Insight into Africa’s strategy on China

Africa needs to tap into Beijing’s commitment to win-win co-operation for her socio-economic development

COMMENT | JOHN PAUL RUGABA | It’s January 2012, and under the intense sunshine of the Addis Ababa sky, the then African Union Chairman, Teodoro Obiang Nguema; president of Equatorial Guinea, among other leaders opened the newly constructed African Union headquarters. A symbol of African nationalism, pride and unity , the African Union headquarters was built and financed not by the usual colonial powers (UK, France ,E.U), but  by the new kid on the block, China.

China had also eclipsed the United States as Africa’s largest trade partner in 2009 and by 2019 had become the destination with the largest number of international students from Africa, only behind France. Despite the various indicators of Chinese investment on the continent, the main question on the continent is: what is Africa’s strategy on China? How can Africa reap rewards from China’s strategy on Africa to make Beijing’s rhetoric of a win-win partnership possible?

It is necessary to understand the historical context of the relationship and place it in the era of foreign direct investment.

It’s January 11, 1964 and then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai has just arrived in Accra, capital of Ghana for a state visit. Weeks prior to the event, Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah survived a coup and was injured. Despite the calls by the administration in Accra, Premier Zhou insisted and honoured his invitation to the country. It was a gesture that not only melted the hearts of the Ghanaians during this period, but according to many analysists showed China’s commitment to Africa at the time.

The 1960s to 1980s were a period of transformation on the African continent. It was a time of rapid anti-colonial movements and the cold war policies proxy wars. China, then a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement and also a victim of western aggression (1840-48), presented itself as a fellow companion in the African struggle and a reliable partner who could be trusted on. China played a role in some of the liberation wars and conflicts on the continent; usually siding against the western backed forces. And when African leaders needed help in construction projects and were denied because of their leftist policies, China offered to help, with the best example being the Tanzania-Zambia railway line (1975).

Fast forward to the 1980s and 1990s, China was undergoing economic growth not seen in generations. The country’s economy grew at an annual rate of 18%, extreme poverty reduced to 20% and rapid industrialisation became the hallmark of this economic miracle.

By contrast, the African economy on the same period (1980-2000) had grown at an average of 4% mainly due to the various unfortunate events at the time on the continent such as civil wars, the AIDS pandemic and poor leadership.

To satisfy its ever increasing appetite for raw materials for its growing economy, China looked to its old ally Africa. But China understood Africa, in a way the western powers did not and most importantly how to relate with the African leadership. Usually in  the 1990s and afterwards, whenever the African nations sought financial aid from IMF , world bank and other western nations, these loans came with obligations and conditions that angered those in power and echoed the neo-colonial sentiment that some had harboured.  Loan Conditions that determined how and why the money should be spent; such as introduction of multi-party politics, rapid privatisation, promotion of human rights, and women emancipation, in addition to the relatively high loan repayment interest rates, were a thorn to some African leadership. Although these requirements were good and well-intended, 1990s and 21st century Africa needed one specific requirement above all else apart from health and education, rapid infrastructure development to spur economic growth, and China happily filled this gap when the west could not.

The Chinese government through its Export and Import Bank (EXIM) has funded various infrastructure projects on the continent which in turn has led to rapid economic growth on the continent with 6 of the 10 fastest growing economies ( 2000-2015) being on the continent – with Ethiopia being one of the stand out examples. The Chinese financial assistance comes with terms that follow the Chinese doctrine of non-interference in internal issues of countries in addition to long repayment periods. This is music to the ears of many African leaders.

In March 2018, then U.S Secretary Of State Rex Tillerson, while on his visit to Africa, warned African countries not to fall into the trap of Chinese debt. Getting trapped in debt is rhetoric many observers have stressed as the downside of Chinese financial aid to developing countries. Ironically this narrative is pushed by the western nations whose loans, coupled with the structural adjustment policies, were not attractive to the African leadership compared to the Chinese loans. Of the 54 countries on the continent, Kenya, Zambia and Djibouti are the nations with the highest debt to China. They illustrate why, despite the attraction of the loans, caution needs to be undertaken by the leadership to ensure proper use and implementation of the aid. In addition, the assertion of the debt trap should be a wake up for African leaders to be more assertive in the loan agreements and avoid corruption at all levels of governance so that there is effective use of the money borrowed.

China’s strategy in Africa, officially, is that of win-win co-operation that aims at uplifting the people of both of China and Africa through socio-economic development. China’s actions over the past 60 years have proved her commitment to the continent with financial aid levels either at or exceeding those of the western powers. Africa needs to tap into this commitment for her economic development. During the FOCAC (Forum on China – Africa Cooperation(FOCAC) summit in Beijing 2018, President XI Jinping pledged a further $60 billion to the continent, further indicating China’s commitment to the continent.

China’s actions in Africa have served as a wakeup call to other global powers to take Africa seriously and this led to increased focus on what was on some corners of global society, a forgotten dark continent. Therefore, Africa is strategically poised to enjoy the best of both worlds and, with issues like good governance and corruption gradually being addressed in parts of the continent, rapid economic growth and development will became a common characteristic on the continent.


John Paul Rugaba is a Research Fellow at Development Watch Center; a Nonpartisan, Interdisciplinary Independent think tank dedicated to analysis of Uganda’s Foreign Policy and Diplomacy.

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