Dr George Ayittey on China and Africa

Dawn in Segou © 2006 Tim Zielenbach

Rosemary Ekosso reproduces an angry article by George Ayittey, professor, author and director of the Free Africa Foundation, on the current ‘honeymoon’ between China and Africa, over which I’ve had the opportunity to mull several times now. It’s long and detailed, indulging in historical details of the relationship during the Cold War era, but towards the end it contains in a few sentences the essence of Ayittey’s scepticism:

China’s increasing involvement in Africa should be viewed against this backdrop. Despite the euphonious verbiage about “cooperation”, “equal terms,” and “altruism,” the real intentions of China are threefold. The first is to gain access to Africa’s resources by signing with a bow sweetheart deals with African despots. The second is to canvass for African votes at the United Nations in its quest for global hegemony. In this sense, the Chinese are no different from the French. The third is to seek African land to dump its surplus population. Chinese communes are springing up in Namibia, Zambia, Nigeria and other African countries. The Chinese have succeeded in getting African states to accept large numbers of Chinese experts and workers as part of their investment packages: 28 “Baoding villages” have been established, each housing up to 2,000 Chinese workers, in various parts of Africa. But the Chinese are not the problem.

The real problem was the retinue of clueless African clods, who attended Chopsticks Conference at Beijing in October. “Clueless” because that was no Berlin Conference for sure. No European powers were present; only one Asian power, China. And no Maxim gun was needed. But lying prostrate at China’s feet were 40 African heads of state, offering themselves for voluntary economic enslavement. Disgusting.

Elementary principles of demand and supply suggest that that was a buyer’s market. When 40 desperate suppliers are competing for one buyer’s attention, the buyer calls the shots. With chopsticks dexterity, China can pick platinum from Zimbabwe; oil from Angola, Nigeria and Sudan; cocoa from Ghana; diamonds from Sierra Leone; etc. – all on itsown terms because of its strong bargaining position. Few radical intellectuals and African heads of state see nothing wrong with this huge imbalance because China is perceived to be a “friend of Africa” since it is “anti-West.”

Ayittey’s strong opinions are well-known, and revolve around the idea that Africa is poor because she’s not free, both from its colonial past and from its present corrupt leaders. He’s had several opportunities to express them in his books (such as Africa in Chaos and Africa Unchained) and through the Free Africa Foundation. My personal take is that he’s probably correct, and that China might not really be that white angel it claims to be.

Meantime, things are not going too well for Africa. Rebels in Chad, travelling west across the desert, are apparently heading for the capital, N’Djamena, while fighting is flaring once more in eastern DRC and Ethiopia is picking a fight with Somalia’s Union of Islamic Courts (UIC). No end in sight, it seems, as long as the sun keeps rising…

(photo: Dawn in Segou © 2006 Tim Zielenbach)

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5 responses to “Dr George Ayittey on China and Africa

  1. Intriguing post and good links. Is China’s methodology in Africa (or France’s) really that different from Europe’s or America’s? Is one much different than the other in terms of economic and political exploitation? (I honestly don’t know- just looking for an opinion).

  2. Thanks Brett!

    There is one crucial difference in my opinion: on paper, China is not delivering aid ‘with strings attached’, meaning it won’t make its development assistance conditional on African states meeting basic human rights, environmental or other ‘soft’ standards.

    Having said this, the US (and to a lesser degree the strong EU member states like France or the UK) often display double standards on the matter, closing an eye (or two) when it’s in their political or economic interest, while pretending to be outraged when it isn’t.

    Also, one thing that Ayittey didn’t mention is that China is looking for new markets for its cheap manufactured products, which have a limited life-span in the rich Western markets, although I am not sure it’s as important as the other reasons mentioned. The EU and US are not exporters of these kind of goods, so from an economic perspective Africa poses less of an opportunity for their industries.

  3. Gotcha. Interestingly, the attachment of some strings to our development aid (or to loans from international financial institutions) like forcing countries to adopt harsh fiscally conservative policies cold-turkey, or forcing all aid money to be spent on American, has never sat right with me. Other strings seem more beneficial (promoting democracy) but are not necessarily consistently implemented, as in when shoring up the regime in Pakistan. I think the complete lack of strings in Chinese aid would lead to more corruption, and more reinforcement of nasty power structures.

    And just a thought- isn’t it likely that China and India’s economic development will eventually shift some types of manufacturing to Africa? Here’s the reasoning: at some point China will develop to the point that despite their infrastructure and huge population, labor will be cheaper in some African countries, so manufacturing operations will shift there. I’m not sure how far done the road that shift is, or how much it would be constrained by environmental factors (like malaria) as espoused by Sachs.

  4. I think they already are. As far as I understand they are securing contracts for highly-skilled infrastructural project, for which they provide all the skilled labour, which allows them to progressivly upgrade their low-manufacturing industries back at home by creating commodity chains. Which means, I guess, that at some point they will start doing exactly what you say, i.e. set up low-level manufacturing industries abroad, possibly Africa, but I wouldn’t exclude SE Asian countries like Vietnam for example, which is clearly ready to jump on the industrialization bandwagon, having just upgraded its agricultural sector…

    Uhm… more to mull over…!

  5. Ebenezer Malcalm

    I have read Professor Ayittey’s write-up on China’s new “unholy” alliance with African countries with great admiration. We must all remember that China is not a santaclaus to be donating funds to African countries. One may ask why is China interested in Sudan and Zimbabwe? These 2 countries have deplorable human rights records in Africa. Probably, China is looking her contemporaries when it comes to human rights records.
    African leaders have to be weary about their new found friend. These “Clueless” African heads are only thinking of short term benefits but not long term. Most of them do not understand how China is luring them for thier natural resources.

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