Repatriation of Chinese Arms Ship : Is Africa Finally Growing Teeth?

Published on 29th April 2008

While the rest of the world has been consumed by the high drama surrounding the Olympics Torch relay, another curious and unprecedented drama has been unfolding on the African high waters. A Chinese ship bearing arms destined for Zimbabwe is on its way back home, having been refused docking rights in any regional port. The ship and its ominous cargo alarmed a few regional leaders, concerned that an ‘arms’ variable was being introduced to an already precarious Zimbabwean equation. Is the barking African bull dog finally growing sharp fangs? Is China learning that there is a limit to its “no questions asked” policy to doing business with Africa?

In the intricate global geopolitics, China has sent strong, unambiguous signals that Africa is a valued, if not preferred, dancing partner. But while certainly excited by the prospects of partnership with China, Africa has learnt to be circumspect, if not outright suspicious, when it comes to the thorny issue of relationships with foreign suitors. This, after all, is not the first time Africa is embroiled in a courtship with prospectors from far-off lands.

Africa has been serenaded and charmed by many suitors before. Almost invariably, the melodious serenading has not resulted in blissful marriage between Africa and the foreign charm-bearers. During the Cold War era marriage with the US and Russia, Africa filed for separation on the grounds of acute spousal misuse and abuse. Marriage with Europeans ended in acrimonious divorce, with Africa citing ‘irreconcilable differences’.

The economic fundamentals of doing business with China are beyond reproach. Between 2002-2006, Sino-African trade rose from $ 12 billion to $ 40 billion, with Premier Wen Jiabao predicting that it would stand at $ 100 billion in 2010. To help that prediction, China recently signed a $ 9 billion trade deal with the DRC. The Chinese leadership has also pulled out all the stops in efforts at making friends in Africa. Both President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have graced the Continent with personal visits, and in late 2006 nearly 45 African Heads of State were feted lavishly in Beijing. Look beyond the head-spinning statistics, though, and bloats and blemishes appear on China’s otherwise enticing narrative.

It is hard not to spot the obvious fact that the major African beneficiaries of Chinese largesse are energy and mineral producing countries: Angola, Chad, DRC, Nigeria and Sudan. China’s roaring economy has developed an insatiable appetite for energy and commodities – the two items Africa has in abundance. The other commodity Africa does not suffer a shortage of is odious and unsavoury regimes. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is only the latest leg of a journey that’s taken China to the Congo, Chad, Sudan – countries whose leaders will not be lining up to collect the Noble Peace Prize anytime soon.

As China tries to convince a sceptical world audience that it enters Africa as a force for good, the ‘arms to Zimbabwe’ saga threatens to achieve the exact opposite effect. It lends credence to the criticism, prevalent in mainstream Western media, that China’s policy of “non interference in the internal affairs of sovereign nations” gives comfort and sustenance to vicious dictatorial leaders.

It is true that the West does not exactly stand on terra firma when it comes to giving China lessons on dealing with Africa. Europe’s long sejour in Africa was not characterised by gentle hand-holding meditation sessions. It was as macabre and undemocratic. Unless one applies an elastic definition of democracy, the recent French intervention in Chad had little to do with preserving a legitimately elected government.

The above point notwithstanding, the larger criticism against China’s cosy relationship with African autocracts holds. While Africans generally welcome China's pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to doing business, loud alarm bells go off where this business includes arms deals to the likes of Robert Mugabe. Many Africans, myself included, salute without reservation the role played by iconic freedom fighters in ridding the Continent of colonialism, apartheid and other such perverted ideological imports. Alas, how quickly the heroes of yesteryear metamorphosize into inglorious villains !

Africans expect African leadership to respond vigorously and resolutely when it comes to defending African strategic interests. Outsourcing this sacrosanct responsibility to our so-called development partners, the amorphous ‘international community’ or ‘Africa experts’ in the West simply doesn’t cut it. This only serves to reinforce the stereotype that Africans are weak and vulnerable, and need to be spoken for.

Levy Mwanawasa deserves credit for mobilizing and instigating African leadership to refuse the ship entry. Pressure from Zambia and Mozambique, as well as concerted efforts from civil society groups, succeeded in sending the ship packing. Sustained, decisive leadership will be necessary as Africa responds to the next crisis. This is unlikely to be the last time a ship full of arms attempts a dubious docking in an African country rocked by political turbulence. Lest we forget, all the permanent members of the UN Security Council are major weapons producers, with an illustrious track record of supplying arms to Africa.

The next questionable consignment that arrives on African high waters, be it Chinese or otherwise, should be rejected out of hand. At this crucial juncture in its development trajectory, Africa needs less arms (and alms) and more trade.

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