Chinese Neocolonialism in Africa: The Dragon Eating the African Lion and Cheetah? (Part I)[Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

Author’s Note: In March 2013, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Dragon Eating the Eagle’s Lunch in Africa?”. That commentary 1) lamented the disadvantages of American companies in Africa competing with Chinese state-supported enterprises unchained by anti-corruption laws, 2) the ludicrous idolization of the so-called China Model by African dictators (which to their understanding means suppress democratic institutions and civil liberties at the altar of economic development); 3) defended the idea of an “African Model” patterned after Ghana and 4) offered general ruminations on China’s creeping neocolonialism in Africa.

In February 2012, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Dragon’s Dance with Hyenas”. In that commentary, I reflected on the $200 million dollar stately pleasure chit-chat dome (ironically represented in a building that looks like a gigantic inverted beggar’s bowl) for African dictators called the African Union (AU) [which I call the “African Beggars Union Hall”] gifted to Africa by China.  This was my lead paragraph: “The Chinese Dragon is dancing the Watusi shuffle with African Hyenas. Things could not be better for the Dragon in Africa. In the middle of what once used to be the African Pride Land now stands a brand-spanking new hyenas’ den called the African Union Hall. Every penny of the USD$200 million stately pleasure dome was paid for by China. It is said to be ‘China’s gift to Africa’.” That building was “built largely with Chinese labor.”  The African Union Beggars Hall was intended to crown and cement the “new strategic partnership” between China and Africa.

Are African countries so poor not to be able to build a meeting hall for $200 million in 2011?

In 2011 it was reported that Ethiopia “lost $11.7 billion in illegal capital flight from 2000 through 2009.” With nearly $12 billion in stolen money from Ethiopia alone, each African country could have built its own African Union hall.

In 2011, AU president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the ruthless and corrupt dictator of Equatorial Guinea since 1979, hallucinated that he saw “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa” in the 20-story glass tower. Meles Zenawi, the late thugmaster of the Tigrean Peoples Liberation Front (T-TPLF) pipe dreamed about China leading Africa on a long march out of the winter of poverty and despair into an African spring of economic development and renaissance. Zenawi proclaimed China brings to Africa a “message of optimism, a message that is out of the decades of hopelessness and imprisonment a new era of hope is dawning, and that Africa is being unshackled and freed…”

Hail China! The Great African Liberator.

Zenawi believed Chinese neocolonialism was the dawn of a new freedom just as he believed his regime was democratic.

Naturally, I disagreed with Zenawi. He equated his delusions of grandeur reflected in the African Beggars Union Hall’s glass tower for the “rise of Africa” and an “African Renaissance”. I peeked behind the façade of that shiny inverted begging bowl of a building and saw a giggling gang of beggars, anxiously rubbing their palms for alms and jostling each other to get to the front of the beggars’ line. Beggary is as much a state of extreme poverty as it is a state of mind. It is incredible to me that despite the billions of dollars African dictators and thugtators have stolen from their people, they still suffer from a terminal case of beggary.

The shame of it all!

The 55 members of the AU could not pony up the $200 million ($3.6 million each) for their headquarters so they had to panhandle China to build the quintessentially iconic building for all Africans. That is what happens when begging becomes the vocation and avocation of African dictators and thugtators.

How are the Great Liberators of Africa doing in 2017?

Is the Chinese Dragon devouring the African Lion and Cheetah?

Chinese neocolonialism in Africa?

I know it is not hip to talk about Chinese neocolonialism in Africa. “What neocolonialism?”, they ask. “China is developing Africa’s infrastructure. China is engaged in ‘win-win development’. They are building dams, roads, rail lines and on and on.”

I don’t buy the canard that China is Africa’s gift that keeps on giving.

In 2017, China cares as much about Africa as the European colonial powers did at the Berlin Conference in 1894.

I know it is not politically correct to say that China is exploiting Africa just like the Europeans in the heyday of colonialism.  But I am a great believer in political correctness. I speak truth to power. What could be more politically correct than that? If the truth offends anyone,  hell, that means I am doing a damn good job!

