For the past decade, the U.S. has been nonchalant and complacent about China’s “invasion” and lightning-fast penetration of Africa. It was a complacency born of a combination of underestimation, miscalculation, hubris and dismissive thinking that often comes with being a superpower. But the U.S. is finally reading the memo.
Meanwhile, China is zooming along the African highway of “opportunism” with steely resolve and an iron fist sheathed in velvet gloves lined with loans, aid and expensive gifts. In July 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation proudly proclaimed his country’s economic prowess in Africa. “China’s trade with and investment in Africa have been expanding. In 2011, our two-way trade reached 166.3 billion U.S. dollars, three times the figure in 2006. Cumulative Chinese direct investment in Africa has exceeded 15 billion U.S. dollars, with investment projects covering 50 countries.” He added, “China and Africa have set up 29 Confucius Institutes or Classrooms in 22 African countries. Twenty pairs of leading Chinese and African universities have entered into cooperation under the 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education.”
In 1980, China’s total economic investment in Africa hovered around $USD1 billion; and 20 years later rose only to $USD10 billion. In 2010, China and Ghana signed infrastructure-related loans, credits and made other arrangements valued at about $15 billion. In 2009, China signed a $6 billion loan agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for infrastructure projects. In 2010, Chinese banks extended nearly $9 billion in loans and other types of financing to Angola for various projects. The Angolan government in turn used its oil credit line to commission the State-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation to build a ghost town outside of the capital at a cost of $USD3.5 billion. (To see the video of the Angolan ghost town click here.) In 2011, Chinese firms accounted for 40% of the corporate contracts in Africa compared to only 2 percent for U.S. firms. According to a report issued by the South African Institute of International Affairs, between 2003-2009, there were between 583,050–820,050 Chinese living, working and doing business in 43 African countries. Today China is Africa’s largest trading partner as the U.S. recedes fast in the rear view mirror.
If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, is it a duck?
China’s official policy statement on its trade and aid relationship with Africa derives from the first of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. China “respects African countries’ choice in political system and development path suited to their own national conditions, does not interfere in internal affairs of African countries, and supports them in their just struggles for safeguarding their independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China rejects accusations of neocolonial ambitions in Africa. President Hu Jintao explained that Africa and China are building a “new type of China-Africa strategic partnership… China and Africa have deepened practical economic cooperation featuring mutual benefit.”
But many critics are quick to point out that China’s assertion of a “strategic partnership” cleverly camouflages its calculated strategic ambition to suck out African natural resources on a long-term basis, cultivate African markets as dumping grounds for its cheap manufactured goods and gradually impose its hegemony over the continent. The policy of “noninterference” is said to be an elaborate and shameless ploy used by China to pacify and anesthetize witless African dictators and secure lucrative long-term contracts for raw materials.
Kwame Nkrumah coined the term “neo-colonialism”, the eponymous title to his book, to describe the socio-economic and political control exercised by the old colonial countries and others to perpetuate their economic dominance in the former colonies through their multinational corporations and other cultural institutions. He wrote, “Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case...”
Is there Chinese “neocolonialism” in Africa? Is China exercising “power without responsibility” in Africa “causing exploitation without redress” for Africans?
China is in Africa in full force with traders, investors, lenders, builders, developers, laborers and others. But gnawing questions linger. For instance, is China’s “gift” of the $USD200 million African Union (AU) building in Addis Ababa in 2011 a public demonstration of its good faith, good will and good works in Africa or a subtle hint of its neocolonial ambitions and hegemonic designs? Is China’s aid for the construction of roads, rail lines, bridges, dams and other public works projects evidence of an altruistic commitment to improve communication and commerce within Africa or a calculated strategy to further facilitate China’s deep penetration into the African hinterlands for raw materials (not unlike the European colonialists who built rail lines and ports to export Africa’s mineral wealth)? Is China fully supporting corrupt-to-the-core African dictators because it does not want to “interfere” in local politics or is “noninterference” its way of maintaining a chokehold on African dictators to protect its long-term interests in Africa? Does China want to do business in Africa in the short term and control its destiny in the long term?
