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Africa must change tact in engaging China

By ERICK KOMOLO | July 31st 2012 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300


The conclusion last week of the 5th Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) Ministerial in Beijing could not have escaped scrutiny amongst observers of the growing international momentum “to get a slice of the African cake”. While the highlight of was the Ministerial Summit graced by top China leadership and a coterie of top African leaders, including Prime Minister Raila Odinga, equally instructive sessions with non-State actors and Civil Society groups drawn literally from all corners of Africa were held on the sidelines.

These apparently all-expenses-paid sessions were notably graced by recognised retired African statesmen, including Tanzania’s Mkapa to Nigeria’s Obasanjo, and discussed all muted Sino-Africa issues, including the alleged opposition by the West to China’s engagement with Africa.

But that should hardly be an issue of bother. In many respects China’s aggressive entry into Africa has seen many “early harvests” including soft ones like simple global attention toward the African market. Actually, one may argue that it was the global recognition of China’s ‘uniqueness’ in early 1990s that led to overflow of foreign investments. The only difference is that China clearly managed that position to its great advantage, and it will do Africa and Kenya in particular a lot of good to learn a thing or two from it.

You may say that other observable “early harvests” are cost reductions to the consuming public resulting from stiff competition in the media and telecommunications and associated employment opportunities. Fortunately for Africa the emergence of BRICKs and other potentially strategic partners like Turkey means that African countries are, on paper, not short of suitors. But that is half the story as historical evidence points to the fact that it is not really a simple question of the number of suitors that eventually determine gains accruing to a country.

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Yes, it gives you choices, but what next? This is one question that anyone who closely monitored representations by the Kenyan delegation to Focac will conclude that the country is ill-prepared to answer. The language of the final Focac Declaration itself leaves no doubt as to who is the more equal of the partners as it repeatedly hammers the point home that “China will...” and “the African side appreciates...”. Interestingly, in promising “cooperation” in nearly every sector of the African society, the Declaration adopts traditional ego-boosting script used in Africa that communicates an “everything-is-fine” attitude. In the end, the ordinary public is left as desolate as ever while the elite enter into strategic business partnerships, and the CSOs are ideologically kept busy.  You only need to take a brief look at the so-called major infrastructure projects across Africa to see how skewed the arrangements are against the public and indigenous African enterprises. Even the much lauded Thika super highway, for all its positives, eventually had negligible long term contribution with regard to skills and technological transfer to Kenyans and local companies.

You don’t achieve much in this front if you negotiate agreements that allow blind importation of materials and equipment, not to mention skilled labour. If this is allowed to continue, then how can we guarantee that future superhighways will be constructed by Kenyans? Does the government have any strategic plan for indigenous companies to eventually take over from the Chinese companies?

To many, China is simply an easy source of alternative no-strings-attached cash that facilitates achievement of their immediate political goals. With a few kilometres of Chinese-funded roads and some hospitals here and there, the public can be manipulated, hard graft cases evaded and ill-prioritised national budgeting perpetuated. You then end up with some of these governments spending more on military than food.

‘Cluelessness’ syndrome

Why then can’t Africa change tact? Surely, can we expect to develop the continent while auctioning domestic policies to foreign manipulation? The problem could partly be due to Miguna’s “cluelessness” syndrome. But that oversimplifies the core issue. In reality, most of these African governments lack coherent national development policy beyond survival politics. Common talk has it that they spend more time shopping than negotiating.  And frankly, some these omissions are too glaring to escape allegations of being compromised.  Clear lessons for Africa in the ongoing Sino-Africa relations come from China itself.

Rule one; don’t expect to grow with unfettered foreign participation in your economy. Rule two: ignore domestic enterprises to your eventual peril.

The writer is doctoral candidate at the University of Hong Kong.


China-Africa Cooperation Beijing Africa China
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