The statement “China must go!” flashed across my phone screen.
It was a text from my Ethiopian friend, Adanech*. It was her response to the text I had earlier sent to a group of friends inviting them to a discussion forum I was leading titled “China in Africa: Partnership or Colonialism?“ The forum was hosted in Washington D.C. by the Forum on International Affairs (FIA).
The statement is not an unfamiliar sentiment. Another friend, Ogechi*, a Nigerian, had made the same statement a few weeks earlier, and many of the Africans who attended the discussion forum expressed similar concepts. Given that the Sino- Africa relation is between willing partners with the sovereignty to exit left if they so choose, “China must go” is not an impossible feat. However, if China decides to ride out of, say, Nigeria leaving in its wake half-completed infrastructure and energy projects, do we have the construction capabilities and financial reserves needed to initiate, build, complete and maintain these projects?
Do we have a plan? Are African countries prepared for a possible China exodus?
Africa is about 5% of China’s trade and investment engagement with the entire world, and I doubt that China would notice if the relationship with the continent disappears. My guts tell me that African countries will feel the impact unless another rich country steps in. Or here is a novel idea, our leaders get their acts together, get their ducks in a row and get a plan. The world recognizes that Africa is a growing market, and telecommunication networks, roads, and technology advancement are opening the continent up to opportunities, and we should leverage it.
Last year, the Ethio-Djibouti railway, a One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative that links Addis Ababa to the Port of Djibouti, was completed. The project cost $3.4 billion. The China’s Export-Import Bank financed about seventy percent ($2.3 billion) of the total cost, and the project was implemented by the China Railway Group Limited and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation. It was a huge project, and the Ethiopia government believes it will transform its largely agricultural economy — once known for little more than famine and coffee — into East Africa’s manufacturing hub. Definitely a huge benefit! About two years ago in 2015, the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit built by the China Railway Group Limited using Chinese labor and a $400 million loan from China was also completed. The metro rail system is to be staffed primarily by Chinese labor for the first five years to allow time to train enough Ethiopians to take over running it.
In a nutshell, China lends Ethiopia capital to build its infrastructures, and Chinese firms, state-owned or private, are contracted to construct these infrastructures using primarily Chinese labor and steel. This essentially means that the money, at least, most of it, is not pumped back into the Ethiopia’s economy or people. And at the end of the day, Ethiopia has to pay the debt back to China’s Export-import Bank or to the entity in China that financed the project. In the case of the metro rail system, after work is completed, Chinese labor continues to staff the system for an additional five years before local labor can take over. I’m not an economist, a business analyst or an expert, but something isn’t right, and this is a typical scenario around Africa. I wonder if I am short-sighted and unable to see the big picture, and it led to the first question I posed to the diverse group of people who attended the discussion forum.
“Is it a myth that we, as Africans and African countries, are getting the short end of the stick?”
The consensus across the board is we are getting the short end of the stick with the exception of one person, who essentially said, “You are getting the infrastructure you need. Why do you have a problem with how it is provided and who provides it?”
I have a problem because the imbalances in these partnerships are stark across the continent. From the many infrastructural projects popping up in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Angola, and Djibouti to China’s fishing operations in countries like Senegal and Gambia, and to the bilateral trade engagements between China and African countries, China is pulling in enormous benefits. In addition, China seems to have a semblance of an economic strategy, whether wobbly or structured, that favors and rewards its interest. Not only has it been able to provide labor for its vast labor market, it has also provided a market for its steel industry. It harvests its own money in quick succession while still having creditor power over the African nations it operates in who, by the way, are crumbling under the weight of their growing debt. Double whammy!
Let’s be clear, China’s operation in Africa is not altruistic, and we can’t pretend it is purely economics either. It opened up its first foreign military base ever in Djibouti in the summer, and surely the purpose is not to access natural resources. We can be sure that China’s engagement stretches into political, military, and cultural spaces to strengthen its expanding influence around the continent and the world. Africa also has 54 votes in the United Nations, World Court and International Monetary Fund (IMF). We may not yet know the long-term effects, but the soft power China currently possesses may not do in the long run.
Hence whether short-term, intermediate or long-term, African countries need a strategic plan that favors us to dictate how we operate and engage. Whatever plan we have now is not cutting it. We have to harness and leverage these relationships, partnerships, loans, aids, and investment. China willingness to invest in Africa countries means we don’t have to look solely to the IMF or The World Bank for support, and we are not forced to cater to the demand of the West. I hope we can take advantage. Sadly, I am unable to hold my breath. The Sino-Africa relation as it stands is not necessarily another form of colonialism or neo-colonialism as many allude to, though it resembles it and reeks of it often. It will be misguided, and, in my opinion, lazy to land solely on that conclusion. It is a complex relationship with many wins and losses. For every instance of wildlife destruction, there is the construction of much-needed roads and railway. For every instance of imported Chinese labor, there is the building of hospitals and telecommunication system, and for every cheap consumer goods that undermine local enterprise; there is the much-needed investment that China provides that many other countries are unwilling to offer. There is the good and bad to this partnership, but I’m not optimistic about its future or long-term effects.
I, however, refuse to place exclusive blame on a profit-making and self-interest entity like China. Africans, you and I, have to keep calling out our government, China, and the West. Our elected officials need to be accountable to us and quit making elite-focused deals behind closed doors. We have vast issues that run the gamut across the continent — from the residual effects of colonialism and looting to our incompetent and corrupt leaders who lack a top to down vision for what their countries and people need but have a “it’s our time to chop” looting mentality — we have a lot to juggle. All the corruption and incompetence exist alongside other issues like Boko Haram in Nigeria to government oppression and censorship in Ethiopia to civil clashes across the continent. Whether China leaves or stays, and whether in the long run, the partnership benefits us or not, we need to create a plan for running our affairs. If we are to operate and compete with the rest world, if we really are to be the next frontier, we need to start and continue to carve out ways to be proactive instead of reactive. My fear is we will allow China to exploit us instead of us enriching ourselves. We can’t expect another country or the West to take its gain and leave us better. The onus is on us to demand it, and we demand it by getting accountable, getting a plan, challenging our leaders, recognizing what we bring to the table and leveraging it.
*not real name