Kenya Opens $3 Billion Chinese-Built Port

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta (3rd L) arrives for the inauguration of the first berth at new Lamu Port, in Lamu, Kenya, on May 20, 2021. (Photo by Dihoff MUKOTO / AFP) (Photo by DIHOFF MUKOTO/AFP via Getty Images)
DIHOFF MUKOTO/AFP via Getty Images

Kenya on Thursday opened a new port in the northern city of Lamu, financed with a $3 billion investment from the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), an enterprise owned by the Chinese government. 

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta described construction of the port as a “momentous feat” that “marks an important milestone” in Kenya’s Vision 2030 plan to “transform regional economies through increased trade and integration and interconnectivity.”

The first ships docked at the Lamu deep-water Indian Ocean port during Kenyatta’s commissioning ceremony. Only one berth is currently operational, with two more due to be completed by the end of 2021. The port is eventually supposed to have 32 berths. The project also includes road construction handled by CCCC, with promises of large supplemental infrastructure contracts such as fiber-optic communications and spin-off enterprises, including the construction of nearby resort hotels.

Kenyatta observed that the port, which has been under construction since 2016, was intended to facilitate maritime trade between Kenya, South Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Critics of the project point out ongoing turmoil and violence in Ethiopia and South Sudan could make the port much less valuable, while constant terrorism in Somalia could threaten its security, and most of Ethiopia’s commerce already flows through Djibouti and Kenya’s existing port in Mombasa. The Kenyan government claims Lamu will service entirely different trade routes than Mombasa.

“Some doubting Thomases questioned the project’s viability wondering whether it will ever be built. They can stop wondering,” Kenyatta gloated at the opening ceremony. Plans for a port in Lamu were drafted as far back as 1972, but generations of analysts concluded the project was not viable.

The Lamu port project was a big comeback for Chinese state-owned companies in Kenya after the Kenyans grew unhappy with China’s control of their railroads and began terminating contracts early so they could assert local management. Kenyan businesses were infuriated when the government began forcing them to use the Chinese-built railroad for cargo in 2019, instead of cheaper and more efficient road transportation, in a bid to recover the costs of railroad construction.

Five subsidiaries of CCCC were among the 24 companies owned by the Chinese state added in August 2020 to the U.S. Commerce Department’s list of entities complicit in militarizing disputed islands in the South China Sea unlawfully occupied by Beijing. 

Kenyan critics of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) have long complained that projects sold as job-creating boons to the local economy tend to be much less lucrative than China promised — especially after the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic — so local partners accumulate permanent mountains of debt to Chinese banks, while the best jobs created by the projects go mostly to Chinese employees.

Kenyans complained of racial discrimination from visiting Chinese employees and management, including allegations of pay disparity,  unfair work hours, threats and harassment, demeaning jobs given to highly qualified Kenyans, and even segregated eating and toilet areas for Kenyan employees at Chinese-run projects. A Chinese businessman was arrested and deported from Kenya in 2018 “on racism grounds,” including a racist tirade recorded during a dispute with a Kenyan employee. In the video, the Chinese businessman said every Kenyan is “like a monkey,” pointedly including President Kenyatta.

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