Africa’s Xi-Biden Power Play

Martin Kimani
Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
December 20, 2022

When Vladimir Putin sent his armies into Ukraine exactly 300 days ago, it was not immediately clear to the residents of the global south why a war between two white, largely Slavic countries was of concern to them. Moreover, many on the anti-imperialist left in the U.S. began gravitating toward the Russian side simply because Russia was America’s old foe and, to them, it was America, rather than Russia, that was the seat of imperialist evil. 

Enter Martin Kimani, Kenya’s ambassador to the United Nations, where Kenya holds a rotating seat on the Security Council. Just a couple of days before the Russian tanks started rolling, Kimani made a coolly impassioned speech from the Security Council, framing the brewing conflict as an anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggle—by Ukraine against Russia. Coming from the representative of a former British colony that had fought hard for its independence, the message resonated, especially among progressives who had felt torn. Wasn’t the West at fault for pushing Russia to the brink? This was a clear moral argument to the contrary, in terms the Western left could easily understand. In the days after the invasion, the speech went viral.  

I first met Kimani earlier this year at the Aspen Security Forum, where he was on a fascinating—and occasionally spicy—panel about how the rest of the world sees not only the war in Ukraine but America’s competition with China. Kimani made some points that day that I still think about: While the U.S. warns African countries of the long-term risk of becoming indebted to Chinese firms, America still can’t get its act together to move faster to fill what is an acute need for infrastructure in Africa. (Though, apparently, the ambassador hadn’t heard how slowly the U.S. moves on its own acute infrastructure needs.)

Afterwards, Kimani and I spoke over some wraps and salads on the grassy lawn at the Aspen Meadows where the Forum was taking place. He told me that, come December, Kenya would be wrapping up its turn on the U.N. Security Council and he wanted to do an exit interview. Don’t forget! he chided me. You people—meaning Western journalists—always forget! 

But I didn’t. December came and I messaged Ambassador Kimani, who was incredibly generous with his time and quite frank in his thoughts. I hope you enjoy our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, as much as I did.

Julia Ioffe: I was struck by the way the Africa Summit was set up and the reception at the White House was set up in that the U.S. was dealing with Africa as a bloc as opposed to dealing with individual African countries. What does that look like, from the African perspective?

Ambassador Martin Kimani: Look, Africa is having conversations with different major powers, of which the United States is one. And there has evolved a tradition, almost, of multiple African leaders going to those countries to engage. It does reflect a bit of an asymmetry between Africa and other regions, because you would imagine that it’s easier to get one head of state out of Washington or Paris or Beijing to Addis Ababa, rather than it is to get 40 or 50 something African leaders into one of these capitals. But as the continent becomes significantly more influential—and that’s the trend line—I think you will see change in some of those optics. But these are optics. The question is, what was the substance of the conversation? That’s how these summits should be judged. 

When we met at the Aspen Security Forum last summer, there were a number of American analysts and officials complaining about African countries negotiating foreign investments from China that come with debt and policy strings attached, and wondering why these countries don’t deal with the U.S. instead. 

You expressed a bit of impatience and said something like, Well, they come in and they get it done, whereas the U.S. talks and talks and the bridge never gets built. And we need that bridge. I was wondering if you could talk more about those tensions on the ground between the U.S. pitch versus the Chinese pitch to Africa—and the reality.

The majority of countries in Africa have extraordinary fiscal needs, multiple responsibilities, and very modest resources. You have huge infrastructure deficits, deficits in health, in education, in energy investment, in different areas. You’re having to do all that while you’re dealing with significant emergencies, whether it’s droughts or floods, some of them caused by climate change. The best kind of external capital is direct investment into your companies, into your enterprises. But there you will run into the old perception of risk. Many countries are not ready to absorb enormous amounts of capital because of a variety of blockages to that capital deployment. 

As a result, you need to borrow so as to invest. And in that borrowing, the bulk of the debt African countries have is owed to the Paris Club, industrialized Western countries. But the fastest growing category is owed to Chinese companies, which now has become some sort of geopolitical football. But for us it’s not geopolitical football. For us, it’s capital that we need to close gaps in our investment needs that would not otherwise be closed. 

It’s a really easy problem to resolve. We’re ready to do business, and if you have a better product, then it should prevail. My note of impatience was the constant attempt to turn it into a geopolitical football—because these loans are not free. Africa is paying for these loans. Chinese companies have lent us this money as much as Western banks have, and we have to pay. So, yes, you always appreciate your banker, but your banker is not really necessarily doing you a favor. They are pursuing their own commercial interests. So the question to me becomes, to what extent can America’s extraordinary financial system and investment community get engaged? And if the U.S. has to compete with China in Africa, then go and do so and bring in your investment so that we both benefit from it. 

In the U.S., the issue is framed as Africa missing out because China is ensnaring African countries in debt. Another way to frame it could be, what if it’s simply that all these countries are competing for African business? Which would imply that it’s Africa calling the shots.

How you determine whether Africa is missing out or if Africa is making a mistake really begins with your regard for African agency. If you assume Africans are able to make decisions as best as they can, given the information that they have, then you will say, Okay, what’s the value proposition we can give that will make our proposition more attractive? But if you begin by thinking of African agency in a less respectful way, then you end up lost. It’s the old argument of false consciousness. The Africans, I see what they’re doing, but do they really know what they’re doing? 

