The COVID-19 pandemic has unraveled the nature of the relations between African states and the People’s Republic of China, at least in a superficial sense; China is the master and Africa is the neocolony.
A few weeks ago, the Chinese government racially segregated Black Africans, choreographed as a strategy of containing the spread of the Coronavirus disease. A number of African states such as Nigeria were bold enough to call out the racial acts of the Chinese government. Others, like Kenya, coiled their tails and even unashamedly stated that their citizens who wanted to be evacuated would have to foot their own bills. Sounds obnoxious! This is a characteristic of a failed government.
Therefore, the racial harassment of Black Africans by Chinese authorities should serve as an inflection point for African governments to revisit their relations with Beijing. But is this possible?
The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is a geopolitical masterpiece that would curtail the efforts by the African countries to revisit relations with Beijing. Only 14 African countries haven’t signed up for BRI including Eritrea, Mauritius, DR Congo, Central African Republic, Benin, Equatorial Guinea, eSwatini and Botswana. The BRI would lead to construction of massive infrastructural projects in Africa but this will occasion an increase in debts for African countries. China stands to benefit with its rush for global power status and will go out of the way to even buy out the African political leaders.
What is Africa’s selling point to China? The Africa-China relationship is skewed towards benefiting Beijing more than African countries. Statistical data compiled by the China Africa Research Initiative indicates that China benefits more from trade between Africa and China. In 2018, China’s exports to Africa amounted to $104.95 billion while its imports from Africa amounted to $80.34 billion. The nature of trade between Africa and China is further illustrated by the graph below.
Undoubtedly, China benefits more from Africa as indicated by the reported statistics. We do not really know to what extent China benefits from Africa from the clandestine economic activities such as illegal trade that Chinese entities engage in. African governments have full knowledge of this. Perhaps the bilateral deals between African countries and Beijing are laced with elements of corruption.
What is the role of the African Union (AU) in whipping African states towards revisiting their relations with Beijing? Well, the AU is a toothless institution that does little to protect and promote the interests of the African countries. It has for long suffered from a lack of bold leadership. Nothing is expected to change in the near future. China largely financed and built the new AU headquarters valued at $200 million with a significant proportion of the building materials imported from China. This is a disgrace. African governments cannot fund the construction of their own continental offices. The AU, later on, complained that China spied on the African states. But the late Thomas Sankara stated that whoever feeds you controls you. As such, the AU is also responsible for the neocolonial antics advanced by Beijing.
AfCFTA: Africa’s Only Ray of Hope
Operationalization of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) should be Africa’s masterstroke in reforming or revisiting its relations with Beijing. Unbalanced economic relations between states such as skewed trade in favour of China can only be rectified by African states committing themselves to the ideals of realizing economic freedom for the African people.
Successful implementation of the AfCFTA would mean that any foreign entity should collectively negotiate with African countries based on a holistic framework. The potential of the intra-African trade is massive and hence the need to effectively roll-out the AfCFTA.
The AU should be proactive in setting the agenda for the continent while engaging with Beijing and not act as a secondary party in stamping initiatives originating from China. But in all this, the strength of the financial muscles calls the shots and Africa is not prepared for the current and future geopolitical duels against Beijing.
By Sitati Wasilwa