Anyway, I will let the apologists for China who live in Denial-istan play their game of political correctness. I will call a spade, a spade.  Better yet, a neocolonialist, a neocolonialist.

But I am not the only one asking questions about Chinese neocolonialism in Africa. This past May, the N.Y. Times Magazine headlined its detailed analysis with a straightforward question: “Is China the world’s new colonial power?”. I would add, “Is China Africa’s new neocolonial master?”

Let the evidence speak for itself, as the lawyers like to say.

First, the order of proof:

1) Does China use its mega transnational corporations and banking institutions to perpetuate colonial forms of exploitation in Africa?

2) Is China’s “new strategic partnership” with Africa a fancy phrase for China’s kinder and gentler creeping neocolonialism through outwardly benign economic relations (domination) and exploitation of Africa as a source of cheap raw materials and cheap labor?

Let me frame the foregoing questions in the language of the great Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah who coined the term “neo-colonialism”, the eponymous title to his book, to describe the socio-economic and political control exercised by the former colonial countries to perpetuate their economic dominance in their  former colonies through their multinational corporations and other cultural institutions:

The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside… The result of neo-colonialism is that foreign capital is used for the exploitation rather than for the development of the less developed parts of the world. Investment under neo-colonialism increases rather than decreases the gap between the rich and the poor countries of the world…. Neo-colonialism is also the worst form of imperialism. For those who practise it, it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress. In the days of old-fashioned colonialism, the imperial power had at least to explain and justify at home the actions it was taking abroad. In the colony those who served the ruling imperial power could at least look to its protection against any violent move by their opponents. With neo-colonialism neither is the case. (Emphasis added.)

Beware of Chinese bearing gifts: “Investments, loans, aid…”

China has literally invaded Africa with its investors, traders, lenders, builders, developers, laborers and who knows what else.

In July 2012, Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Opening Ceremony of the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation proudly proclaimed his 10-point plan to save Africa from poverty and despair through a “China-Africa strategic partnership”.  That “partnership” will ultimately render Africa as a source of raw materials for China and dumping grounds for cheap Chinese manufactured goods.

China’s “trade and investment” in Africa have been expanding. Jintao said, “In 2011, our two-way trade reached 166.3 billion U.S. dollars, three times the figure in 2006. Cumulative Chinese direct investment in Africa has exceeded 15 billion U.S. dollars, with investment projects covering 50 countries.” Jintao added, “China and Africa have set up 29 Confucius Institutes or Classrooms in 22 African countries. Twenty pairs of leading Chinese and African universities have entered into cooperation under the 20+20 Cooperation Plan for Chinese and African Institutions of Higher Education.”

The “Confucius Institute” (which I call the Confusion Institute) is China’s foreign propaganda arm. According to Foreignpolicy.com, the Confucius Institute [which should be called the “Confucius Political Correctness Institute of China”) is “a vehicle for Chinese propaganda, restricting what the teachers they supply from China can say, distorting what students learn, and pressuring American professors to censor themselves.”

In 1980, China’s total economic investment in Africa hovered around $USD1 billion; and 20 years later rose only to $USD10 billion.  In 2015, China’s trade with African states approached over $200 billion, a tenfold increase and “China is seeking to raise the amount to $400 billion by 2020.”  China imports crude oil, minerals and agricultural commodities from Africa. China is Africa’s main export market source of imports.

Between 2000 and 2014, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended USD$86.3 billion worth of loans to African governments and state-owned enterprises.

In 2009, China signed a $6 billion loan agreement with the Democratic Republic of the Congo for infrastructure projects.

In 2010, China and Ghana signed infrastructure-related loans, credits and made other arrangements valued at about $15 billion.

Exporting the “China Model” in Africa has meant exporting ghost cities.

