Commentary: Truths and falsities about China in Africa

By Asgede Hagos

The international press is usually criticized for not giving Africa adequate attention in its news coverage. In fact, Africa, the most central of the major regions of the world, is the most neglected in the global media.

However, these days, there is one issue that seems to arouse the media’s interest more than anything else about the region: China’s massive engagement in the continent, with a special focus on what the press frames as “China’s debt trap diplomacy.”

At the heart of the narrative that drives this story is that Beijing’s multi-billion engagement is designed to push African nations into debt so it can leverage it in its quest for global domination. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, before he left office, repeatedly criticized the Asian giant’s move into this region. “China’s approach has led to mounting debt and few if any jobs in most countries,” he said. “When coupled with political and fiscal pressure, this endangers Africa’s natural resources and its long-term economic and political stability.”

A little background might be helpful here to fully understand the extent of Beijing’s involvement in this region and the growing debate it is generating in the international and local media.

The last two decades, Beijing has been pouring hundreds of billions of dollars in loans, grants, aid and investment in almost all of the 54 nations in the continent. In September this year alone, at the last Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) tri-annual meeting held in Beijing, China pledged $60 billion in financing — loans, aid, grants and investments — mostly for infrastructure projects; the continent suffers from a huge deficit in infrastructure. Beijing’s recent pledge was on top of the $60 billion the Asian giant gave to the continent at the previous FOCAC submit held in South Africa three years ago.

Today, China is Africa’s largest economic partner, mostly driven by the former’s insatiable appetite for Africa’s minerals and the latter’s huge demand for infrastructure financing.

Most African leaders and Africans in general see this as an economic lifeline that their traditional partners in the West have not been offering because they see the current Sino-Africa relations differently. In fact, the dominant Western media narrative frames it as a modern-day neocolonial enterprise and points to the dangers lurking behind these loans. The central claim in the media is that Beijing is luring these poor nations into “debt traps” it intends to leverage in its quest for global domination.

What we’re beginning to see and hear in some of the local African media doesn’t quite square with the general attitude in the continent about its relationship with the emerging Asian superpower. In fact, many of the key African leaders including Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria), Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa), Paul Kagame (Rwanda) have dismissed the “debt trap” characterization of Chinese loans to the continent and their respective countries.

In an interview with China’s People’s Daily, Rwanda’s Kagame, who is the current chair of the African Union, said, ”We have benefited a lot from China’s support in our social and economic programs, and that has continued to strengthen the partnership between China and Rwanda.” Ramaphosa of South Africa, the country with the strongest economy in the continent, also echoed the same sentiment and is very supportive of Beijing’s massive engagement in the continent. African leaders, he said, reject “that a new colonialism is taking hold in Africa, as our detractors would have us believe.”

However, I am glad the local press has started sounding the alarm because the debt distress in some African countries is beginning to show; on top of the list of countries where the warning signs are blinking red is the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti. The list of the top ten African countries with the largest Chinese loans include Angola, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Republic of the Congo.

What the press isn’t getting right is in assigning blame for the looming debt crisis now threatening many of the African nations. Who should be held accountable for allowing these nations to borrow beyond what their respective economies can pay back?

This part of the media narrative attempts to externalize the problem and targets Beijing as the culprit; it tends to portray African leaders and their respective governments as blameless victims of a sinister scheme hatched in Beijing. For example, the headlines seem to absolve the leaders of the responsibility associated with the growing debt burden.

But, this is wrong because the onus is on the leadership to make sure Africa’s relationship with China is built on a truly win-win foundation. The leaders who negotiated these loans on behalf of their respective peoples are no victims here. They have the power to define their respective nations’ development agenda and it is this power that makes them accountable for the destinies of these nations.

Some of these cash-strapped nations are beginning to take corrective actions by scaling back on their appetite for Chinese loans to avoid debt burden. Sierra Leone has become the first African nation to do so by canceling a big infrastructure project funded with Chinese loans.

One of the abiding lessons they should draw from the continent’s history of the last five centuries is that uneven relationships with powerful external actors are potentially exploitative; the leaders should be clear-eyed about this historical truth despite President Xi’s soothing words in his keynote address about China’s “principles of giving more and taking less, giving before taking, and giving without asking for return.”

China isn’t in Africa for its soul.

Asgede Hagos is professor of communications at Delaware State University. He is the author of “Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa.”

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