The recent ruckus over a possible takeover of Kenya’s biggest port by the Chinese government has opened a dicey diplomatic debate on the selfish interest nations have in the name of development partnership.
On a typical day, an average African is likely to commute on a Chinese-financed and built rail or road, communicate using Chinese cell phone, and perhaps eat fish imported from China.
China is in Africa. Its companies are prolific at bagging multibillion dollar contracts. Thanks to China, the continent is a recipient of mouth-watering but controversial loans. In the processes, everyday, billions of tonnes of Africa’s natural resources are shipped out of Africa to power the Chinese industrial and military complex.
So much is Africa’s wealth that China has established its first international naval base in Djibouti. Russia, too, is making frenetic forays across the continent cutting deals on security and minerals.
Such was unconceivable just two decades ago. And now, the US is furious, fearful and envious because it is losing grip of the continent — to two key rivals. Recently, addressing delegates at the Heritage House, America’s Security Adviser, John Bolton, took a swipe at China and Russia for “predatory practices” in Africa.
Yet the US, too, is desirous of Africa’s wealth and support. Africa is home to precious minerals that will determine the continued growth of the cell phone technology, electric cars and production of weaponry.
Africa’s population, at 1.2 billion and with a mid class of 350 million, is an emerging market for multinationals. That is not enough. By 2050, Africa’s population will be 2.5 billion. Indeed, projections are that one in every four people in the globe will be African.
Furthermore, in a world order guided by the doctrines of the United Nations, you need Africa as an ally. With a membership of 54, Africa is critical at tilting controversial votes.
Both Russia and China, suspiciously viewed in the international system, are desperate for recognition. China’s “chequebook diplomacy” has influenced all African countries, with the exception of e-Swatini, to denounce Taiwan and belt the “One China” tune. Indeed, whoever games Africa is likely to have much sway in global geopolitics.
China must have carefully taken cognisance of these nuances and betted on Africa. This explains why in 2001 the Chinese Politiburo developed a power doctrine called “Go Out”.
In this new thinking, Chinese state-owned companies were to scramble for investments and even resources across the world. For Africa it was timely because at that time, the West had written off Africa.
Besides, China has been consistent with its intensive Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) where it cements its space in the hearts of African leaders. The 2018 FOCAC, which registered full house attendance, saw China dolling out $60 billion under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which critics, including the US, reckon is saddling Africa with debt.
Japan, too, has been active with Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) while Russia, in 2019, is set to host the first high-level Russia-African Union Forum modelled on FOCAC. All these forums are designed to pull Africa to the orbits of the powers.
China is the most vibrant in Africa even as its dealings with leaders have been suspect as Africa’s dealmakers either get duped or enjoy illicit kickbacks at the expense of citizens. These are the transactions that Mr Bolton aptly described as “opaque”.
America is agitated with the rise of the rest in an increasingly multipolar world order. That is why it looks at the receding prestige, diplomatic clout and business in Africa from a very belligerent, zero-sum game, perspective. This is a battle for the soul and wealth of Africa. Bolton’s strategy called “Prosper Africa”, which only “targets key countries”, is cautiously tailored to be anchored on three pillars: Antiterrorism, trade and co-operation and aid cut.
Napoleon Bonaparte once described the middle kingdom as a sleeping giant. “Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world”. Over two centuries later, China is rattling the world sending Uncle Sam, the sole super power, into spin.
But, listening to Mr Bolton, you still get a sense of entitlement — and panic. Bolton was also condescending. Still it was evident that “Prosper Africa” is no better than “go out”. It is a self-serving policy where Africa is a pawn in the geopolitical power play.
“Under our new approach, every decision we make, every policy we pursue, and every dollar of aid we spend will further U.S. priorities in the region,” Bolton told his audience.
Credit, though, to Mr Bolton, for thoughts of an expanded American trade with Africa is welcome. So is the promotion of youth employment and growing of the middle class for Africa.
Still, state behaviour in the international system is anchored on the doctrine of self-interest. The Chinese, Americans, Europeans and the Russians all seek to gain leverage for their own domestic interests.
See, Africa is home to minerals of strategic significance for security and industrial growth. It is in Africa that massive deposits of cobalt (for cell phones), manganese, chromium and even uranium are to be found as well as diamond and gold. These minerals are to be found in the DRC, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Neither the US nor China can boast of such gems in their soil.
