China-Africa Cooperation and the Voice of the Masses

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Attended by all African Presidents or their representatives, the recently held triennial Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was considered a success by participants. China extended a credit line of $60billion to Africa, in addition to already existing facilities, while president after president read speeches on the necessity and benefits of China’s relationship with the continent. The establishment of FOCAC which, among other stated objectives, is to serve as an avenue for China and Africa to consult as equals and enhance understanding, appear to have been met during the 2018 meeting. In reality however, while this understanding might exist, and is being enhanced between China and Africa’s government officials, African citizens, for the most part, are yet to grasp the much touted benefits of increasing China -Africa relations.

In his speech, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya had declared that, “Kenya is satisfied with the tremendous progress achieved in our bilateral co-operation and continues to open up new areas of co-operation.”  Perhaps, President Kenyatta should have restricted his use of the word “Kenya” to “Kenyan leadership”. This is because Kenyans have severally demonstrated against a practice where local traders are, “charged high taxes to import goods from China, while their Chinese counterparts bring them tax free.” There have been widespread demonstrations in Nairobi, against the unregulated and unchecked influx of Chinese vendors into the city.  Locals say the teeming Chinese vendors ship cheap and substandard products into the Kenyan market, making competition impossible, and leading to the closure of several local businesses. Speaking to Kenya’s Business Daily on behalf of the traders, Kenya World Wide Importers and Traders Association (KWITA) chairman Ben Mutahi said it was unfair, adding that “if the Chinese are here as investors, let them go and start factories, and leave retail business for Kenyans.”

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, speaking at FOCAC 2018, noted that under his leadership, Nigeria – China relations has been a win-win one, culminating in the funding of infrastructural projects worth $5billion in the last three years. Many Nigerians, however, have continued to protest against Buhari’s leadership of Nigeria in the past three years, noting that it has been a period of severe economic hardship as evidenced in the devaluing of the currency and in the continued mulit-sectoral deficiencies that plague the nation. This is in addition to protests in previous years against cheap Chinese imports into the country.

Recently, thousands of South Africans violently demonstrated in Soweto against immigrants shop owners. Chinese shop owners, among other immigrants, were accused of importing cheap and substandard products from China into the country.   All this happened at about the same time that South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, reading out of a prepared speech, stated that, “in the values it promotes, in the manner that it operates, and the impact it has on African countries, FOCAC refutes the view that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa, as our detractors would have us believe,”

What is discernible from the above is that China’s involvement in Africa plays out on several levels. Take the macro level, for instance, where China-Africa relationship focuses on projects, which politicians and governments are eager to implement and point at as part of their accomplishment.  The direct relevance of such projects to the immediate and pressing needs of majority of the citizenry might not necessarily count at the time of signing the agreement. In that regard, China has invested in quite a few infrastructural projects across the Africa.

At the micro level, however, which is where citizens majorly exist and earn their living, many Africans are witnessing a steady and unceasing encroachment into their space by immigrant Chinese workers and traders. The sound of protests ring from Lagos to Nairobi, coming from scared citizens who find it increasingly difficult to earn a living by the day.

The worrisome reality is that this micro level concern of Africa’s citizenry was not majorly addressed during FOCAC 2018. The reason for this is not immediately obvious and should be explored. First, could it be that African leaders were intimidated by the host nation’s obvious political, military and economic might in global affairs? Did African leaders consider that a country like China, currently embroiled in an economic fight with the United States and bent on winning the battle against the world’s biggest economy is only fit to be tip-toed around?

Another reason could be cultural.  The fact that during the FOCAC, African leaders were in the host nation’s territory and did not want to appear as the ungrateful, ill-mannered guest, who at the dinner table insists on discussing some trifling, although inappropriate behavior of an otherwise superlative host.

Or could it be that African leaders – one shudders to think – do not really care so much about the real and existing needs of the people, such that rising unemployment levels, cost of living, a latent manufacturing sector and the riots and protests pale into oblivion, compared to money that can be made, or prestige that can be gained from interactions with Chinese businesses and government establishments.

Whatever the case may be, there is need for African leadership to bring the concerns of Africans to the table in any conversation with China, and to ensure that the issue is given the seriousness and priority it deserves. African governments must understand that China is in Africa for business, business that will be in the interest of China. The Chinese President said as much when he declared that Chinese policy in Africa is based on non-interference.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is right that Chinese involvement in Africa does not equal a new colonialism; China-Africa relations is not another colonialism, it is an entirely new style of permeation of the continent at a historically unprecedented level, and which requires a novel approach to decipher and address. Compared to colonialism, it could be worse, it could be better, one similarity though, is that the same way citizens protested against colonialism, many are today protesting Chinese involvement across Africa. African leaders need to listen to citizens and strategically approach that relationship for all it is worth.

In a digital age, the liberating power of equal access to information is fast consigning technology transfer to the archives. Africans are now yearning for much more than imported and superimposed infrastructural projects that come with promises of technology transfer. With increased access to information, Africans are successfully competing globally and are therefore becoming suspicious, even wary of dignity eroding pocket money extended to their national governments in the form of aid. Africans are demanding space, a belief in their ability to build their own infrastructure, explore their own economic and other strengths and export same to other nations.

Written by Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu PhD www.chikaforafrica.com @chikaforafrica