Chinese Infrastructural Development In Africa: In Whose Interest?

By Waheed Ogunjobi,

“As long as China is willing to invest in Africa, we must not miss out on the bounty. But, we must engage with our eyes wide open” – Machana Gaitho, Managing Editor, The Nation (Kenya)

The issue of Chinese infrastructural developments in Africa has continued to generate debates and sometimes needless controversies among African nationals and pundits. There is no doubt however that China’s involvement in Africa’s infrastructural development and the likes is like a mixed bag of fortune. Some pundits have argued that China is sapping Africa’s manufacturing potential and also extracting Africa’s resources without any significant benefits to Africa. Perhaps this notion should be critically examined given the reality on ground? On the contrary, another school of thought had argued in favor of Beijing that China is Africa’s partner for development. They see China’s presence in Africa as beneficial to China and Africa. All said and done, cynics  or perhaps those who feel jittery about this sudden rise in Afro-Sino relationship have continued to raise the alarm that probably a new neo-colonialism is in the offing, arguing that excessive loan to African nations by the Chinese authorities will put Africa in China’s perpetual debt trap.

From all indications, China is all over Africa these days, building railroads, bridges, and ports, and perhaps doing what European colonialists should have done long-time ago. The central players in many of Africa’s biggest ticket infrastructure projects — including the $12 billion Coastal Railway in Nigeria, the $4.5 billion Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway, and the $11 billion Mega Port and economic zone at Bagamoyo — are being developed via Chinese partnerships. Thus, giving the reality that Africa lacks infrastructural development which it earnestly needed to keep pace with the rest of the world, should Chinese huge investment in infrastructural development in Africa a la trade expansion be viewed with so much contempt?  This one million dollars question really calls for clairvoyance. It all depends on how it is viewed.

One of the pundits, Ted Bauman, a senior research analyst and economist at Banyan Hill Publishing shared this view about Chinese investment in infrastructure in Africa “Even though they are financed with Chinese loans and built with Chinese contractors and labor, most of these projects are designed to lock African countries into a long-term political and diplomatic relationship with China rather than to make money,” Of a fact, China can use the diplomatic relationship, for instance, to gain Africa’s votes on sensitive matters in the UN, like the Taiwan and the South China Sea issues.  If the view shared above is also true to type, would Chinese authorities still be said to be doing African continent a world of good or evil?

An estimate indicated that by the year 2050, Africa’s 1.1 billion person population is slated to double, with 80% of this growth happening in cities, bringing the continent’s urban headcount up to more than 1.3 billion. The population of Lagos alone is said to be growing by 77 people per hour. According to McKinsey, by 2025 more than 100 cities in Africa will contain over a million people. With this surging population, Africa’s already deficient infrastructure is expected to be overstretched. Africa sure need infrastructural rebirth. This has surely placed Africa and its leaders in a catch 22 situation; between the devil and the deep blue sea, so to say in terms of surging relationship with China. The appropriate question to ask at this juncture is which way Africa?

Africa suffers from poor quality and expensive infrastructural services compared to other parts of the world. It is estimated that this constraints productivity by up to 40 per cent and reduces the continent’s GDP by about 2 per cent per year. According to an estimate, collectively, the countries of Africa would need to spend $130-170 billion per year to meet their infrastructure needs, but, according to the African Development Bank, they are coming up $68-$108 billion short.

One interesting fact is that one-quarter of all Chinese investment is concentrated in Nigeria and Angola. Nigeria is one of China’s largest investment partners on the continent; five of the $60 billion pledged at the 2015 FOCAC summit were dedicated to Nigeria. In recent years, Nigeria has received relatively large funds from China for railways. China is backing two major standard-gauge rail projects: One is a line from Lagos to Kano; the other is a coastal railway from Lagos to Calabar. The Nigerian government hopes that the latter will support peacekeeping in the Niger Delta region, thus improving oil investments there (oil is another key interest of China in Africa). Angola is equally an oil rich nation. Can we then conclude that China’s interest in Africa is solely to have access to her oil?  At a period, when oil at the global market is selling at its lowest price, won’t China’s interest in Africa’s oil be a blessing other than being a curse, especially now that the United States of America the largest importer of Africa’s crude is seriously cutting its oil import, while the deadly Corona Virus pandemic lockdown is increasingly making mincemeat of the main stay of some of the leading African nation’s  revenue source?

What then is the interest of Chinese authorities in Africa and in whose interest really?

The relationship between China and Africa goes beyond infrastructural development and whatever motive is behind it could be beneficial to both parties if genuinely and dedicatedly pursued with the desired transparency. China is now Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade topping $200 billion per year. According to McKinsey, over 10,000 Chinese-owned firms are currently operating throughout the African continent and the value of Chinese business there since 2005 amounts to more than $2 trillion, with $300 billion in investment currently on the table. Africa has also eclipsed Asia as the largest market for China’s overseas construction contracts. To keep this momentum building, Beijing recently announced a $1 billion Belt and Road Africa infrastructure development fund and, in 2018, a whopping $60 billion African aid package.

