Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first trip abroad is to Africa, underscoring the importance of this region to his country’s economic future. Xi’s first stop is Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital where he has already signed some landmark deals with the government that includes developing ports and industrial zones, and granting the country interest-free loans. Understandably, the United States is panicking because China is threatening their previous dominance in Africa’s economic life and more importantly, in the mind of the African.
Senator Chris Coons, Democratic senator from Delaware in the US senate is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African Affairs. He has almost grown hoarse sounding the alarm bell to his fellow countrymen:
“America is losing ground and ceding economic opportunities in Africa to competitors. China, which has made dramatic inroads across the continent in recent years, may undermine or even counter value-driven U.S. goals in the region, and should serve as a wake-up call for enhanced American trade and investment. This is truly a critical moment, as our Chinese competitors are securing long-term contracts that could lock American companies and interests out of fast-growing African markets for decades to come.”
Some say that China is only in Africa for its own purposes, in a relationship that is considered mainly transactional, extractive, unsustainable and indifferent to values of good governance and human rights. America is not the only one sounding such notes of caution. The head of Nigeria’s Central Bank, Mr. Lamido Sanusi recently in the Financial Times warned of an ever widening trade imbalance between China and Africa, predicting that Africa may be “opening itself up to a new form of imperialism”. And it would seem that President Xi is aware of this and may have made calming such fears a major goal of his visit to Africa.
And yet, why are so many African countries opening their doors willingly to China and to Chinese businesses? There is now an estimated 1 million Chinese working in Africa. Kenya’s ambassador to the United States Elkanah Odembo estimates that “Ten years ago trade between Africa and China was about $15 billion. By the end of this year, it will be about $200 billion.’’
Africa has within it the 6th to 7th fastest growing economies in the world and a middle class that is growing at an incredible rate, and everyone recognizes that the future economic boom is to be found in Africa, hence any so-called ‘Superpower’ has reason to worry when it’s “opponents” threaten to take the upper hand in Africa. Africa has huge deposits of crude to fuel China’s growing oil needs; minerals that China wants to buy, and a growing earning power that provides China a huge market for its consumer goods.
But there are some major differences between the attitudes of the United States and of China, and how these rub off on Africans. The general perception here is that In everything America does outside its shores, self-interest (read selfish) is paramount, and in an age where Africans are getting increasingly jealous of their autonomy and national pride, selfish governments eager to garrote Africa to milk it dry are kept at bay. Whatever accusations some may levy against China and its true intentions in Africa, there is something an African finds attractive in a Chinese who bends down with them to plough the field, mix cement, carry head pans of concrete and do menial carpentry jobs. No job is too menial for the Chinese laborer in Africa and for the African who values hard responsible work, it is an attitude that deserves respect. This creates a powerful image, different from that of a US construction boss coolly taking the breeze under the shade, with his proverbial whip, while his African employees slave it out. The workers bear with such attitude but resent it, and when a chance comes to choose, those arrogant bosses are soon dispensed with.
Both America and China have self-interested reasons to be in Africa. Economic: The United States desires to protect the many companies (especially oil prospecting) of its citizens, wants to ensure it retains access to a huge source of rich crude oil; Security: wants to take the fight to the perceived bases of its perceived enemies: Al Qaeda in Mali, Somalia… and now Boko Haram in Nigeria. China wants a market for its products and jobs for its citizens. While the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) [read, United States] give dubiously conditional loans to Africa with stringent payment conditions, China gives interest-free, and unconditional loans. Tell me, which attitude will most win African minds?
The difference lies mainly in the approach. China studies Africa, identifies its real needs and tries to service those. Where an African country needs refineries, China offers mouthwatering options to help them build one; where they need roads, China makes a pleasant offer. African countries are getting their roads and refineries, China is getting its money and getting its people employed.
America on the other hand does not seem to first study Africa’s real needs. It studies US needs, finds that Africa holds the solution, spins a public relations yarn about their intentions and comes to Africa under subterfuges and behind dark glasses that hide its true intentions. The selfishness of most United States’ interventions here is known to every African and resented. That is part explanation of the open arms with which China is being received.
At best China is providing a balance of power that Africa, and the world needs and now that the continent is spoilt for choice, it can hopefully decide what is best for it.