The Guardian
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Loans, love, China and Africa’s sovereignty


Tillerson with Buhari in Abuja

The statement made the other day by the former United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, counselling African countries not to compromise their sovereignty when engaged in economic dealings with China, should not be dismissed as a rival’s balderdash the way some overly Afrocentric analysts are wont to do.

Even though, self-interest may not be ruled out, the warning is one that must be considered with every sense of concern and objectivity, irrespective of the short-term benefits of Sino-African relations.

The warning is also instructive for Nigeria, an acclaimed giant of Africa and a foremost beneficiary of China’s ready-at-hand loans.

Tillerson, who was on his first official visit to Africa to bolster security alliances and smoothen relationship with the continent since President Donald Trump’s ‘shithole’ comments, did not couch his warning in any form of diplomatese.

He was quoted to have said: “We are not in any way attempting to keep Chinese dollars from Africa… It is important that African countries carefully consider the terms of those agreements and not forfeit their sovereignty.”

The US diplomat was also alleged to have stated that Chinese investments “do not bring significant job creation locally,” explaining further that, if a government accepts a Chinese loan and “gets into trouble”, such a government can “lose control of its own infrastructure or its own resources through default.”

A week before he issued the warning, Tillerson had also criticized China’s approach to Africa as one that encouraged dependency through “opaque contracts and predatory loan practices.”

These are strong and incriminating words from an informed agent of a global power. And for any nation at the receiving end of a partnership with China, caution should be the guiding principle for interaction.

Indeed, in recent times, China has been fostering economic partnership and bilateral relations with African countries in ways that are rapidly transforming the continent.

Through an aggressive expansionist policy that is courting developing nations of the world, China has signed MOUs that cause huge national projects of many African countries to be undertaken by Chinese construction companies.

In the name of agro-business, Chinese merchants are buying up lands in remote places in many African countries, while their portfolio executives are everywhere posing as the investors African countries have so much sought after.

Moreover, anywhere these Chinese companies pitch their tents, they import their workforce from their home country. Furthermore, in what seems like cultural domination to many keen watchers, African universities are establishing Confucius Institutes, which are institutional outlets for the promotion of Chinese language and culture in many African countries.

On its part, China has interpreted its new romance with Africa as a ‘friendly’ relationship.

Its massive investment in engineering and construction projects, sumptuous splashing of billions of dollars in loans and interventions in government projects, have been described as collaboration, economic assistance, cultural relations and diplomatic support.

But the questions that should provoke the minds of right-thinking Nigerians and Africans to critical thought experiments should be: What does this Chinese transformation of Africa mean to Africans?

What concept of development is this partnership fostering? What is the cost to Africa? Is it a new trend in Africa’s development strategy? If so, what can Africa gain from it?

What is Africa’s contribution in this partnership? Is it another form of cultural and economic imperialism? Is this a resurgence of another form of neo-colonialism? If so, how prepared are African nations to re-evaluate this kind of partnership?

Upon critical reflection, these questions reveal that this sort of partnership is not new to Africa. As a matter of fact, the unimpressive history of Africa is replete with unions and relationships with global actors that are skewed in favour of the dominating powers.

This is because they have been characterized by exploitation by these political and economic powers on one hand, subservience and harmful dependency by Africa on the other hand.

Thus, to the extent that the so much celebrated Sino-African relationship is one of lopsided relations, dependency and the near impossibility of reciprocity in trade and investment volume, Sino-African partnership would not be different from what other colonialists have done.

It may even be worse in the long run when imprecise matters of these partnerships, such as morality, law and human rights issues, are considered.

Does this then foreclose the genuineness of Tillerson’s worry for Africa? Although the US statesman might have jolted the African public to sober reflection about business dealings with China, the depth of his concern for Africa might not have gone beyond the political statement uttered.

After all, the theories and paradigms of development that have continually put Africa in unending state of underdevelopment and dependency have emanated from the western philosophies of development bequeathed to Africa, through blackmail, brutal machination and outright imposition.

The question is: If western nations were to do what China is doing to (or for) African nations, would the likes of Tillerson have been so wary?

Now that the African continent has become a mine for all comers, what must its leaders do? Whilst a partnership vacuum in Africa might have caused China to refine its strategies of engagement with the continent, African leaders must first ensure that the mutuality and genuine cooperation prevail in this engagement.

The counsel of this newspaper to this effect also bears repeating: With China, and indeed, any other trading partner, Africa must avoid a repeat of the colonial agenda that maintained it as merely a source of raw materials in one direction, and a consumer of finished goods in the other.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) remains a good ‘win-win partnership’ platform upon which Africa –China relations must be continually refined to serve the best interests of the two sides.

Africa must first assume full responsibility for its development and prosperity before it relies upon outside help. A thinking, thoughtful Africa must define in all ramifications, the nature, purpose, and method of its relationship with China.

In this regard, once again, the African Union has a duty to set out and continually review the overarching parameters of Africa-China relations such that the continent never again suffers foreign domination and plunder.

As it concerns Nigerians, the opaqueness in the dealings with China must be brought to light.

Were it not for the alertness and vigilance of some commentators, Nigerians, in their characteristic burst of amnesia, would have forgotten the long list of the links in the leash China holds on Nigeria’s.

Nigeria was reported to have got a $3billion loan in July 2013 for four airport terminal projects, agriculture and Independent Power projects.

In that same year, it also signed a $20 billion project for 20,000 megawatts of electricity capacity with Power Construction Corp. of China.

Later that year, the Ministry of the Niger Delta signed a five-year $1.07 billion road contract with China Railway Construction Corp. Ltd. (CRCC).

Another $11.97bn contract was also signed with CRCC for the construction of a 1402-kilometre Lagos-Calabar railway. So far China is said to have invested and currently financing projects to the tune of $45billion. And more have been promised.

Nigerians need to be constantly told of the loans received from China, the projects for which they are meant, and the uncompleted or failed projects for which loans were given.

However, this is not to dissuade the government from getting loans from China or elsewhere. Whilst such loans may be baited with attractive conditions that will prove unsavoury in future, taking them is not inconsistent with prudent economic intelligence.

As economic wisdom counsels, if you get cheap loan, take it but with common sense.

Unfortunately, the common sense needed to turn cheap loans into means of productive, job-creating, infrastructural development and national growth, is a scarce resource amongst today’s leaders.

Only grandiose and ostentatious projects that put their people in perpetual economic bondage have been their focus. Sad.

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