In my column, “The Dragon’s Dance with Hyenas”, I suggested that Africa’s dictators could not be more happy with their “new strategic partnership” with China. They claim that China is not only a good friend but also the great rescuer of Africa from the ravenous and crushing jaws of neocolonialists, imperialists, neoliberals and other such nasty creatures. AU president in 2011, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the ruthless and corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, even saw “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa” in the Chinese-built 20-story AU glass tower. The late Meles Zenawi saw China leading Africa on a long march out of the winter of despair and desperation in to the spring of hope and renaissance. He proclaimed China brings to Africa a “message of optimism, a message that is out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment a new era of hope is dawning, and that Africa is being unshackled and freed…”
I disagreed with Meles Zenawi when he said he saw the “rise of Africa” and an “African Renaissance” reflected in the glass tower. I peeked behind the façade of that shiny edifice and saw standing “a giggling gang of beggars with cupped palms, outstretched hands, forlorn eyes and shuffling legs looking simultaneously cute and hungry and begging” and unable to pony up the chump change needed to put up a building that is to become their world stage.
The “China Model” and China as an ideal(less) partner for African dictators
African dictators talk about the “China Model” as a solution to Africa’s economic problems in much the same way as African sorcerers invoke voodoo incantations to heal those possessed by evil spirits. But the Chinese reject the notion of a “China Model”. Liu Guijin, China’s special representative on African affairs offered an official disclaimer. “What we are doing is sharing our experiences. Believe me, China doesn’t want to export our ideology, our governance, our model. We don’t regard it as a mature model.”
No African dictator has gone beyond phrase mongering to explain how the “China Model” applies to Africa. But the general idea in championing the “China Model” (“Beijing Consensus”) is that Africa can be successful without following the “Washington Consensus” (a set of ten policies supported by the U.S. and the international lending institutions including “fiscal discipline (limiting budget deficits), increasing foreign direct investments, privatization, deregulation, diminished role for the state, etc.). China presumably became a global economic power in just a few decades by pursuing state controlled capitalism instead of free market capitalism, avoiding political liberalization, giving a commanding role for the ruling political party in the economy and society, heavily investing in infrastructure projects, engaging in trial and error economic experimentation, etc.
African dictators believe they can achieve a comparable level of economic development by copycatting China. For Meles Zenawi and his disciples, the “China Model” is the magic carpet that will transport Ethiopia from abysmal underdevelopment and poverty to stratospheric economic growth and industrialization. African dictators are particularly enamored with the “China Model” because China achieved its economic “miracles” in a one-party system that has a chokehold on all state institutions including the civil service and the armed and security forces and by instituting a vast system of controls and censorship that keeps the people from challenging the government or learning about alternatives.
In reality, the “China Model” for African dictators demonstrates not so much the success of authoritarian state capitalism but the triumph of praetorian klepto-capitalism – a form of militarized kleptocratic capitalism in which African dictators and their cronies control the state apparatus and the economy using the military and security forces. African dictators in Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Equatorial Guinea, etc. rule by coercion and their coercive power derives almost exclusively from their control and manipulation of the military, police, and security forces, party apparatuses and bloated bureaucracies which they use for political patronage. They have successfully eliminated rival political parties, civil society institutions and the independent press.
The “China Model” is the ultimate smokescreen for African Dictators, Inc. It provides a plausible justification for avoiding transparent and accountable governance, competitive, free and fair elections and suppression of free speech and the press. Simply stated, the “China Model” in Africa is a huge hoax perpetrated on the people with the aim of imposing absolute control and exacting total political obedience while justifying brutal suppression of all dissent and maximizing the ruling class’ kleptocratic monopoly over the economy.
Could the “China Model” work in Africa?
Stripped off its hype, the “China Model” in Africa is the same old one-man, one-party pony that has been around since the early days of African independence in the 1960s. Time was when Zenawi, Museveni and Kagame were crowned the “new breed of African leaders” (by neoliberal imperators Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) and given a free pass to suck at the teats of neoliberal cash cows such as the World Bank and the IMF. Today these dictators heap contempt on “neoliberalism” as a “band-aid” approach to development, criticize the “gunboat diplomacy” of the U.S. (whose hard working taxpayers have shelled out tens of billions of dollars to shore up these dictatorships in the last decade) and tongue-lash “extremist neo-liberal” human rights defenders and advocates for slamming them on their atrocious human rights record and mindboggling corruption. If neoliberalism did not work in Africa, why should the “China Model” work?