In 2010, Chinese banks extended nearly $9 billion in loans and other types of financing to Angola for various projects. The Angolan government in turn used its oil credit line to commission the State-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation  to build a ghost town outside of the capital at a cost of $USD3.5 billion.  (To see the video of the Angolan ghost town click here.)  A June 2017 N.Y. Times piece described  the corrupt building boom in Angola “like opening a window and throwing money out.”

In 2011, Chinese firms accounted for 40% of the corporate contracts in Africa compared to only 2 percent for U.S. firms.

China says it is providing credit for infrastructure improvements. They are building  “tofu” roads, bridges and buildings. A few weeks ago, “a $10 million Chinese-built bridge in Western Kenya, personally commissioned by president Uhuru Kenyatta,  collapsed [two weeks after it was opened with fanfare].  At least 27 workers were injured.”

In June 2017, the 470-kilometer rail line in Kenya built and funded by the Chinese at a cost of $3.2 billion was inaugurated with fanfare. Today, China “holds over half of Kenya’s external foreign debt.” China’s vice-minister for Foreign Affairs Zhang Ming was so concerned about  claims that China was giving Kenya its hand me down trains, he issued a public denial stating, “Let me assure you that China never exports second-hand clothes; we never export second-hand cars and it is by no means possible for us to export second-hand locomotives.”

But Chinese involvement in Kenya shows the slick nature of Chinese neocolonialism. A July 2017 Brookings Institution report concluded:

Both railways [in Kenya and Ethiopia] are examples of whole industry chain export, rather than the export of single, individual service contract under the railway project. From project designs to equipment procurement, from construction to financing, from supervision to the operation and maintenance of the railways after their completion, Chinese companies and banks monopolized the complete chain. This situation does not only offer the Chinese players a unique and exclusive opportunity to promote Chinese products, services, technologies, and management models, but also significantly expanded the scope of spinoff economic projects not indirectly related to the railway projects…. Under the promotional effect of the railways, Chinese companies are deeply involved in the real estate development, infrastructure development, logistics, industrial parks, factory construction, designing and consultation, industry and mining, and international trade as well as hotels and tourism.

Mozambican economist Eduardo Sengo commenting on the sophisticated nature of Chinese neocolonial penetration of his country argued,  “The construction projects financed by China do not contribute towards the growth of the Mozambican economy” and that “streets, power lines and railway tracks are usually built by Chinese firms who bring in their own workers and materials, all the way down to the nails and hammers.” Thus, “credits thus flow directly back to China – which leaves hardly anything for Mozambican entrepreneurs and workers.”

Calle Schlettwein, Namibia’s minister of finance in May 2017 said, “The Chinese say, ‘We want you to be masters of your own destiny, so tell us what you want. But they want de facto total control over everything, so it’s difficult to bring about a situation that is truly beneficial.”

Could there be a better example of Chinese neocolonialism in Africa?

Maybe there is.

The “Ethiopian Railway Line” opened in October 2016 with all the bells and whistles. That line  is said to connect the Ethiopian capital with Djibouti on the Red Sea coast. The USD$4 billion project was backed by China and built by the China Railway Engineering Corp. and China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.

Today the “Ethiopian Railway Line” is derailed and teeters on the edge of financial disaster.

The T-TPLF announced that the “Ethiopian Railway Corporation” “ERC) is drowning in an ocean of debt. According to a report in the online version of the “Reporter”, a “private newspaper published in Addis Ababa”, Getachew Betru, “CEO” of “ERC” informed the “Ethiopian Parliament” that the Corporation is $102.5 billion birr in the red. The Reporter also stated the so-called Addis Ababa Light Rail built by the Chinese for USD  $475-million is in the hole for 1.8 billion birr.  According to Betru, ERC needed 60.2 billion birr for its annual budget in 2016. Betru provided the following stunning explanation for the humongous shortfall:  “We boldly got into such a railway project thinking believing in a principle that we’ll find a way out.” The Chinese way out and into neocolonial debt peonage.

