On Tuesday October 24th the Chinese Embassy in Nairobi issued a warning to its citizens to be alert to their security while in Kenya.
“The Consular Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Chinese Embassy in Kenya reminds Chinese citizens in Kenya to pay additional attention to the local security situation, re-considering their own safety precautions and avoiding areas where foreigners gather or similarly crowded places,” advised the warning, which was issued in Chinese.
It also stated that the Chinese in Kenya should avoid, if possible, travelling to Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Lamu counties and be extra cautious if they are required to go to the Kenya-Somalia border area.
The nuanced statement was clearly designed to avoid either panicking Chinese citizens in Kenya or annoying the host government (which can, at times, be rather tendered-toed when it comes to perceived slights, even from a major financial backer like Beijing).
There are many Chinese in Kenya, and they are often in high profile – read as potentially vulnerable – roles. These include operating businesses and providing direct support to Chinese-funded infrastructure projects. Any time you drive past a construction project, the slightly shorter individual wearing a traditional Chinese worker’s pointed woven ‘coolie’ that never fails to catch the eye.
China’s security situation in Kenya: the threat
So where is the threat coming from? Again, the statement is deliberately vague to avoid offence. It could be interpreted as referring to the recent political protests. Or it could be be a response to the increase in global tensions after the Hamas terrorist outrage in Israel and the latter’s vigorous response. Let us not forget that al-Qa’ida tried to shoot down an Israeli airliner and succeeded in attacking an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa in 1998. Westgate Mall, attacked in 2013 and the Artcaffe chain (which launched its first branch there) both had strong Israeli links, with the chain originating in Israel itself.
Al-Shabaab takes on China?
Or it could be the persistent threat from the al-Qa’ida’s Somali franchise, al-Shabaab. Al-Shabaab has history with China in the Kenya border area: it is currently swarming around Lamu county committing attack after attack, and not just the against security forces there, which is its usual pattern. China has major interests there, notably the LAPSSET project to build a major transport infrastructure from Lamu into the other border counties and beyond. Al-Shabaab launched a particularly brutal attack against the project in March of 2022.
While government and media statements played down the attack, al-Shabaab recently released a video of the attack which clearly shows the killing of a number of Kenyan workers (which it labels ‘kafir’ or non-believers, aiming to stoke tensions in religiously- and ethnically-mixed Lamu). A Chinese worker was allegedly kidnapped but later arrested: this seems unlikely, though, given the horrific footage of a Chinese man being found hiding in a shipping container, who is then shot at least five times. Ever keen to exploit an angle, al-Shabaab referenced China’s savage treatment of its own Muslim Uighur population.
(NOTE: Kenya Forum reminds its readers that it is an offence in Kenya to access or share terrorist propaganda. Readers are strongly advised against trying to view the video, which sadly the author has, albeit while outside Kenya.)
Is al-Shabaab trying to start a war with China? The terror group is hideous in its brutality, ironically most notably towards its own people, in spite of its claims to be a primarily Islamist nationalist group that just wants Somalia for the Somalis. ‘Greater Somalia’ includes, in their minds, Somali-dominated places like Djibouti, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia – and the Kenya border counties.
But al-Shabaab is neither foolish nor reckless. While China is not so directly interventionist as, say, Russia, when crossed, it is not beyond possibility that it may conduct reprisals nonetheless (perhaps through proxies or by providing support to local security forces).
Al-Shabaab is more likely punishing China in an indirect and limited manner for its support to the Kenyan government and its use of non-ethnic Somali labour in its projects in the border areas. The main aim is more likely to stoke divisions in the border areas and elsewhere.
Should we all be worried?
But the Chinese Embassy is probably reasonable in issuing its warning at a time of fragile world-wide security, a number of imminent major international visits to Kenya, and China’s overt but at the same very vulnerable presence in Kenya. Perhaps the Kenyan government should consider a similar warning.