Why Africa is leaning towards China

By David Mukholi

When independent African countries were hit by hard times, the solution was foreign aid. Decades of aid didn’t alleviate, but exacerbated the continent’s plight.

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Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) attended by about 40 African heads of state ended last week in Beijing with China making a commitment to give $60b to Africa. 

 Apart from the African Union summit, there is hardly any other forum that has such a big turnout of African leaders with Africa as the main item on the agenda. This underlines China-Africa relations. 

In his address, Xi Jinping, the President of China, the money is to finance industrial promotion, infrastructure connectivity, trade facilitation, green development, capacity building, healthcare, people-to-people exchange and peace and security. China’s presence in Africa has grown in the recent years and it has been applauded and also criticised. 

The big presence of African leaders at FOCAC indicates disregard of frequent disparagement that China is an economic plunderer out to sink Africa. Critics have labelled China as a new colonial power targeting Africa’s natural resources using loans choking African countries as bait. Some have warned that Africa is heading into a debt trap laid by China. 

It is unlikely that the entire continent could be blind and all their leaders would take their people down the drain. Africa’s political history is dotted with several struggles including the fight for independence and against diseases, ignorance and poverty.  After attaining independence, Africa still clung to the former colonial masters. 

This is partly because its economy was structured to serve them. African counties produced raw materials that feed industries in western Europe, which wanted perpetuation of the relationship. Besides the economy, the education and cultural influence were used to serve the interest of the West too. 

In the early days of colonialism, this helped to keep Africans subordinate to colonial powers and it continued after independence for economic and political reasons. In his book, How Europe Under Developed Africa, Walter Rodney, a critic of colonialism, points out the lopsided relationship between Africa and Europe. He pointed out that “On the one hand, there were European countries who decided on the role to be played by the African economy; and on the other hand, Africa formed an extension to the European capitalist market. As far as foreign trade was concerned, Africa was dependant on what Europeans were prepared to buy and sell”.

When independent African countries were hit by hard times, the solution was foreign aid. Decades of aid didn’t alleviate, but exacerbated the continent’s plight. 

It came with conditions and programmes designed in western capitals without taking into local needs into consideration. Countries were treated as homogeneous entities with same problems, cultures and traditions which was a carry-on from the colonial days. A combination of aid and loans did not help Africa. 

And now China steps in with investments and loans to support Africa’s development. It comes with what is dubbed as a win-win solution, investing to the benefit of China and Africa. China is also bringing in its experience of lifting nearly 500 million people out of poverty in a period of 30 years for Africa to emulate. 

Once a poor country with biting poverty, China radically changed for the better following economic reforms in 1978 that entailed opening up to the market. It attracted world businesses and also started doing business with the world. It created jobs for its people, lifted them out of poverty, embraced technology, modernised and became a world economic power. 

To Africans struggling to get out of poverty, there are lessons to learn from China. And also it comes with an alternative to aid, which made African dependant and consequently stagnant. In Ethiopia, where China has made significant investment and given financial support, two Chinese shoe factories set up in 2010 and 2016 have created some 7,000 jobs are earning the country foreign exchange in millions of dollars. 

The shoes produced include brands like Calvin Klein, which are sold across the world. It is such examples, in addition to the non-interference policy, that are enticing Africa.  In his speech on Monday, Xi Jinping stressed: “We follow a ‘five-no” approach in our relations with Africa: no interference in Africa countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their natural conditions, no interference in African countries internal affairs, no imposition of our will on African countries, no attachment of political gains in investments and financing co-operation with Africa.” 

A script of how China is developing Africa is being pieced up and Africa’s hope is that in future it turns into how China developed Africa. Prejudices against China and its intentions, its products and people taking over local jobs will pale as Africans begin to increasingly see their countries being developed with its support. 

The fact that cannot be discounted is Chinese investment in Africa is making a significant impact and also setting a footprint on the continent. However, for Africa to fully develop its leaders must emulate China by firmly fighting corruption.

Twitter:@dmukholi1