China continues to ensnare Africa in its neocolonial trap by providing billions of dollars in new loans. China even uses “debt relief to obtain exclusive rights to a nation’s natural resources and build military bases”.

Over a million Chinese currently reside in Africa.  According to one researcher who interviewed Chinese diplomats over a decade, “Chinese ambassadors and other Chinese diplomatic staff  are, for the most part, embarrassed by the many Chinese migrants in Africa whom they see as low class and uneducated. The myriad problems they must deal with, from crime and corruption (where Chinese migrants are often both victims and perpetrators) including issues related to irregular migration status, trafficking, labor, trade and tariffs, and the environment are viewed with frustration and shame.” Indeed, China’s gift to Africa does not include its best and brightest.

But African dictators and thugtators insist China is Africa’s gift that keeps on giving.

China continues to build rail lines, bridges, dams and other public works projects evidence of an altruistic commitment to improve communication and commerce within Africa or a calculated strategy to further facilitate China’s deep penetration into the African hinterlands for raw materials (not unlike the European colonialists who built rail lines and ports to export Africa’s mineral wealth). China fully supports corrupt-to-the-core African dictators not because it does not want to “interfere” in local politics but because these dictators are the only means China has to ensure a chokehold on Africa. China’s fortunes in Africa and tied to the (mis)fortunes of Africa’s thugtators and dictators.

Chinese corruption in Africa: A multi-country survey by the Ethics Institute of South Africa

There is considerable public suspicion about the Chinese presence and economic power in Africa. Africans have concerns about the Chinese human rights record, labor practices, corrupt business practices and exploitation of natural resources.

A 2014, the Ethics Institute of South Africa conducted a survey in 15  African countries to measure perceptions on several issues: 1) reputation of Chinese business in Africa, 2) quality of Chinese products and services, 3) social responsibility of Chinese business in Africa, 4) economic responsibility of Chinese business in Africa, 5) environmental responsibility of Chinese businesses in Africa and 6) employment practices of Chinese business in Africa.

The results of the survey indicated were “negative than positive. In terms of the reputation of Chinese business in Africa, 43.3% is negative and 35.4% positive. In respect of the quality of Chinese products and services, 55.9% is negative and 22.7% positive. Regarding environmental responsibility of Chinese companies in Africa, 53.9% is negative and only 11.1% positive. In terms of economic responsibility of Chinese companies in Africa, 40.1% is negative and 28.3% positive. There is somewhat more optimism when it comes to the social responsibility of Chinese companies, with 45.7% being negative and 21.0% positive. Lastly, perceptions of employment practices of Chinese companies in Africa are 46.0% negative and 19.1% positive.”

Other surveys by Afrobarometer offer rosy assessments of China’s role and presence in Africa.  But I give little credibility to Afrobarometer.

Suffice it to say that a 2013 Afrobarometer survey of democracy reported, “While no expert assessment comes close to calling Ethiopia a democracy, 81% of Ethiopian respondents told Afrobarometer interviewers that the country was either a complete democracy or a democracy with only minor problems.” That report goes on to explain that Ethiopians are so dumb that they are “willing to accept clearly undemocratic alternative regime types.” The report concluded, “Ethiopians ranked as the least likely people to offer explicitly critical replies.”

The Ethiopian respondents are not as dumb as Afrobarometer made them out to be. They just told Afrobarometer interviewers what they wanted to hear and they were scared of possible retribution by the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF). Survey researchers call it “courtesy bias” where respondents give answers that they think the interviewer wants to hear and keeps them out of trouble, rather than what they really feel.

The fact of the matter is that there is considerable resentment against Chinese neocolonialism among the common folks in Africa. There is a “creeping phenomenon of anti-Chinese fervor   and populism in different communities across Africa where financial capital and labor from China competes with African development efforts.” Zambian minershave attacked Chinese workers  during a protest. Dozens of Chinese workers were killed at a Chinese-run oil field in Ethiopia. In retaliation, according to Human rights Watch,  the T-TPLF “deliberately and repeatedly attacked civilian populations” in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia and “forcibly displaced entire rural communities, ordering villagers to leave their homes within a few days or witness their houses being burnt down and their possessions destroyed-and risk death.”

