Tom Spender

Freelance journalist in London

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BBC debut

May 7th, 2014 · Journalism

I indulge in a bit of Pope-bashing for my modest debut on BBC World News…

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Afghanistan – mission accomplished?

February 8th, 2014 · Journalism, Middle East, Rest of Asia

Professor Anatol Lieven from the War Studies Department of Kings College London and author of the book Pakistan: a hard country;
Colonel Richard Kemp, who was commander of British troops in Afghanistan in 2003 and is now a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute;
Dr Ishtiaq Ahmed from the Oxford University Centre for International Studies;
and, in Afghanistan:
Daoud Sultanzoy, a former member of the Afghan parliament and a presidential candidate at next year’s elections

British Prime Minister David Cameron has said it was “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan – but was he right and what are Afghanistan’s prospects in its upcoming presidential elections and after international troops pull out later this year?


DS: “Well, we understand the political need for this kind of statement. You can see the glass half full or half empty, but the problem with Afghanistan’s endeavour, in the vast communities involved with Afghanistan, is that from the very beginning, from the bottom process, everything started on a reactive mode and the international community, including Britain and the United States never became proactive, regarding Afghanistan, and we always patched things, as we went, our goals shifted, our strategies shifted, we never held the Afghan government responsible, we never held it accountable.”

RK: “I believe militarily our forces and other NATO forces in Afghanistan have made some very major achievements. They have killed a large number of extremists, who certainly threatened the stability of Afghanistan and in many cases would undoubtedly have gone on to threaten terrorist attacks against the west and around the world. I have no doubt whatever about that. By stopping so many of them I think they have helped to protect the western world as well as, to an extent, Afghanistan.”

AL: “Well, a British prime minister obviously has to pay tribute to British troops. It would be extremely unnatural, not to say dishonourable, if you didn’t do so. I think what he could have said is that British soldiers in Afghanistan have upheld, to use the very old phrase, ‘the honour of British arms.’ You know, they have done their duty, bravely. And, of course, have made a greater contribution than any other country, except the United States. Beyond that, however, I think it’s fairly clear that we’ve only achieved some of the admittedly maniac aims that we set out 12 years ago. The other problem is that almost everything that we have achieved and set up in Afghanistan depends on the continuation of western funding.”

IA: “It is of course a premature statement. It reminds us of similar remarks made by President Bush ten years ago. A lot remains to be done in Afghanistan. There are a lot of uncertainties, as we speak now. Elections are ahead – what will be the outcome? Talks with the Taliban have not started. There are legitimate fears in the region that we might see the revival of the similar kind of civil war that took place back in the 90s that led to the creation of Taliban, Al-Qaeda coming in, and all the anarchy in the place and implications in the region.”

Recorded December 2013.

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China in Africa – what do Kenyans think?

September 7th, 2013 · China, Journalism

Zhou Shaoping, deputy Africa editor for the Xinhua news agency
Stephen Chan, professor of international relations at SOAS
Boniface Mwangi, founder of the Pawa254 organisation
John Gachiri, newspaper commentator
Binyavanga Wainaina, writer and satirist
Paula Kahumbu, CEO of WildlifeDirect
Gao Wei, managing director of China Information & Culture Communication

You’re listening to the Voice of Russia in London, I’m Tom Spender. China’s rapid rise has also seen it play an increasing role in Africa, where it is building infrastructure and harvesting raw materials. But is this a good deal for Africa? I recently travelled to Kenya to try to find out.



The sound of traffic on the Thika road in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. In a city that endures endless traffic jams along dusty potholed lanes, this modern eight-lane highway is the exception.

Widely regarded as the best road in Kenya, even in East Africa, it was built by the Chinese firms Wu Yi, Sinohydro and Shengli Engineering and is the most visible sign of Chinese activity in the country.

CLIP – ANDREW – A long time ago I used to wake up early so I could get early to work but nowadays I just wake up normally to get to work at the right time, on time.
Andrew is a young Kenyan who says the new road cuts his commuting time by two hours a day, enabling him to get more done.

