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OPINION: The new scramble for Africa and how history is replaying itself

July 06, 2019 at 10:24 am | Opinions & Features

Mark Lekan Lalude

Mark Lekan Lalude

July 06, 2019 at 10:24 am | Opinions & Features

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (3nd R) meets with Cameroon’s President Paul Biya (4th L) at the Great Hall Of the People in Beijing on March 23, 2018. The governments agreed to advance bilateral ties, furthering China’s efforts across Africa. Credit/Newsweek

Sitting at the departure lounge in the domestic wing of the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Nigeria waiting for a flight bound for Lagos, a commercial city on the Atlantic coast of the country, one could see Chinese men – some boisterously hailing friends who just arrived at the crowded hall with others clutching on to their leather briefcases and voices rolling in the singsong Mandarin that they speak, showing some apprehension in the way only newcomers can.

This not-so-new picture of foreignness took over that of the cocky American tourist, or the diffident British business people who had come to assume control over their investments in the hot humid West African country.

The Europeans and the North Americans used to be the foreign crowd that came scouting for opportunities in the roughest parts of the continent, excitedly analyzing their prospects, prospects that many local investors failed to see, braving the headstrong irrational policies of governments in backwater African countries.

Richard Branson had stomped out on Nigeria, spewing the excuses other western investors had before him. “We fought daily battles against government agents who wanted to daily make a fortune from us…”.

If corruption was the reason the Western investment crowd turned its back on Africa, then the Asians unfazed, are the very definition of resilience in the face of forbidding economies in corrupt, politically unstable countries.

Africa is free, but not free. This is the position that depicts how colonialism has been put side-by-side with the deliberate effort to own the continent through pretend philanthropy and loans.

Africa has always been the experimental ground for the world. If one can recall the 1960s seventeen French atomic tests in the Sahara, one would agree that it is quite a fact, albeit a sad fact.

Africa is the place where shady economic theories are put to test, the continent where the Western conscience is soothed in meaningless philanthropic grants, concretizing the hopeless picture that show Africa as a place where stick-thin infants die in their mother’s arms, in surrealistic backgrounds of a drought-stricken earth and encircling vultures.

The picture of Africa as the prodigal child of the earth is complete in the many smear campaigns that the Western media like to engage to reinforce the idea of a black decadence that has irretrievably gone beyond reparation. Perhaps the increasingly conditional nature of the many loans and grants that the West, through its institutions bait the economy of the continent, is the point of the power-shift from the Westerners to the Asians.

It should be known that a sound understanding of foreign relations would require the expectation of a demand lurking behind the benevolent gestures of a foreign nation. That is the hard truth of the political relations of nations. Just like the Aristotelian truth that man is firstly about self-preservation, before anything else, so is the motivation of one society to get ahead in every way possible of another.

Africa has always been the target of foreign powers who eye the land and think of how they can possess it, while keeping the inhabitants in some subordinated role, like serfs doing the lord’s bid.

First, it was the Europeans who took the land by force in many records of invasion and turned the continent to an extension of their territories, plundering its resources through the agency of wily middlemen, who in their pith helmets and behind their tightly-drawn smiles, felt that they were gods to the unsuspecting African, and even if he suspected was exiled or destroyed, and who mostly did not know at the time, that a man who smiled too easily and gave gifts lavishly without cause, is a man that sought to enslave.

Liberian children hold Chinese flags before the arrival of China’s President Hu Jintao in Monrovia February 1, 2007.  Credit: REUTERS/Christopher Herwi

Then the American came to post-colonial Africa, their ambition was a sweeping one, unfocused, but sophisticated and well-thought out. Through the activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Americans reportedly circulated memoranda on revolutionary characters in Africa. Such was the case of General Murtala Muhammed of Nigeria, before the incidental coup that took down his regime in 1976.

The Americans have shown to be quite uneasy leaving revolutionary men in charge of fledging countries as the story of General Manuel Noriega of Panama went, and Gaddafi was the latest. Africa has never been a country, but the convenience of simplifying the varying demographics and cultures, and the manifestation of life in the most resplendent form of peculiarity, is something that the powers who control the Western media cannot resist.

The image of Africa must be harmonized to become just that place where savage tribes run amok, hunting lions for breakfast and living in arboreal dwellings. This image of Africa is deliberate, and it is to advance a propaganda that has long subsisted to demoralize the continent into a continent with a poor self-image and a dependent orientation.

Africa is free, but not free. This is the position that depicts how colonialism has been put side-by-side with the deliberate effort to own the continent through pretend philanthropy and loans.

Now that the West has lost interest in Africa, empires built, civilizations flourishing, history must be replayed, for the continent never learns, it never remembers what economic humiliation it has suffered in the past, and is still suffering. Asia has decided to pick up from where the West stopped. It is the second scramble for the land, the Chinese are here building roads and bridges on loans and grants.

The whole arrangement appears benign, but it holds up much to be concerned about. A McKinsey & Company report in June 2017, showed that there were about 10,000 Chinese firms working in Africa. There is a huge indebtedness to China in Africa. Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza wrote in The African Exponent about the extent of indebtedness of African states. According to him, Angola is indebted to the tune of 25 billion US dollars, and now most of the oil export goes into the settlement of the debt. Ethiopia’s debt to China in infrastructural projects is about 13.5 billion US dollars, while Kenya’s debt to China is about 7.9 billion US dollars, and accordingly, the accountability of the government on the deployment of the loan is in question.

However there is much more to worry about as regards the rising debt profile, as China does not seem to relent in the giving of loans, and African governments are not bothered about the consequences of an economy flushed with borrowed liquidity, since it means more funds to be misappropriated. Many African nations are at risk of default on the Chinese loans and losing their sources of revenues to the Chinese in settlement of the debts, the reality of the “debt-trap diplomacy” is shown in the instance of an insolvent Sri Lanka that handed its port which was financed by Chinese loans to a Chinese company managed by the state on a ninety-nine year lease in 2017.

In all of these disturbing trends, little has been said at the African Union, perhaps because it is influenced mostly by African leaders, and with its new building funded by China, it is gagged in regards to such matters. The African Union is yet to see what the future is like for its members. This trend rarely comes up in the discourse of issues affecting the continent. The short term focus of African leaders in wanting liquidity over trade balance, which is responsible for the uncritical posture towards the Chinese financial and investment largesse will come back to bite, and very hard too.

From the scholarships to African students in Chinese universities, which China is using to expand its cultural influence, to the infrastructural projects funded by Chinese money, and the seemingly free cash that China seems to lavish on Africa, it is China investing in its future, and Africa selling its own. One day, just one day, Africa might wake up to an Africa owned by the Chinese.

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