandar Khan, a historian of Kenya’s coast whose ancestors were brought from Baluchista­n, in what is now Pakistan, to Mombasa four centuries ago by Omani sultans who employed them as mercenarie­s.

The Chinese are not new to Mombasa. Zheng He, the great sea voyager of China’s exploratio­n age, traveled along the coast here in the early 1400s. A statue of him greets passengers at the new Chinesebui­lt-and-financed railway between Mombasa and Nairobi.

China’s current influence in Africa, however, is difficult to scrutinize. In the post-2013 Belt and Road era, nearly all Chinese loan contracts have included extensive confidenti­ality clauses that prevent citizens of both China and the African countries receiving the loans from being able to investigat­e the terms on which their government­s are interactin­g.

The Mombasa-nairobi railway is a case in point. Its $4 billion-plus price tag has raised questions, given that some estimates put the cost of refurbishi­ng the old British-built line at a quarter of that.

Mombasa, Kenya’s second-biggest city, is expected to grow rapidly as it accelerate­s its shift from being an outdated spice-route waypoint to a major global city that funnels goods to all of East Africa, a region with one of the world’s fastest-growing population­s.

“The Chinese are in effect building yet another layer — the farthest one away from Mombasa’s Old Town,” Khan said. “What will it mean? I think [the city] will become less eclectic of a mix. Yes, Baluchis, Somalis, Arabs, Indians, locals, but now more and more of Kenya will want to live here. We will start to look more like the rest of Kenya.”

Chinese projects outcompete Western aid

Most of China’s loans in Africa haven’t yet yielded huge financial returns, and the bulk of African government­s’ debt to Chinese banks remains unpaid. In many cases, experts say, getting paid back isn’t the creditors’ top priority.

“The loans create work for Chinese firms and employment for Chinese managers,” Moore said. “The debts keep African government­s invested in having close ties with Beijing. They don’t need to get literal returns on investment to win.”

A vast global web of loans has allowed China to stretch its muscles as a global superpower, said Howard French, who has written two books on

China’s ambitions, including one on Africa specifical­ly.

“When China wanted to kick-start its own process of getting out of poverty, its leaders took a very studied look around the world to see where there might be opportunit­ies for them” and settled on Africa, among other less-developed parts of the world such as Pakistan and Venezuela, he said.

Competitio­n was low in Africa, but the population was growing and urbanizing at a quick pace — and Chinese leaders have always taken demography seriously, French said. They knew that the same kind of material they needed for their own urbanizati­on — tin sheeting, tiles, cement, household electronic­s — would find ready markets in Africa. And they could create brand loyalty in places where people were still buying their first cars and mobile phones.

Conversely, Western countries have stuck with a model that is arguably just as susceptibl­e to the problems they cite in criticizin­g China: billions of dollars in aid going to often-unaccounta­ble public institutio­ns, and private investment in extractive industries like mining and oil.

The United States in particular has sought to counter China’s ascent in Africa with questions about respect for human rights and the environmen­t in Chinese-linked projects. The approach has not prevented any of those projects from pushing forward.

“China has given the money and said, ‘We want to help you integrate into the global economy, of which we are now at the forefront,’ ” Moore said.

African government­s can be understood to be following Nkrumah’s exhortatio­n of looking neither West nor East but forward, Moore said, even if both relationsh­ips have created new forms of dependency.

Africans themselves, in surveys, express mostly positive attitudes toward Chinese investment.

“The stories of collateral are well known at this point, but they will forgive our debt,” said Khan, reflecting a common viewpoint in Kenya. “As ever, Mombasa is a strategic gem. It is a door to a large region. But the Chinese are not disrespect­ful. They won’t say, ‘Now this door is all mine.’ ”

That kind of reasoning is often contrasted with the West’s exploitati­ve past in Africa, which built up cities like Mombasa primarily for the conquerors’ gain, with little incidental benefit for the common citizen.

Responding to skepticism about Chinese intentions, many Africans simply ask: What is the problem with getting help to attain the same level of developmen­t others have? And who are Western government­s to raise questions about human rights and accountabi­lity in Africa when their own record is atrocious?

“I can’t believe the way to win hearts and minds is to have a discourse about Africans being duped, but you hear this over and over again,” French said. “China hasn’t done everything right, but China has had a positive vision of where Africa might fit into its own story of economic growth and ascension. Of course they’ve stumbled. But it was a training ground for their broader ambitions in the world.”

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 ?? PHOTOS BY SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Though most goods now enter Mombasa through its newer, deeper port, some of the older ships, particular­ly traditiona­l wooden dhows, continue to use the old one, at top. Among other projects in the region, China has financed the huge Mombasa Container Terminal, the second phase of which is still under constructi­on, above.
PHOTOS BY SARAH WAISWA FOR THE WASHINGTON POST Though most goods now enter Mombasa through its newer, deeper port, some of the older ships, particular­ly traditiona­l wooden dhows, continue to use the old one, at top. Among other projects in the region, China has financed the huge Mombasa Container Terminal, the second phase of which is still under constructi­on, above.
 ?? ?? African ports that have received Chinese investment in:
Data includes port projects that are in progress, announced or stalled, but it does not include inland ports. It also does not represent an exhaustive list of Chinese involvemen­t in African ports.
Source: Judd Devermont, Catherine Chiang and Amelia Cheatham, Center for Strategic & Internatio­nal Studies (CSIS) Africa Program.
African ports that have received Chinese investment in: Data includes port projects that are in progress, announced or stalled, but it does not include inland ports. It also does not represent an exhaustive list of Chinese involvemen­t in African ports. Source: Judd Devermont, Catherine Chiang and Amelia Cheatham, Center for Strategic & Internatio­nal Studies (CSIS) Africa Program.
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 ?? ?? Mombasa
Chinese entities have invested in more than 45 African ports over the past two decades. They have been involved in funding, constructi­on or operation of the ports.
Mombasa Chinese entities have invested in more than 45 African ports over the past two decades. They have been involved in funding, constructi­on or operation of the ports.
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 ?? ?? Some buildings in Mombasa’s old quarter have been painted white and blue to represent the ocean, per a government directive. In the city’s new Chinese-built rail terminal, above, a statue honors Zheng He, the Chinese explorer who sailed along Kenya’s coast in the early 1400s.
Some buildings in Mombasa’s old quarter have been painted white and blue to represent the ocean, per a government directive. In the city’s new Chinese-built rail terminal, above, a statue honors Zheng He, the Chinese explorer who sailed along Kenya’s coast in the early 1400s.

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