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Ties that bind or binds that tie? India's African engagements and the political economy of Kenya

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Publication details

JournalReview of African Political Economy
DatePublished - Dec 2010
Issue number126
Number of pages18
Pages (from-to)465-482
Original languageEnglish


This paper analyses contemporary non-Western engagement with Africa through the lens of the second most significant, but surprisingly neglected, ‘Asian driver’ – India. Much of the literature on India’s renewed interest in Africa is panoramic, highlighting concepts of ‘South–South’ cooperation in ways relatively uncritical of continued Indian claims to the Nehruvian moral high ground in the developing world. This article, by contrast, focuses on critical realities of India’s relations with a single country – Kenya, a nation with which India has had ostensibly close links due to the historic presence of South Asian communities in the region. It critiques notions that ‘diasporic’ ties between India and Kenya facilitate contemporary Indian economic ambitions. Rather, the paper argues, fractious historical race relations in Kenya, and the cynosure of ‘African’ homogenisation of ‘Asians’ within an ‘ethnicised’ post-colonial political economy, might partially impede Indian ambitions relative to capital-rich foreign suitors devoid of such historical baggage. The second major argument holds that the specific state led imperatives of much economic liaison within Kenya today favour certain ‘partners’ with statist investment models in contrast to India’s more explicit, but not absolute, private sector-led engagement. Most importantly, analysis within a localised African context points to African agency in encounters with the ‘Asian drivers’, a term implying a certain unidirectional power flow. The competitive interest of a range of ‘new’ suitors has allowed African leaders, not least in Kenya as this paper suggests, unprecedented choice in international negotiations. The danger, however, is that these new liaisons can reify divisive socio-political conflicts in which many African nations are mired. This appears to be pertinent to Kenya where strains within the elite political sphere are being somewhat exacerbated by foreign investment, particularly from China and the Arab world.

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