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery but flattery does not get you anywhere in economic development. The great absurdity of all African dictators is that they believe they can copycat “word-for-word” ideas and practices from different countries, systems and cultures and make it work in Africa. For instance, in February 2012, Meles Zenawi literally believed he had the most perfect antiterrorism law in the entire world. He told his rubberstamp parliament with great pride and gusto, “In drafting our anti-terrorism law, we copied word-for-word the very best anti-terrorism laws in the world. We took from America, England and the European model anti-terrorism laws. It is from these three sources that we have drafted our anti-terrorism law. From these, we have chosen the better ones.”
One cannot pirate, copycat or cut-and-paste an economic model in the same way as one would make knockoffs of famous fashion accessories, popular brands of electronics or machine parts. But African dictators believe they can cut-and-paste the “China Model” in Africa and create economic miracles. But what they have succeeded in creating is the optical illusion of economic development by constructing shiny glass buildings and fancy roadways that go nowhere while sucking their national economies bone dry. As Global Financial Integrity concluded, “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.” That is what the “China Model” means in Ethiopia, and for that matter in much of Africa where it is followed.
Fightin’ Eagle in Africa?
So far we have heard a screaming Eagle grousing about the unfair advantage, immorality, amorality, opportunism and new colonialism of the Dragon. But will we ever see a fightin’ Eagle standing up to a fire-breathin’ Dragon in Africa and “win”?
The U.S. “battle plan”, other than the “moral, humanitarian, do good” human rights rhetoric, is to do too little too late. In 2000, the U.S. enacted The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)followed by the Africa Investment Incentive Act of 2006 to substantially expand preferential access for imports into the U.S. from designated Sub-Saharan African countries. These laws were intended to be substitutes for a Free Trade Agreement and enable reforming African countries the most liberal access to the U.S. market. By creating effective partnerships with U.S. firms and encouraging African governments to reform their economic and commercial regimes, the U.S. hoped to change and improve its long-term trade relations with Africa and open vast opportunities for Africans. As of 2011, U.S. trade with sub-Saharan Africa accounts for about 3 percent of total U.S. imports and 1 percent of U.S. exports. Oil makes up more than 90 percent of the $44 billion generated by U.S. imports from the AGOA countries. These laws have produced little success in achieving their aims.
Earlier this month, U.S. Senator Chris Coons, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs released a report (“Embracing Africa’s Economic Potential”) which underscored the “clear and pressing need for increased U.S. economic engagement in sub-Saharan Africa.” The Report argued that “increased trade facilitates growth for U.S. businesses as well as our African partners, simultaneously strengthening our own economy and Africa’s emerging markets.” It made several recommendations urging the development of a comprehensive strategy for increased U.S. investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, reauthorization and strengthening of the AGOA, removal of economic barriers and engagement of the African diaspora community in the United States. It will be hard to fight a Dragon with Eagle feathers!
How about an “Africa Model”?
I like to ask naïve questions. For instance, I ask not why China built the African Union Hall but why 53 plus African countries could not chip in or borrow the chump change needed to build the most symbolic building on the continent representing the independence, unity and hope of all African peoples? By the same token, I do not ask why an increasing number of African countries choose to follow the “China Model” but rather why they avoid following an African model such as the “Ghana’s Model”?
I am a big fan of Ghana. In July, 2009, in one of my weekly commentaries I asked one of my naïve questions: “What is it the Ghanaians got, we ain’t got?”. I argued that present day Ghana offers a reasonably good, certainly not perfect, template of governance for the rest of Africa. Ironically, it is to Ghana, the cradle of the one-man, one-party rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, that the rest of Africa must now turn to find a model of constitutional multiparty democracy.
Ghana today has a functioning, competitive, multiparty political system guided by its 1992 Constitution. Political parties have the constitutional right to freely organize and “disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programs of a national character”. Tribal and ethnic parties are illegal in Ghana under Article 55 (4). That is the secret of Ghana’s political success. The Ghanaians also have an independent electoral commission (Art. 46) which is “not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority” and has proven its mettle time and again by ensuring the integrity of the electoral process.
Ghanaians enjoy a panoply of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. There are more than 133 private newspapers, 110 FM radio stations and two state-owned dailies in Ghana. Ghanaians express their opinions without fear of government retaliation. The rule of law is upheld and the government follows and respects the Constitution. Ghana has a fiercely independent judiciary, which is vital to the observance of the rule of law and protection of civil liberties. Political leaders and public officials abide by the rulings and decisions of the courts and other fact-finding inquiry commissions.
