On Africa’s Elephants, Black and White

NAIROBI, Kenya – This dispatch was meant to be about saving the noble elephant. But after a hard look at Africa today, with an eye on the narrow worldview of ignoble pachyderms in America, the focus shifted to jackals and hyenas.

Consider Kenya, a once and future hope as a model for an enlightened dark continent. It throbs with potential. Young people with fresh ideas join an old guard in transforming it beyond recognition. Yet despite its outspoken courts and critics, it is shot through with corruption.

Those endangered black elephants are, in fact, making a comeback. Asian appetites for ivory are waning. Young Kenyans are taught to protect their wildlife heritage. The problem is white elephants, giant dubious schemes with ample opportunity for skimming off the top.

Plunder is old news in Africa. Since winds of change brought independence in the 1960s, uncounted billions in public funds have vanished into private pockets. Now, however, plunder is organized and obvious, an entrenched component of global geopolitics.

Kenya is hardly the worst case, but it illustrates clearly new winner-eat-all directions across sub-Saharan Africa.

Washington, thinking small, is slashing vital development aid in favor of private deals that enrich U.S. companies. That enables China, thinking big, to recolonize Africa, securing vast repositories of raw materials, minerals, oil and arable land vital to its manifest destiny.

Western aid to Africa requires transparency and protection of human rights. China simply pays the price of admission, adding off-the-books incentives. At a summit in Beijing, Xi Jinping just pledged another $16 billion to Africa in grants and loans that put recipients in his debt.

Previous U.S. administrations helped journalists track hijacked aid, and the State Department weighed in if authorities got tough with them. Donald Trump changed that. His signature phrase, fake news, is a godsend to any government eager to muzzle its press.

"I'm following so many scandals I can't keep track of them," a skilled Kenyan investigative reporter told me. "You can't follow the money when it's cash stuffed in briefcases or if it disappears in mysterious shell companies and foreign bank accounts."

She paused a moment, then laughed nervously. "You know, you're going to get me fired." In Kenya, that's likely the worst that would happen. Elsewhere, jailed, or worse, is a distinct possibility. As a result, blatant unreported corruption gets ever more rampant.

For example: Multiple sources I trust confirmed an open secret in Kenya: a top-level politician is profiting hugely from a Chinese-funded $2.2 billion coal-fired power plant project near Lamu, an island jewel protected as a U.N. World Heritage site from where wooden dhows ply the Indian Ocean as they have for seven centuries. But one needs evidence to name him.

The project makes no sense. Kenya has pledged to use alternative energy and already produces more power than its needs. Consumers pay a levy for excess capacity. The coral reef off a paradise hideaway resort near Lamu was dredged so ships can bring coal from South Africa.

Experts warn of health risks and environmental calamity. For far less expense, Kenya could build smaller plants near urban and industrial centers without long transmission lines. General Electric, which committed to a $400 million investment, might back out after a shareholder revolt.

But the project suits China, with hundreds of decommissioned coal plants to export as it switches to greener energy sources at home. About 1,400 Chinese workers would build and run the plant. And the deal solidifies Beijing's ties to top-level politicians who champion it.

Lawsuits by conservationists have stalled the project, but China is in no hurry. Its focus is on the next 100 years. Eventually, the plant is expected to power a huge new port along with a railway and oil pipeline from South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia.

If China can wait, hard-pressed African nations can't. Money spent on future infrastructure - and graft skimmed off the top - is desperately needed now for schools, hospitals, housing and basic public works.

Lingering poverty feeds extremist terror by the Somalia-based Al-Shabaab, which killed 67 people and wounded 175 others at Nairobi's Westgate shopping mall in 2013. While cutting back economic aid, the Trump administration has increased U.S. military activity in the region.

China, spurred on by Trump's bellicose rhetoric, added muscle to its economic presence. It is fast taking over Djibouti, once a sleepy mini-state on the Gulf of Aden with a French Foreign Legion outpost. The Americans built Camp Lemonnier in 2003. Last year, a Chinese naval base and runway opened eight miles away from 4,000 U.S. personnel.

The Pentagon-backed African Center for Strategic Studies reports that Djibouti owes China $1.5 billion. This year, the government broke its contract with a Dubai company to run its port. A state-owned Chinese contractor is taking over operations, which allows inspection of everything shipped into the strategic little state.

Overall, according to that report. China operates about 2,500 "development, civil works and construction" projects worth $94 billion in 51 African states. Most are built and operated by Chinese, with some political and economic advantage to China's long-term plans.

The report did not estimate how much of that ended up - or would likely end up - in private pockets. In Kenya, among the most transparent of African states, educated guesses run to 20 percent. Looking back half a century, that reflects an avoidable tragedy.

I first visited Kenya in 1968, not long after Britain and France set their African colonies free. Although each started out with a functioning democracy and money in the bank, all badly needed help to educate new generations that could create nations beyond old tribal divides.

But Washington and Moscow, waging Cold War, squandered aid on grand schemes to woo allies, however authoritarian. Multinationals bribed governments for access to markets and resources. Rather than development, Africa got dissidents, rebels and, now, terrorists.

George W. Bush and Barack Obama retooled American aid, enlisting private companies that watch where the money goes. They deployed troops and intelligence officers, often out of sight, to help African states confront a rising tide of terrorism. Trump fixates on military solutions, ignoring the poverty that feeds the ranks of Al-Shabaab and other groups.

So, back to those pachyderms. When elephants fight, an old African proverb goes, the grass gets trampled. That's true enough in the short term. But when too much grass gets trampled for too long, the big game goes, leaving the hyenas and jackals to scavenge.