It is no wonder that in 2016, at the opening session of TICAD VI, held in Nairobi, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was explicit about Africa’s potential: “We have a feeling in our gut that in Africa, where possibilities abound, Japan can grow vigorously.”
DRC and Zambia boast of 52 per cent of world cobalt while South Africa is home to 77 per cent of world’s manganese. This explains why China is vibrant in these mineral-rich countries. In 2008, DRC sealed deals worth $9 billion with China. In the Cobalt-rich region of DRC, the national mining company called Gecamines sold stakes to China worth $825 million. The region is also rich in copper. In Gabon, China has struck a deal to exclusive iron ore at Belinga.
That is not enough. Much of Angolan and Sudanese oil is shipped to China. The story is the same with other minerals from Zambia, Zimbabwe or Mozambique.
In 1973, the then Soviet Prime Minister, Leonid Brezhnev, reckoned that “Our (USSR’s) aim is to gain control of the two great treasure houses on which the West depends, the energy treasure house of the Persian Gulf and the mineral treasure house of Central and Southern Africa.”
Russia was in Africa during the cold war. It is back, albeit belatedly. Russia is striking military deals with Eritrea and countries in the great lakes such as Central African Republic. In deed, Russia is on intense expeditions in Africa led by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
This year alone, Mr Lavrov has visited In Ethiopia, Angola, Zimbabwe Namibia, and Mozambique. The deal here is minerals and strategic co-operation. Russia is also signing a memorandum of understanding with the Southern African Development Community for strategic military co-operation.
But to suggest that the Chinese presence is a game-changer is stretching imaginations a bit too far. Zimbabwe is a basket case yet it has been entangled with China for decades. DRC, where China is extracting precious ores and hardwood, is wobbly and hopeless. In Angola, masses are still wallowing in poverty. The list is long. But since China prefers a non-interference doctrine, misrule, corruption and environmental infidelity go unchallenged.
China’s mega infrastructure projects benefit a tiny number of locals. Most of the material, including cement, is shipped from China. This means that the currency does not circulate into the domestic market to rejig the economy.
Indeed, Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, while denouncing and rejecting Chinese loans and projects, spoke for many when he said: “When they (Chinese) build, they use foreign labour, foreign materials. What do we get? Nothing.”
But has America abandoned Africa in totality? Not quite. Were it not for George Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar), 12 million lives would have been lost in Africa due to HIV/Aids.
Further, through the Bill Clinton’s Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) marked a departure from the ideological persuasions of aid to trade. Even Obama’s Power Africa and Feed the Future projects, if actualised, will reshape the fortunes of the poor in the continent.
Last year, Africa received foreign assistance of $8.7 billion from the US State Department and the Agency for International Development. In the same period, businesses from America invested $50 billion in Africa.
But the difference between America and China is the optics and the rules of engagement. While China is big on optics of dazzling vanity projects — mega rails, roads, buildings, pampering African leaders, and cunning on negotiation, the US largely went for softer targets like trade, democracy, fighting diseases and famine.
America is also heavily encumbered by its robust laws and values that it cannot indulge in opaque dealings because ultimately the truth will be unearthed with assured legal and political consequences.
Yet, with all its strategic relevance, Africa has not optimally gained from these suitors. When great powers descend on the continent, they target individual states. Most of Africa lacks robust systems, will and commitment to pursue beneficial deals. That is how she has been losing out and will keep losing unless there is a change of strategy.
The African Union and economic regional blocs must also find an area of common interest and design robust foreign policies for engagement with the powers. Of course, this should be informed by a clearly distilled vision of where Africa needs to go. Such a vision will dictate the kind of suitor to engage and the terms of engagement.
In fact the Europeans have seen Africa from a different lens. During his State of the Union Address to the European commission on September 12, 2018, Jean Claude Jucker, the Commission’s President, reckoned that Africa is beyond charity.
“Africa needs a true and fair partnership. And we, Europeans need this partnership just as much. Today, we are proposing a new Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs between Europe and Africa,” Mr Jucker said.
Thus EU targets to create 10 million jobs in Africa in five years. It is also keen on giving scholarships. “By 2020, the EU will have supported 35,000 African students and researchers with our Erasmus programme. By 2027, this figure should reach 105,000,” Mr Jucker said. Perhaps that is what the US should also do.
But then, the destiny of Africa is on Africans hands. To paraphrase Adams Smith, it is not from the benevolence of China, the US, or Russia that we expect our development.
Mr Wamanji is a Public Relations and Communication adviser [email protected] twitter: @manjis