There is a new optimism across Africa that the future is bright for the continent’s development. And in this future China is playing a key role in bringing investment capital, infrastructure, technology and know-how. China is literally helping to build Africa’s future.
Mekonnen, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering undergraduate, from Ethiopia, was travelling back from the capital, Addis Ababa, to his hometown, Shire, in the northern region. “I’m very hopeful that Ethiopia and Africa generally are on the way to promising development,” says Mekonnen.
He is the first member of his family to go to university, and sitting on the bus with his laptop computer and Smartphone, Mekonnen captured the look and optimistic spirit of modern Africa.
The road to Shire – nearly 1,100 kilometers through Ethiopia’s highlands – was recently completed by a Chinese construction company.
Similar road networks, built by Chinese firms, radiate from centrally located Addis Ababa, linking villages, towns, peripheral regions and neighbouring countries in East Africa. Only a few years ago, these remote locations and their people were isolated and cut-off.
China is also providing Ethiopia with connectivity in telecommunications, with mobile phones and internet access available pretty much everywhere. Network coverage still needs improvement, but the far-reaching benefits to social development have already been dramatic. Government services, business and commerce, education and medical facilities are just some of the sectors that have been enhanced in recent years through deployment of modern telecoms.
Historically, Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, and the city hosts the headquarters of the African Union – the organization representing the more than 50 nations on the continent. Last year saw the opening of the new AU headquarters – a multi-storey building that towers over downtown Addis.
Funding and construction of the new AU complex was gifted by the Chinese government to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the organization. That symbolism speaks volumes of the growing strategic partnership between China and Africa.
Another major Chinese-led project in Addis is the construction of a city-wide rail network. It will take another two years to complete, but huge transport advantages are anticipated for the city’s six million population. A train link is also on the way between the Ethiopian capital and neighbouring country Djibouti to the North East. The latter country is strategically situated on the horn Africa at the opening of the Red sea to the Indian Ocean. This trade hub will greatly boost Ethiopia’s economic development – and that will be largely due to China’s involvement.
The story of Ethiopia’s development partnership with China is typical of what is happening on the wider continent. In the past three years, China is estimated to have allocated a total of $100 billion for investment in almost every African country. The invested activities include oil and gas industries, civic infrastructure of universities, hospitals and transport systems, as well as a wide range of mining operations.
Africa’s famed mineral wealth is what largely drew the European colonizers during the notorious Scramble for Africa over a century ago. Despite the rapacious European exploitation over many decades until African states started to gain political independence during the 1960s, the continent is reckoned to still possess some of the Earth’s largest deposits of natural resources, including oil and gas, gold, silver, diamonds and many industrially valuable metals, such as iron, tin, copper, molybdenum and tungsten.
Of particular strategic value are prodigious reserves of uranium ore – the primary nuclear energy fuel – in several African countries.
China’s involvement in Africa’s development is based on hard-headed strategic planning. With an expanding population of over one billion people, Beijing’s government knows that it must secure supplies of raw materials well into the future. It quite rightly views Africa as that crucial source. But unlike the European legacy in Africa – which was based on military conquest, oppression and ruthless one-way exploitation – China has brought a wholly different partnership approach to its relationship with Africa. This reflects partly a difference in political philosophy and cultural ethics, but it is also a pragmatic calculation on the part of China to underpin a sustainable strategic contract with Africa.
And the Africans appreciate the mutual opportunity for development afforded by China. For decades, Africa was a byword for poverty and deprivation. This moniker, with its racist overtones, implied that the Dark Continent was inherently backward. The reality, however, is that Africa’s poverty is a manifestation of European-imposed underdevelopment stemming from the intensely exploitative nature of the relationship. Nominal political independence from European colonial powers could not overcome the legacy of chronic imposed poverty.
Enormous wealth was simply extracted from Africa by European colonizers with negligible return of investment and development. The Central Africa Republic provides a classic example. The former French colony has a land mass equivalent to France but with only seven per cent of the population. The African country has a copious natural wealth of minerals and agricultural fertility. Yet, even before the recent outbreak of conflict, poverty and hunger were rampant. Out of all the decades of colonial rule, the French hardly bequeathed a single road to the country beyond the administrative capital, Bangui. France ransacked this colony, as it did elsewhere across Africa, for raw materials in a reckless extractive process. Much of the gold that sits in France’s National Treasury in Paris was shipped out of the Central African Republic.
The same legacy of stunted development and structural deprivation in Africa applies to the other European former colonial powers.
In addition, Western-based financial institutions, in particular the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, compounded the colonial fetters on Africa with usurious money-lending practices. The predatory financial arrangements had little to do with real development and more to do with maximizing profits on Wall Street or for Western governments through ensnaring countries in unpayable debts. That also had the effect of fomenting corruption among African political elites, which exacerbated the problems of underdevelopment.
In stark contrast, China has injected cash into Africa on favourable, soft repayment terms and in a way that is geared to specific infrastructure development. Much of the Chinese finance is in the form of grants, which works in a quid quo way – Chinese contractors may build a university or road network and in return the country is awarded a mining concession over Western competitors.
Africans are understandably restless to tap the formidable wealth of their countries and to enjoy the long overdue benefits of sound development. Africans see China as bringing the vital investment capital that they have been starved of for decades owing to the European colonial legacy. But now, thanks to China, the rules of the game are changing rapidly in Africa’s favour.
It is no coincidence that Western capitals are trying covertly to gain a renewed military presence in Africa. On this score, the French seem to be taking a lead with four major military interventions in the past four years in Cote D’Ivoire, Libya, Mali and currently the Central African Republic. The publicly stated guise of “humanitarian concern” is a cynical cover for rivalry with China over natural resources. Where the Chinese have no military presence in Africa and are doing business is an entirely legal way, the Western powers are resorting to old habits of subterfuge and militarism.
Nevertheless, times have changed significantly. Africans have learnt from bitter historical lessons and they know that their best interests lie with China and other Asian economies of South Korea and Japan.
As Mekonnen the young undergraduate student says: “All African countries have great natural wealth and potential, and China is giving us the chance of development that we have never had”.