China: Africa’s second colonialist

China’s Premier Li Keqiang made his first visit to Africa in May this year after taking office 18 months ago. The week-long trip will took him to Ethiopia, Nigeria, Angola and Kenya.

China is investing billions of dollars in Africa but Beijing has been accused of exploiting the continent’s vast mineral and energy resources, at the expense of local people. Li was quick to dismiss talk of any problems as “growing pains” and “isolated incidents”.

China has been Africa’s biggest trade partner since 2009. Bilateral trade stood at just under $11 billionn in 2000, by 2006 this figure had jumped to nearly $60 billion and last year bilateral trade had soared to $210 billion.

Chinese investment in African countries has also risen some thirty fold in the past ten years. Foreign direct investment went from $500 million in 2003 to almost $15 billion by 2012. And last year, China pledged $20 billion in loans for infrastructure development.

Premier Li called on Chinese companies to “shoulder responsibility” for local communities in Africa, adding: “I wish to assure our African friends in all seriousness that China will never pursue a colonialist path like some countries did or allow colonialism, which belonged to the past, to reappear in Africa.”

But what is at stake for African countries, and who stands to gain the most from the China-Africa relationship?

Across our vast continent, there is rising prosperity and terrible poverty, responsible governments and total lawlessness, lush fields and forests and drought-stricken states.

Experts have posited at various times that many of Africa’s conflicts and challenges stem from colonial-era decisions that drew borders without regard for ethnic, tribal, or religious differences.

Poor governance and faulty economic theories in the post-colonial era perpetuated divisions and promoted corruption. Rebel leaders, as is often the case everywhere, knew how to fight but not govern. The Cold War made much of Africa an ideological and sometimes real battleground between forces backed by the West and those backed by the Soviet Union.

The continent’s challenges remain acute, to be sure, but there is another side to Africa emerging in the 21st century. Several of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in sub-Saharan Africa. Since, 2000, trade between Africa and the rest of the world tripled. Private foreign investment surpassed official aid, and it is expected to continue growing.

Between 2000 and 2010, non-petroleum exports from across Africa to the United States quadrupled, from $1 billion to $4 billion, including clothing and crafts from Tanzania, cut flowers from Kenya, yams from Ghana, and high-end leather goods from Ethiopia. Over the same period, child mortality rates declined while primary school enrollment increased. More people gained access to clean water and fewer died in violent conflicts.

Africa now boasts more cell phone users than either the United States or Europe. Economists expect consumer spending in sub-Saharan Africa to grow from $600 million in 2010 to $1 trillion by 2020. All of this means that a different kind of future is possible for Africans.

Historically, Western powers have too often seen Africa as a source of resources to be exploited or as a charity cause in need of patronage.

There are many African nations where workers earn less than a dollar a day, mothers and fathers die of preventable diseases, children are schooled with guns instead of books with greed and graft becoming the dominant currency.

Chinese companies, many of them state-owned, responding to their own immense domestic demand for natural resources, are buying up concessions for African mines and forests.

Since 2005, China’s direct investment across Africa has increased thirty fold, and by 2009, China had replaced the United States of America as Africa’s largest trading partner.

In all of these, a pattern developed: Chinese companies would enter a market and sign lucrative contracts to extract resources and ship them back to Asia. In return they built eye-catching infrastructure projects like soccer stadiums and superhighways (often leading from a Chinese-owned mine to a Chinese-owned port). They even built a massive new headquarters for the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

There was no doubt that these projects have been welcomed by many African leaders and that the Chinese are helping modernize infrastructure in a continent where just 30 percent of the roads are paved. But the Chinese brought their own laborers rather than hire local workers who needed jobs and sustainable incomes, and they paid little attention to the health and development challenges Western nations and international organizations worried about.

African leaders must review Chinese investment on the continent. Over the long run, investments in Africa should be sustainable and for the benefit of the African people.

Sino-Africa relationship is anything but a win-win. It is heavily skewed in favour of the Chinese and I hope it won’t be too late when African leaders wake up to reality.

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