In Madagascar, local workers demanding better pay and permanent contracts for some 1300 seasonal workers burned and looted a Chinese-owned sugar mill. “Zambia’s President, Michael Sata, won election in 2011 partly by capitalizing on anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese investors should be called ‘infestors,’ he said during his campaign.”

In Kenya, “rail workers set up protests  against their Chinese employer for a raise to $5 a day.”

In April 2017, Ugandans “took to the streets of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, Wednesday to protest unfair competition from local Chinese retailers” bringing “saw business operations in the busy city come to a standstill.”

In January 2017, a Namibian newspaper  sought to express the rising sentiment against Chinese neocolonialism with an illustration on its front page of a golden dragon devouring the Namibian flag. The comments on social media were chilling.  Chinese nationals in Namibia are implicated in a “series of scandals  including tax evasion, money-laundering and poaching endangered wildlife” and their “presence that can seem largely extractive: pulling uranium, timber, rhino horns and profits out the country without benefiting a population.”

It should be remembered that European colonialism using the railway in the 19th century “re-shaped the economic geography of Africa, organizing it around the railway lines that connected the diamond mines and other sources of raw materials with the ports.” What China is doing with its so-called infrastructure projects in Africa today is a kinder and gentler form of European colonialism updated for the 21st century. The one significant difference is that Chinese neocolonialism aims wants to de-scramble Africa (in contrast to the European scramble for Africa) by railways so that it will have free and multiple access to the vast sources of African raw materials.

I shall wager that just as the colonial railways mostly collapsed after independence “due to mismanagement, lack of maintenance and the adoption of new transportation technology”, so will China’s neocolonial rail lines.  In fact, I submit as Exhibit A, the bankrupt rail system in Ethiopia built by China at a cost of over $4 billion in Ethiopia today. China’s neocolonial rail lines in Africa will also fail when China stops giving out loans to corrupt African dictators.

China’s neocolonial strategy: A new Silk Road into Africa

China aims to replicate its Central Asia “Silk Road Economic Belt” strategy in Africa (“road and belt (sea and land)”. That strategy has two components: 1) development of overland infrastructure throughout Africa and 2) expansion of maritime over the Indian and Atlantic Oceans (transporting Chinese goods to East, South and West Africa.) For instance, China plans  to use the $3.2 billion Kenya rail line to eventually connect “Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, placing Kenya at the center of an East African rail network. Ultimately, China aims to create satellite states that orbit around the Chinese economy. Such are three pillars of Chinese neocolonialism in Africa!

Nkrumah’s prophetic warning and H.I.M. Haile Selassie’s prescription against neocolonialism

Nkrumah warned that “a state in the grip of neo-colonialism is not a master of its own destiny” and the practitioners of neocolonialism “it means power without responsibility and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”

Perhaps the answer to the question of Africa’s destiny was given long ago by the man elected as the “Father of African Unity” at the 1972 Ninth Heads of States and Governments meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). H.I.M. Haile Selassie at the 1963 inaugural O.A.U. Summit told his fellow African heads of state:

… Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed…

…The answers [to the continent’s problems] are within our power to dictate. The challenges and opportunities which open before us today are greater than those presented at any time in Africa’s millennia of history. The risks and the dangers which confront us are no less great. The immense responsibilities which history and circumstance have thrust upon us demand balanced and sober reflection. If we succeed in the tasks which lie before us, our names will be remembered and our deeds recalled by those who follow us. If we fail, history will puzzle at our failure and mourn what was lost… May [we]… be granted the wisdom, the judgment, and the inspiration which will enable us to maintain our faith with the peoples and the nations which have entrusted their fate to our hands.

Thus roared the African Lion!

If it looks like neocolonialism, walks like neocolonialism and quacks like neocolonialism, is it neocolonialism?

To be continued…

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