It is possible to do business with China without following the “China Model.” Ghana has done billions of dollars worth of business with China without using the “China Model”. In 2012, Ghana snagged a loan from China for a cool USD$3 billion. In 2010, Ghana signed deals with China for various infrastructure projects valued at about $15 billion. Ghana is proof positive that Africa can do business with China without becoming “Western” China. Ghana is certainly not a utopia, but she is living proof that multiparty constitutional democracy can help salvage African countries like Ethiopia from political and economic dystopia. Why not adopt the “Ghanaian Model” continent wide?
“Let’s put aside the moral… and just talk straight realpolitik”
As Secretary Clinton rhetorically urged, “Let’s just talk straight realpolitik.” In international politics, there are no moral standards. The rule is might and self-interest makes right. That principle of international amorality has been taught since the ancient Greek historian Thucydides described relations between nations as anarchic and immoral. The world is driven by competitive self-interest. Machiavelli and Hobbes warned against mixing morality in the relations between nations as did Hans Morgenthau in the mid-20th Century. He wrote, “Universal moral principles cannot be applied to the actions of states in their abstract universal formulation, but that they must be filtered through the concrete circumstances of time and place.” International amorality has its own virtues. Zeng Huacheng, a counselor at the Chinese Embassy in Ethiopia says, “It’s not China versus America. It’s whatever helps the Ethiopians. If we don’t help, Africans will suffer.” So also said the fox guarding the hens in the henhouse, “I am here only to protect and serve you.”
There is an old African saying that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. What could happen when the Dragon and the Eagle fight in Africa? Who is likely to win? Not to worry. There will be no fight as there was no fight at the Berlin Conference in 1884; only a gentlemen’s agreement.
I believe there will be a great struggle for the destiny of Africa – a destiny that beckons Africa to take the low road of developmental thralldom and another that summons Africa to rise up and follow the high road to freedom. That struggle will be decided in a contest between the powers of “greedom” and the powers of freedom.
Will Africa’s destiny be determined by the Dragon, the laughing-to-the-bank hyenas, the Eagle or the people of Africa? The dragon is symbol of power and strength. The Emperor of China used the image of the dragon to project his imperial ambitions and domination. The Eagle represents freedom. The Eagle can freely sweep into the valleys below or fly upward into in to the boundless sky. The hyena thrives on carrion. But the African people have the power of freedom in their hands and in their souls.
Speaking truth to power means speaking truthfully to power and letting the chips fall where they may. I see great similarity in what the Chinese and the U.S. are doing in Africa. China gives money, loans, aid and gifts to corrupt-to-the core African governments. Doesn’t the U.S.? The only difference is that China is honest about it. China does not speak with forked tongue. It does not talk our ears off about human rights violations and crimes against humanity and turn around and reward the criminals with billions of dollars in aid and loans. For China, there is no human rights, it’s all strictly business. Aah! But isn’t U.S. talk of human rights in Africa as beautiful as the sight of the Bald Eagle in flight against the background of snow-capped mountains and the deep blue sky? But the U.S. first minds its business before minding African human rights. I am afraid human rights in Africa for both countries is a simple issue of mind over matter. They mind their businesses, don’t mind African dictators and the human rights of Africans don’t matter!
Perhaps the answer to the question of Africa’s destiny was given long ago by the man elected as the “Father of African Unity” at the 1972 Ninth Heads of States and Governments meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). H.I.M. Haile Selassie at the 1963 inaugural O.A.U. Summit told his fellow African heads of state:
… Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed…
…The answers [to the continent’s problems] are within our power to dictate. The challenges and opportunities which open before us today are greater than those presented at any time in Africa’s millennia of history. The risks and the dangers which confront us are no less great. The immense responsibilities which history and circumstance have thrust upon us demand balanced and sober reflection. If we succeed in the tasks which lie before us, our names will be remembered and our deeds recalled by those who follow us. If we fail, history will puzzle at our failure and mourn what was lost… May [we]… be granted the wisdom, the judgment, and the inspiration which will enable us to maintain our faith with the peoples and the nations which have entrusted their fate to our hands.
Thus spoke the African Lion!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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