Looking critically, the Chinese authorities  could  somewhat have a motive which it has wittingly or unwittingly  expressed in its  Road and Bridge initiative of the China’s Communist Party. There seems to be no need belaboring the point that Chinese authorities wanted more than Africa’s rich oil deposit, nor its vast trade potential or even its numerous untapped natural resources.  The Chinese authorities wanted much more and from the openness displayed in its B& R roadmap it is evident for discerning mind. But still, it would be hard to label the Chinese authorities, a mere exploiter of African resource because the motive is clearly spelt out especially giving the impulse of this phrase in its Belt and Road initiative: “The end state of One Belt One Road is the building of a new global system of alternative economic, political, and security ‘interdependencies’ with China at the center’’. China wants to become the next economic flashpoint in the world.  If the motive is truly  to become the next happening guy around the world and if its pursuing it through the legitimate means of trade expansion, and not through brute force or forceful change of government, should there really  be hoopla over this? Every nation has the right to expand her coast. Thus, if China is spending so huge an amount to play the big brother around the world as it is obvious that Chinese authorities’ handshake across the Niger, goes beyond African continent and transcends all nations and tribes of the world, what is really the fuss about all that? The only exception is if an international protocol in terms of trade relation had been breached in its expansionist move. If not, won’t we let China be and allow every nation with absolute territorial power determine what is good for it or otherwise? After all, there have been no records of forceful partnership. Those involved in the partnership seems to be enjoying the music. Let them dance to it, while the beat is still loud. They only need to shine their eyes well enough to sense danger, if any.

Launched in 2014, One Belt One Road presented internationally as the Belt and Road Initiative, is China’s signature vision for reshaping its global engagements. It is strategic and comprehensive in scope and an essential component of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC’s) twin objectives of achieving national rejuvenation and restoring China as a Great Power.  It now spans three continents and touches 60 percent of the world’s population. The 65 or so countries that have so far signed on to the program (including approximately 20 from Africa) account for 30 percent of the world’s GDP and 75 percent of its energy reserves. Some 50 Chinese state owned companies are implementing 1,700 infrastructure projects around the world worth about $900 billion. One Belt One Road (OBOR) has been written into the state and ruling party constitutions as strategic priorities for China to attain Great Power status by the middle of the 21st century. All of China’s leaders have advanced this quest since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, but the pursuit has accelerated under President Xi Jinping.

According to the B&R, the end state of One Belt One Road is the building of a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind defined as a new global system of alternative economic, political, and security “interdependencies” with China at the center. For this reason, Chinese leaders describe One Belt One Road as a national strategy with economic, political, diplomatic, and military elements not a mere series of initiatives.

Going forward, Infrastructure is what Africa needs most and infrastructure is what China is most equipped to provide. It is however not lost on many African leaders that hardly 30 years ago China was in a similar place that they are now — a backwater country whose economy made up hardly two percent of global GDP. Thus, African leaders need to make a huge choice between continued backwardness through infrastructural decay and hobnobbing with China which seems to hold serious promises of bringing an end to the infrastructural nightmare bedeviling the continent; else there are real and genuine alternatives.

China and Africa have similar trajectory and Africa has a lot to learn from China’s economic transformation within a spate of time. From the position of hopelessness, infrastructural decadence and all what not, over the past few decades China has shocked the world in the way that it used infrastructure to propel economic growth, creating a high-speed rail network that now tops 29,000 kilometers, paving over 100,000 kilometers of new expressways, constructing over 100 new airports, and building no less than 3,500 new urban areas — which include 500 economic development zones and 1,000 city-level developments. Over this period of time, China’s GDP has grown more than 10-fold, ranking 2nd in the world today.

What then should Africa do in these circumstances?  How best can African nations profit from this partnership? Instead of  Africa and her citizens trying to hold on to the long end of the stick, while it carries no strength in wielding it, Africa should undertake a study of Chinese developmental strides and see how it can adapt some of the Chinese magic in developing infrastructure on the continent. Lucky enough, Chinese  authorities  have continued to wave the  olive branch in terms of infrastructural support,  African leaders should think deeper than just allowing Chinese engineers build those infrastructure; they should rather seek genuine technology transfer. Whether the interest of the Chinese authorities in building infrastructure in Africa is just that of trade propelled by profit or any other ulterior motives as being speculated, African leaders should explore this relationship to full advantage of the continent order than going cap in hand. Closely related to this is the need for African leaders to be proactive in negotiating terms of these contracts, so that they do not end up shortchanging the continent. The relationship should be mutually beneficial, other than being skewed to one side. If all these are ensured and due diligence is followed in entering into whatever agreement with the Chinese authorities’ and its cohorts, should there still be hues and cries about who laughs last? I ask again, in whose interest is China’s infrastructural development in Africa?

  •  Waheed Ogunjobi, a Public Affairs analyst writes from Abeokuta, Ogun State and can be reached through waheedogunjobi@gmail.com or 08035004741.

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