CLIP – ANDREW – For two hours I do online marketing in the house, I sell some things online and I get to meet my clients online.

Andrew is a good example of what China says it is trying to achieve through its increasing activity in Africa.

CLIP – ZHOU – It’s the win-win principle. China also wants to gain something but it also make the Africans gain something too. It’s not just about giving some money. Instead, we should develop together. That’s the current thinking.

Zhou Shaoping is the Chinese government news agency Xinhua’s deputy Africa editor.
He says modern Chinese engagement in Africa began under Communist Party chairman Mao Zedong, who used aid to persuade African countries to switch diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China – today’s Taiwan, where Chinese nationalists had fled after defeat in China’s civil war – to the People’s Republic of China, where Mao’s Communists had emerged victorious.

Today, China is an increasingly wealthy developing country looking for raw materials to supply its growing economy, and for new markets for its companies.

In Kenya, Chinese companies are building roads and apartments and have won a tender to make the first berths at a proposed new Indian Ocean port.

Across the continent, Chinese firms are operating copper mines in Zambia and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Ethiopia they are building a 5,000 kilometre rail network that will link the capital Addis Ababa to the port of Djibouti.

Since 2002, China has invested an estimated $75bn in Africa, not far behind the United States, which invested $90bn. And in 2009 China replaced the US as Africa’s biggest trade partner.

But China’s rapid emergence as a competitive player in Africa has caused alarm in some quarters.
Earlier this year, the governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank Lamido Sanusi wrote: “China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.”

And speaking in South Africa last month, Barack Obama also took a thinly-veiled swipe at China:

CLIP – OBAMA – So when we look at what other countries are doing in Africa, I think our only advice is make sure it’s a good deal for Africa. If somebody says they want to come build something here, are they hiring African workers? If somebody says that they want to help you develop your natural resources, how much of the money is staying in Africa?

Nevertheless, Obama’s trip to Africa was widely interpreted in the US as reflecting a new reality – that China’s presence means the West is going to have to work harder to compete in Africa.

CLIP – CHAN – African leaders delighted they can now play west and china off against each other

Professor Stephen Chan is chair of international relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The son of refugees from China, he grew up in New Zealand, worked in Africa as a civil servant for the commonwealth office and in 2010 was awarded an OBE for “services to Africa”.

In a book he edited – published in May and entitled The Morality of China in Africa – Chan argues there is a moral basis to China’s burgeoning role in Africa, despite the dominant narrative in the West accusing China of despoiling the environment and propping up dictators there.

CLIP – CHAN – Confucian values

Furthermore, Chan contends that China is more sensitive to Africans’ aspirations than the West.

CLIP – CHAN – they get it



Among Kenyans too, the question of China produces mixed feelings. In a nearby traffic police station, some employees say the road won’t last, while others ask why it took so long for anyone to build a highway in the first place.


Aside from infrastructure projects, the main visible impact of China to Kenyans is the spread of cheap ‘Made in China’ goods, sometimes of questionable quality, and an influx of Chinese people themselves, who come to work on big projects or set up businesses.

Kenya has a relatively small population of Chinese, with an estimated 10,000 living in Nairobi. But about a million Chinese are thought to be in Africa, with the largest groupings in South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria.

Nevertheless, many Kenyans fear Chinese companies will put local firms out of business and Chinese people will take local jobs.

CLIP – MWANGI – It’s unfair because if they come to Kenya and set up as small traders that’s unfair because they can get the goods cheaper from China and then they compete with local traders. I think if they came and did bulk business like wholesale business, selling to the traders at a good rate, then that’s ok. But it’s wrong for them to do the work Kenyans can do. At the moment about 68% of the population are under 35, the majority unemployed or in the informal sector. It can’t be done.

Boniface Mwangi is a photojournalist and activist who founded the organisation Pawa254, which describes itself as a social enterprise encouraging creative people to carry out work that has social impact.
Mwangi’s graffiti – portraying politicians as rapacious vultures – dots Nairobi’s bustling central business district.

And Mwangi is similarly dubious about China’s ‘win-win’ intentions for Africa.

