There’s a lot of fear that China is taking over Africa with its billions of dollars in investments, huge loans that may become debt traps, increased military presence, the rejection of local content, and its cozy relationship with dictators.
Late last year, the United States warned that China and Russia were threats to the stability and prosperity of Africa.
Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton while unveiling a new American strategy for Africa in December tried to reassure the 1.2 billion people who inhabit the world’s second-most populous continent that America was still very much in the game, and fears that it risks losing sway from Algeria to Zimbabwe were simply overblown.
Bolton who spoke at the Heritage Foundation in Washington said “If we didn’t understand it before, the competition posed by China and Russia and others should highlight that for us.”
Bolton said the United States would focus more on bilateral agreements with individual African countries while also focusing on counter terrorism and overhauling foreign aid.
But bilateral deals may not materialize for many years to come, meaning that the United States may miss investment opportunities in Africa, the world’s fastest growing middle and a continent that would account for half of the global population by 2050.
And while the U.S. still tries to figure out what it would like to focus on in Africa, China continues to expand investments on the continent while increasing scholarships for African academics.
China State Construction Engineering Corp. is building a $191 million bridge in Ivory Coast as well as power plants, an airport and railway in Kenya that may be extended to Sudan and elsewhere, and has taken over a critical seaport in Djibouti.
China loaned over $132 billion to Africa between 2006 and 2017 alone and many worry countries may not be able to pay back.
And although the United States continues to be present and engage in Africa with the Pepfar initiative for instance where over $80 billion to fight HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have been invested, providing nearly 15 million people with life-saving drugs in the fiscal year 2018 alone, and remains the biggest financial contributor to the UN peacekeeping missions, the fact is the U.S. footprint in Africa is shrinking.
But where does all this leave Africa? Indeed, as China continues to expand investments on the continent, there are fears that the use of its strategic debts is meant to hold African nations captive to its demands, unable to pay back and may even begin to take national assets as it did in Sri Lanka.
Also, China does not seem to bother about human rights and is ready to engage in corrupt practices with whoever is in power just to secure contracts.
With bribery and corruption, those projects are often not well done, and some collapse over the years long before they were meant to. As a result, while the huge loans often negotiated without transparency would be repaid for years, the projects they were meant for would have collapsed long before then.
Another big accusation is that China, instead of using local content prefers to ship in its own laborers from China thereby sidelining local laborers in Africa. This is creating not only resentment from the local populations but also it fails to train local content on similar projects later.
Another missing piece is that the World Bank, the IMF and virtually all other global organizations have repeatedly said that tomorrow’s economy would be more about the knowledge-economy than manufacturing and the rest, but China is less present in education and research.
Training Africans to know things for themselves does not seem to be in the interest of China.
However, in all of this, the United States has not even detailed how it intends to counter China in Africa.
So where does this leave Africa?
On the one hand, many Africans remain hungry and rely on foreign aid and loans to survive, on the other hand, China is providing those loans, the loans that may become debt traps with projects that may collapse in a few years and dictators who may continue to oppress their people and with universities that may remain deprive of research and proper training or any relevance to the way the modern economy works.
One of the suggestions is that Africans would need to fight corruption themselves, ensure projects from China and elsewhere are transparent and fair and durable. They would also need to have a good business environment to attract businesses from all over the world. The other one is that the United States should continue to engage in Africa, not only because it is a good region for business but also for the sake of competition and fairness.
May God help us.
Simon is a renowned international journalist, founder and publisher of TODAY NEWS AFRICA in Washington D.C.