Well, we know what we’re doing. We make mistakes. And I think we’ve made very clear mistakes. But this is not the first time we’ve made mistakes. And in fact, governance always has aspects of mistakes, including here in the U.S. and in the West. We’ve seen massive mistakes that have led to financial catastrophe. We have seen multiple financial crises with too-big-to-fail institutions where you have the socialization of losses and the privatization of profits. Yeah, well, you learn. We all make mistakes, but we’re all trying. And what Africa’s trying to do is to undertake this extraordinary journey, from taking over post-colonial states that were built to extract and to oppress—let’s put it clearly—and to turn those into vehicles of progress and of a democratic, dignified life. 

How immense of a challenge is that for you to undertake over two or three generations? We are still very early in the process of what we aspire to be. 

When we spoke earlier, you mentioned countries that have been responsible in their macroeconomic policy but still get charged high rates of interest because of what you feel is an unearned perception of risk. I take it you were talking about Kenya? 

Yes. One of the ironies is that the countries that were performing the best in terms of their macroeconomics, in terms of their governance, then got a very positive reputation in terms of banking and the financial markets and so a number of us came into the international financial markets and took loans. And now suddenly, because of a huge surge in worldwide inflation and the slowing down of the global economy, our Western colleagues all raised their interest rates and suddenly those loans became very, very expensive. 

This is just a reflection of the Catch-22 where wealthy countries’ central banking is done on a national basis but has a global impact. And so countries like ours now have to undertake a more careful economic policy, to do everything to attract investment and to seek capital through investment and not through the sharp enlargement of debt. 

I wanted to ask you about your speech at the Security Council on February 21. Why did you decide to frame the coming war in Ukraine in terms of Kenya’s—and Africa’s—post-colonial experience? What was going through your head at the time? 

We have pursued a policy in the Security Council where we try to find what it is that we’ve learned as Kenyans, as Africans, that the world can learn from our experience. We regard the choices we’ve made as choices that the world should learn from. So it appeared to us that our position in the 1960s to live with these outrageous colonial boundaries was valuable. Our boundaries make no sense. They are relics of a brutal, oppressive period of our lives. So why live with them? Because we understood immediately when we looked at the borders of Europe that the borders in Europe have been drawn through blood, through centuries of war. Did we want the same? And where would it stop? So we said, look, let’s integrate. We have a bigger dream to integrate, to get rid of these borders. But that has to be a process. And so with few exceptions, 54 countries have lived by that principle, and we think that that is a very significant ethical and moral achievement for us. 

We’ve also been the subject of former colonial empires who sometimes have taken an inordinate interest in our affairs. And during the Cold War, we were under a great deal of pressure from colonial countries to behave one way or the other. And that pressure sometimes took the shape of brutal interference in our political lives. So we understand what it is for former colonial powers to believe that they have some greater right, some greater claim on your independence. And so we thought that it’s time to really get beyond the age of empire. That age is gone. We spoke about the Russian Federation and the choices they made in Ukraine. But we also referred to the other former colonial empires. We referred to other permanent members of the Security Council who have breached the U.N. charter and have invaded other countries. So it’s not just Russia alone. Certainly others were guilty as well. 

It has been ten months since the invasion. What has been the effect on Kenya and on the African continent? 

Our farmers have had to pay a lot more for fertilizer—to the point that the government now has to subsidize fertilizer prices. And the money we’re using for those subsidies could be used in other areas of urgent need. So in that way, the war in Ukraine is directly costing Kenyan taxpayers money and endangering our food security. The war in Ukraine has also led to a worldwide investment slowdown—investors have been seeking “safety” and are now leaving emerging markets to go back to more developed markets. 

We talked about China and the U.S. competing for influence on the African continent. I feel like the Russian role has gotten a little bit less attention. I wrote last week about Wagner and Yevgeny Prigozhin. They’ve had a more nefarious influence on the continent. They’re not in Kenya, but what’s your sense of the role they’ve played on the African continent? 

Julia. You know I’m a diplomat, so there are some things that are very difficult to get into from where I sit. But the way I would approach that question is to talk about the deficits of security. The Sahel is under extraordinary pressure from Al-Qaeda and ISIS groups. And that extraordinary pressure is fed with the flood of weapons and fighters out of Libya after the 2011 NATO intervention. Without even needing to judge whether it was right or wrong, it was consequential. The U.N. peacekeeping presence in Mali, for instance, has done a fairly decent job, but only of trying to stop the worst from happening even as really bad situations go on. They don’t have the mandate and the capability to truly push back. 

So there’s a gap there. We need capable, multinational African forces to get in there to do the job with support and funding from the U.N., as well as predictable resources from countries that are ready and willing to undertake that job. If that doesn’t happen but the terrorists are still pressing forward, it then leaves these gaps of capability that have to be filled. So I’ll leave it at that. 

At the end of the month, Kenya ends its rotation on the U.N. Security Council. What was your time like in that seat?

It’s been extraordinary. As a country, I think we have acquitted ourselves well. We came in and engaged on issues that had not been immediately thought of as what many African members would choose to engage with. We were very forceful in trying to push for more engagement in Haiti. We tried to bring up the issue of the Afro-Colombians on the Colombian file, reflecting our Pan-Africanist viewpoint. We tried to give a voice to every issue and to take a stand, which is how we ended up taking a stand on Ukraine and elsewhere. We said that if the constitutive act of the African Union frowns on coup d’etats in Africa and we sanction African members who have coups, well, the coup in Myanmar is also unacceptable to us. 

On a more personal and professional level, it’s a very high pressure occupation. It takes a lot, but it’s been a huge privilege. One of the things we’ve learned is just how much competence comes to you just by being in the Council. What we’ve learned in just two years, our permanent Security Council colleagues have been learning for decades. So forget about the veto power—just having the ability to leverage all the tools in the Security Council towards the ends that they seek is so significantly greater than that of elected members. If you’re not in the room every day, well, then you’re going to be the dinner.