By Ofwono Opondo
The renewed engagement with Africa in what appears to be a paradigm shift towards mutual, cordial and hopefully progressive benefit to the continent is a good sign that China, alongside Russia, Japan and India are seeking to reshape the world order. Of course we should expect that countries that defined the old world order, some of which are now museums, will try staging rearguard actions to undermine the new shifts. It is sad, that Africa, although described as the first Eden of Man, remains the most backward and inhabitable on account of man-generated conflicts and failure to tame nature to serve human needs.
After combined centuries of slavery, slave trade, colonialism and the ongoing neo-colonialism, Africa and those who describe themselves as Africans, wherever they may be, remain on the fringes of science, technological and human civilization. In 2000, China that emerged from poverty into global prominence announced a new initiative with Africa and since 2006, under its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), it announced various investments in industrial, infrastructure and economic initiatives to break down the major barriers to progress. Since then, seven major China-Africa meetings, in 2000 (Beijing), 2003 (Addis Ababa), 2006 (Beijing), 2009 (Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt), 2012 (Beijing), 2015 (Johannesburg), and 2018 (Beijing) have been held, and good results are beginning to show. Africa is now getting more connected to the world, and interconnected with itself.
While China has been Africa’s largest trading partner since 2008, the imbalance is very evident. In one direction Africa exports mainly raw materials to China, while China brings in manufactured goods and takes up most construction projects. Even for Africa’s powerhouse Nigeria, for every one dollar it exports, it imports eleven dollars in goods and services. For landlocked Uganda the ratio is 1 to 22 dollars. It is embarrassing that Africa having the second largest world land area of 30.3 million sq km and second biggest population of 1.307bn people should be taking its begging bowl to Japan with 377,973 km² in land size and126.8 million people.
Looking at the lackluster with which many African countries, politicians and bureaucrats handle issues, it is unlikely that much of the new opportunities will be harnessed in earnest. Already, many individual countries have fallen far behind the AGOA even with the non-tariff barriers taken into consideration. Also, it is becoming increasingly apparent that at the many FOCAC summits held so far, African governments haven’t presented unified proposal or coherent policy positions to deal with the many glaring gaps. Instead, it has been the Chinese benefactors, like President Xi Jinping who outlined the different policy shifts and funding options to enable African products enter his market.
Consequently, it is most likely that Africa may, once again, lose direction as it gets spoilt of choices being offered by China, India, Japan, and Russia. In Uganda’s case, government is finding it difficult to absorb loans from the World Bank, IMF, ADB and other sources because of lack of advance, strategic and holistic preparedness leading to accumulated interests on idle portfolios.
At the last FOCAC, 2018, China pledged 60bn US dollars in three years targeting to remove major bottlenecks like energy, industrial parks, infrastructure projects and scholarships for African students, all focusing on promoting trade connectivity. For these measures to succeed, additional efforts need to be made available over a long period among them funds specifically to facilitate trade, investment and construction industry by African businesses in Africa for both continental and foreign lucrative markets, if indeed the rich want to uplift Africans. The rich economies should also commit to holding free investment and trade negotiations to expand the duty-free access to more products from Africa.
It is not enough to say that there are market in China, EU, Japan, India or US when non-tariff barriers continue to be imposed against products from Africa. Former colonial powers and their agenda setters in the academia and media have tried to present China as a new colonial master recklessly dolling out money to make Africa far more indebted than it has ever been.
Western powers who have exploited Africa mainly through direct intervention, use of force, intimidation and blackmail often imposing own social value systems know quite well that a united and enlightened Africa will be difficult to marginalize again.
In the ongoing re-alignment, it is important for Africans to ensure they don’t get ensnared in power struggle politics for dominance where they serve other interest other than those of their people collectively. Now that Moscow that pulled out of Africa after the demise of the Soviet Union is returning, it must be held it to its promises of mutual trade, investment, science and technology transfer. The announcement to write off 20bn US dollars is a good starting point.
The G7 that omitted China, Russia and India at its recent summit in France when these three have emerged as global powers, need re-thinking their strategy especially when the UN is being rendered a by-stander in world affairs.
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