CLIP – MWANGI – It’s a win-lose situation because they don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about fair trade, they bribe a lot, there’s a lot of corruption involving Chinese companies. So it’s a win-lose because they stand to benefit more than we stand to benefit.

However, China’s stated policy of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other countries has proved popular among Kenyans, many of whom say they are fed up of being told what to do by western governments.

In the run-up to the Kenyan general election in March, Western countries advised Kenyans not to vote for Uhuru Kenyatta because he had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity relating to post-election violence in 2008.

CLIP – GACHIRI – I think the tipping point was when Ambassador Carson came and said choices have consequences and the British followed and the whole of Europe followed and it actually boomeranged on them because people felt insulted and were like you can’t just come and tell us what to do. That was the gamechanger in my opinion because that’s when people said they would vote for these guys.

John Gachiri is a Kenyan newspaper commentator.

CLIP – GACHIRI – The Chinese did nothing. They were like it’s the will of the people. They didn’t make any comments or at least not anything you can remember. They said we will let it play out and whoever comes into office, we’ll work with them.

For Gachiri, this gives the Chinese the upper hand in countries such as Sudan or Zimbabwe, whose leaders are accused by western governments of abuses.

CLIP – GACHIRI – If you have a dictatorship, there is only so much the US or EU can do because their taxpayers are not going to allow their money to go into regimes that are accused of this or that. But China doesn’t have that kind of policy. They say we don’t interfere in your politics. So in those countries they are going to have the upper hand.

China’s response is that democracy does not necessarily bring with it development.

Xinhua’s Zhou Shaoping again.

CLIP – ZHOU – China has been criticised by western countries over human rights because they insist on the right to free speech and assembly while China and other developing countries say the right to food and life is more important.

Many African countries have adopted western democracy. Why don’t they have a development level like European countries? Many countries have elections every four years, but they develop slowly and even experience conflict.
China is different – why does China have such strong economic growth? It’s a question worth studying. I don’t think western democracy is necessarily destined to save the whole world. In China we say ‘cross the river by feeling the stones’. We search to find the best way to improve living standards and maintain stability.

Kenyan writer and satirist Binyavanga Wainaina is the author of the memoir ‘One day I will write about this place’.

I meet him in a hotel bar in Westlands, an area of Nairobi popular with western expatriates, many of whom work in NGOs and development organisations.

Wainaina is sceptical of Western attempts to encourage democracy in Africa.

CLIP – WAINAINA – Democracy is an important idea. Development is an even more important idea. People need dignity in their lives, where they are able to feed themselves and fulfil their dreams. In the West’s question of democracy, it seems to be elections. Was the election free and fair? How was the election free and fair? Can you make Mali have an election in two weeks? Can a country that has imploded have an election in two weeks? How can anyone in the sane universe say there was ever a free election in Congo? But because the West wants a free election in Congo, a free election in Congo will be manufactured.

Even though they are both dubious about China’s impact on human rights in Africa, both Boniface Mwangi of Pawa254 and John Gachiri concede that Chinese projects in Africa are improving people’s lives.

CLIP – MWANGI – You know the Chinese don’t care about human rights but you’re going to get roads and water projects. It’s going to get done and delivered. They won’t come and lecture you about what do and structural adjustment. So it’s just business. Whether it involves corruption or murder, it’s still business and that’s a plus. Even if human rights are not an issue for the Chinese, at least there is a form of benefit that is trickling down to the common man. And that’s a good thing.

However, Chinese companies are also accused of flouting environmental norms in Africa. A Chinese oil firm is exploring in a Gabonese national park, angering environmentalists.

And in the informal sector about 4,500 Chinese citizens have left Ghana after a crackdown on illegal and heavily-polluting gold-mining there.

Meanwhile, conservationists say African rhinos and elephants face extinction in the wild because of newly wealthy China’s appetite for ivory obtained through poaching.

CLIP – KAHUMBU – 80% of ivory in China is trafficked. Africa is afraid to collar China for this,

Paula Kahumbu is executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust.

CLIP – KAHUMBU – 10 years before extinction.

