From the early 1960s to the early 1990s, Africa was one of the battlegrounds for the Cold War. Both the West, led by the US and the East, led by the then Soviet Union, supported various factions fighting for independence, or trying to usurp incumbent governments, and propped up regimes that were aligned to their particular ideology. The ultimate objective at the time was to gain control of Africa’s immense natural resources. In those times China was just on the periphery. But the situation has now undergone a dramatic change. Today Africa is again becoming the battleground for a different kind of Cold War – not political, but economic – and it appears China is gaining ground over the West, exposing its double standards and hypocrisy in the process.
The West are accusing China of supporting and doing business in some African countries whose governments don’t respect human rights, are corrupt and undemocratic. But what I want to know is, was the West located on a different planet when they were supping with and supporting kleptocrats like Mobutu? That’s why I was elated when Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade stated that in an article for the London Financial Times that ‘When it comes to China and Africa, the European Union and the US want to have their cake and eat it. In an echo of its past colonial rivalries, European leaders and donor organisations have expressed concerns that African nations are throwing their doors open too wide to Chinese investors and to exploitation by their Asian partners.’
But if opening up more free markets is a goal that the west prizes – and extols as a path to progress – why is Europe fretting about China’s growing economic role in Africa? The expansion of free markets has indeed been a boon to Africa. But as I tell my friends in the west, China is doing a much better job than western capitalists of responding to market demands in Africa.
I can’t agree with Wade more when he says that the battle for influence in the world between the West and China is not Africa’s problem. The is in a hurry to build infrastructure, ensure affordable energy and educate our people. In many African nations, African leaders are striving to reinforce robust economic growth in a sustainable manner and reduce “brain-drain” incentives that have led to an exodus of well-educated Africans to Europe.
China was once classified as a Third World country, has suffered the yoke of colonialism just like Africa and therefore identifies with Africa’s predicament. That is why China’s approach to Africa’s needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations and non-governmental organisations. In fact, the Chinese model for stimulating rapid economic development has much to teach Africa.
With direct aid, credit lines and reasonable contracts, China has helped African nations build infrastructure projects in record time – bridges, roads, schools, hospitals, dams, legislative buildings, stadiums and airports. Wade is right when he says that these are improvements that stay in Africa and raise the standards of living for millions of Africans, not just an elite few.
It is a telling sign of the post-colonial mindset that some donor organisations in the West dismiss the trade agreements between Chinese banks and African states that produce these vital improvements – as though Africa was naïve enough to just offload its precious natural resources at bargain prices to obtain a commitment for another stadium or state house.
In the past, the political power-play between Taiwan and China often spurred Asian investment on the African continent. Today, however, economic relations are based more on mutual need – and the economic reality that the EU and the US cannot compete with China.
Wade revealed in his article that a contract that would take five years to discuss, negotiate and sign with the World Bank takes three months with Chinese authorities. The current crop of African leaders can afford to believe in the rule of law because the spectre of any CIA-insipred coup d’etat no longer pervades the African political climate. Therefore when African leaders like Wade say ‘I am a firm believer in good governance and the rule of law,’ they must be believed. But when bureaucracy and senseless red tape impede our leaders’ ability to act – and when poverty persists while international functionaries drag their feet – African leaders have an obligation to opt for swifter solutions like courting China. Wade says he achieved more in his one hour meeting with President Hu Jintao in an executive suite at his hotel in Berlin during the 2008 G8 meeting in Heiligendamm than he did during the entire, orchestrated meeting of world leaders at the summit – where African leaders were told little more than that G8 nations would respect existing commitments.
China, which has fought its own battles to modernise, has a much greater sense of the personal urgency of development in Africa than many western nations. Last November, the Chinese pledged $10bn in preferential loans for African infrastructure and social programmes over the next three years, funds that outstripped all western donor pledges combined. News of the commitment has caused a fuss in some quarters of Europe. But western complaints about China’s slow pace in adopting democratic reform cannot obscure the fact that the Chinese are more competitive, less bureaucratic and more adept at business in Africa than their critics.
Today Africa finds itself at the heart of an economic struggle with the EU. If Europe does not want to provide funding for African infrastructure – it pledged $15bn under the Cotonou Agreement eight years ago – the Chinese are ready to take up the task, more rapidly and at less cost. Not just Africa but the west itself has much to learn from China. It is time for the west to practice what it preaches about the value of market incentives.