This is the first in a two-part series focusing on media coverage of the incident involving the now infamous Chinese restaurant in Nairobi. This first part focuses on commentary in select Kenyan newspapers.
The following is review of select commentary on the incident in three Kenyan newspapers: Daily Nation, Business Daily, and the Standard. The Daily Nation and Business Daily are published by the same company, Nation Media Group. Daily Nation is the leading national newspaper in Kenya in terms of both circulation and reputation. Business Daily is the most authoritative business daily. The Standard, on the other hand, is a leading competitor of Daily Nation.
On 3 April the newspaper printed a letter by Zeyun Yang, the director of the Kenya Chinese Overseas Association and managing director of a Nairobi real estate firm. In the letter Yang says that the Chinese have been wrongly labelled as racist because of the restaurant incident. He then introduces an interesting angle: the incident was staged, he says, “to give a negative impression that the Chinese discriminate against Kenyans.” Even with that assertion, he reiterates the explanation given by the owners of the now closed restaurant that they had previously been robbed, and were only taking security measures. Additionally, he writes that a good number of Nairobi restaurants – like the closed restaurant – don’t have licences, and also that many of them “do not admit Africans due to cultural or religious beliefs.” Kenyans and Chinese, he says, have a long history going back 500 years, and China has greatly assisted Kenya over the last 50 years. He asks: “Who are working day and night to build roads, bridges, hospitals, railways, affordable housing and working with Kenyans to do all flagship projects towards realising Vision 2030?”¹
Rasnah Warah, a Daily Nation columnist, makes many and sometimes conflicting arguments in her commentary published on 29 March. She points to a problem many other local commentators have mentioned: tribalism in Kenya. She connects this with the ongoing spectacle at the Venice Biennale where Chinese artists are representing Kenya. Her implicit argument is that Kenya’s government does not care about Kenya’s art and artists, and would rather have foreigners represent the country. Others who have spoken out on the Biennale, however, see an unconcerned government that doesn’t care much about Kenyan artists, but not to the extent that Warah suggests. She concludes on a familiar note among many people writing about China-Africa, calling out Chinese “colonialism,” competition between African traders and companies with Chinese entities, as well as Chinese “discriminatory practices and racism” that might “fuel a rebellion against the Chinese in Africa.”
On 2 April Kwame Owino wrote on a blog post that while excluding Africans at the restaurant was tactless, it’s wrong to describe this as a crime. Owino believes that the restaurant, as a private entity, has the right to implement “private” policies. Kenyans should instead protest against public inefficiency and the “deprivation of public services provided by the state as a monopoly.” It is easier to gang up against minorities than to “confront more harmful discrimination within Kenya today,” he says. Like many others, he calls for accommodation and adapting to a changing social and cultural landscape (even as he sees no problem with a restaurant discriminating against a particular race).
In an article published on 2 April, Mohamed Wehliye describes mainstream media coverage of the incident as negative and bordering on “xenophobic stereotyping.” It is the latest manifestation of China-bashing, he says, as he calls out politicians and businessmen for using the Chinese as their bogeymen. Additionally, he accuses Kenyans of xenophobia not only against the Chinese, but against other foreigners too. However, he says the “No Africans after 5 PM” policy was racist, and agrees that foreign criminals have taken advantage of Kenya’s weak law enforcement. His closing argument is that Kenya is better off with foreign talent, and therefore Kenyans should be more accommodating.
An editorial published on 26 March, on the other hand, comes out strongly against the racism inherent in the restaurant’s actions. “Is it possible that a Kenyan could set up a nyama choma operation in Shanghai and proceed to arrogantly bar Chinese nationals, then defend his actions and survive in China?,” it asks. It calls for the government to take stern action against racists, keeping in mind the price that the country paid for its independence.
On 26 March Jaindi Kisero published a commentary connecting the Chinese restaurant incident to another incident at one of Kenya’s “largest corporate organisations”, East African Breweries Limited (EABL). “Top executives” at EABL were accused of racism and this, combined with the Chinese restaurant incident, display a worrying trend in the private sector, according to Kisero. He links this to poor enforcement of immigration laws, which has seen semi-skilled foreigners flock to Kenya to take up jobs that locals are capable of doing.
Another columnist, Anzetse Were, commented on 29 March that the Chinese restaurant incident is an all too familiar manifestation of the racism narrative underlying “economic and social development efforts in Africa by non-African actors”. He says there is widespread discrimination against Africans on the world stage, and argues that “the symbolic representation of authority, expertise and knowledge are still non-African in origin.” But Were also points out that Kenyans were surprised that the racism was coming from the Chinese who have also experienced racism from the West and who have been at pains to frame their growing engagement with Africa as one between equals.
¹ Kenya’s development programme covering the period 2008 to 2030.