In China, celebrities such as former NBA star Yao Ming and top actress Li Bingbing have launched awareness campaigns targeting the consumption of ivory and rhino horn in China.

But observers say it will take time for habits to change.

Meanwhile, Stephen Chan says Africa is on the cusp of industrialising – and that carries with it significant environmental risk.

CLIP – CHAN – what about Niger delta? Industrialisation.

Nevertheless the Chinese government is making an effort to clean up its act. In February, it issued guidelines on good environmental and social practice for state-owned enterprises operating overseas, mirroring domestic efforts to row back on industrial practices that have devastated the country’s own environment.

CLIP – CHAN – it’s a start


CLIP – GAO WEI – I came here in 2004, April. It’s a very important month for me. After university. That was my dream, to come to Africa and see the people and see the animals. I come from a very cold city in northwest part of China. During the winter it can come down to minus 20. When I came to Kenya the weather is uniform so I believe it is a good place.

Gao Wei is one of the roughly one million Chinese who have come to Africa to build a new life. They are among increasing numbers of Chinese who are choosing to experience life outside China.

CLIP – GAO – For Africa, if you start the business the requirement is still very low. It’s easy to set up a business. The living environment is not bad – the pollution in China is worse and the competition is higher. If I was in China maybe I am working in a company, here I have my own company. For young people I always say, they should come out to see the world and then make their decision, whether to go back to China or stay outside. But Africa still has a small proportion of Chinese migration and most still want to go to the West.

Gao says that although the Chinese economy is growing fast, Chinese companies are also affected by intense competition in the domestic market.

With their ability to penetrate mature Western markets limited, in some cases because of the relatively poor reputation Chinese brands have for quality, price-conscious developing country markets represent an important opportunity.

For example, you’re unlikely to see a Chinese-made Chery or Great Wall car in London, but in Kenya the police have placed an order for 760 Chery Tiggo SUVs.

CLIP – GAO – domestic competition is intense so companies have to go out.

Gao’s firm – China Information and Culture Communication – is a bridging company, helping Chinese invest in Kenya and helping Kenyans go to China to study. Some 27,000 African students attended university in China last year, including 12,000 on Chinese government scholarships.

Gao says experiencing China first hand transforms Africans’ view of the country.

CLIP – GAO – We found there’s a change. Before they go, the idea of China is not clear. For young people it’s dreaming to go to a big city. Maybe they can’t afford to go to the West. So they go to China, where education is cheaper, to see the beautiful cities and also maybe they heard about the training in China. After four years, that is the real touch of China. They eat Chinese food, they stay with Chinese and they buy made in China. According to me they all speak good Chinese and they have so many Chinese friends and they see it as a potential country to live. Some are still there, some come back. But there is a changing of ideas and a change of plans.

The Chinese mix – big projects, opportunities to study abroad and the example set by its own rapid rise – is having an impact on Africans’ view of the world.

Last month, a survey by the group Consumer Insight found China had nudged ahead of the US as the top source of inspiration for Kenyans.

And Africa may be set to follow in China footsteps. In the decade up to 2010, six of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa – Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda.

Stephen Chan says African countries are getting better at negotiating with China.

CLIP – CHAN – they are getting better. The relationship will get more equal.

Writer Binyavanga Wainaina says the West needs to accept that Africa can make its own decisions.

CLIP – WAINAINA – Africa is now a place where emerging markets are growing. Asia has had its season and has graduating. South America is getting to the point where it can determine its fate. We are not at the point where we can determine our fate but we are an established emerging market. People get good returns on their money. In fact people get better returns on their money here than anywhere else. I want to hear an American ambassador telling me: I want to do business with you because I don’t know where I can get better returns on my money.
We are liking how we talk with China. They say how much? We say this much. This benefits me, that doesn’t benefit you. And then China doesn’t say: You don’t even know what benefits you or not because you’re a child and how would you even know what’s good for you and we know what’s good for you and lalalala. We’re done with that shit. We’re in a multipolar world and the West has to actually get it.


That was me, Tom Spender, reporting on China’s growing presence in Africa for the Voice of Russia.

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