Impact of African Policies on Infrastructure Projects, Emergence of Debt-Trap and Neo-Colonialism

Published on 26th February 2020

In this interview taken by Kester Kenn Klomegah for Eurasia Review, Dr. Frangton Chiyemura, a lecturer in International Development at the School of Social Sciences and Global Studies, The Open University in the United Kingdom, discusses the impact of African policies on development and realization of infrastructure projects, the possible of running into “debt-traps” and the emergence of “neo-colonialism” in Africa. Here are the interview excerpts:

Q: Early December, you held discussions and shared your research on how African leaders influence the modality of engagement and negotiation process with China. What were the key points you discussed with the audience and participants who attended?

FC: First of all, I was invited to share my research findings with Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN). OUCAN engages with researchers, think tanks, policy makers involved in Africa-China relations. My talk was part of this initiative to share research and evidence-based findings and conclusions on Africa-China relations.

My talk was based on my completed PhD research project where I investigated how the Ethiopian government exercised agency – defined as the ability to shape, control and influence, when engaging with the Chinese in the context of wind energy infrastructure. The key point was that the Ethiopian government was able to broker, negotiate, structure, implement and manage Chinese involvement in Adama 1 and Adama 2 wind farms.

The audience was quite engaging and wondered how the Ethiopian government was able to exercise agency as compared to other African governments dealing with the Chinese. There are several factors which make Ethiopia to have such clout when dealing with the Chinese as compared to other African countries. Such factors are not only limited to the governance and leadership model of the government especially under Meles Zenawi and Hailermariam.

Secondly, it relates to the geographic location of Ethiopia, which makes it a stabilising force in volatile East African region. Ethiopia, has a unique advantage, as it is the diplomatic hub of Africa – hosting the African Union (AU) and other international organizations. This adds weight to Ethiopia when negotiating with external powers.

Q: What are the general perceptions and attitudes toward this kind of relations? How do the political and business elites, interpret the benefits of determining concrete directions of investment in Africa?

FC: Both Ethiopian and Chinese governments see the relations as win-win. This comes at the backdrop of strong relations at the political party to party level. In the case of my research I conducted, I can confirm that the Chinese Communist Party has very strong relations with the then Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. In fact, during my research, I found out that the corporate deals are informally negotiated at the party to party level before they are transferred to the government level for formalization. There seems to be a seamless connection between the ruling party and the government, and any decisions reached at the party level are by extension seamlessly binding on the government.

Q: How would you explain neo-colonialism by foreign players in Africa? What is it and what foreign (external) countries are referred to as neo-colonisers, in your view?

FC: Neocolonialism argument is present in Africa-China relations especially proposed so by scholars who come from a neo-Marxian epistemological grounding. Neocolonialism can be seen as a new form of domination, plunder and exploitation using clandestine and economic statecraft. Of course, there could be some hints or pointers to suggest neocolonial tendencies, but I believe such claims should be levelled on case by case basis, and there has to be concrete evidence to suggest that way. That said, I think we have to be careful to scrutinize where such claims of neocolonialism are coming from, and potentially scrap beyond the surface to establish the motivations and interests for spreading or proposing such claims.

In my opinion, I believe there is no free lunch in the world, African countries should enter into partnerships based on their strategic interests and an understanding of what the partners can provide or deliver. Secondly, every African country should do a comprehensive evaluation of the structure and, the terms and conditions of their engagements with foreign powers. By so doing, this will eliminate the chances for the emergence of claims of neocolonialism. Instead of extending the blame to someone elsewhere, Africa needs to do its homework especially on the implementation and monitoring aspects of the deals. Africa has some of the best regulations and standards, but the problem lies in implementation and monitoring.

Q: Without doubt, Africa needs investment in infrastructure, agriculture and industry, and in many other sectors. Despite negative criticisms, what admirable roles is China playing here, we are talking about working towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa?

FC: China is playing a huge role in infrastructure financing and development. For example, available evidence suggests that between 2000 and 2017, China provided about US$143 billion worthy of loans to African governments. This has come quite handy especially given the shortage of finance to build the much-needed infrastructure targeting the SDGs.

In terms of trade, China became Africa’s trading partner in 2009, and two-way trade volume reached its peak in 2014 at the value of US$215 billion. Further, in 2017, it was estimated to have reached about US$148 billion. Of course, trade transactions still remain unbalanced in favour of China. In addition, between 2000 and 2017, transport (US$38.1 billion), power (US$30.1 billion) and mining (US$19.1 billion) ranked respectively as top three sectors that have received the lion’s share of Chinese loans in Africa.

Q: What is your interpretation of debt-trap most often discussed in various platforms and leveled accusations on China? But, tangible infrastructure have been built with these loans in many African countries.

FC: Interestingly, I don’t believe in this debt-trap diplomacy. First of all, it does not make any business sense that the Chinese will design a project targeting ‘failure’ so that they can control or pull the strings of a particular country. Second, most of the so-called assets that the Chinese are poised to be targeting to run are very complicated, messy and at times quite straining for the Chinese to dirty their hands. Therefore, it doesn’t make any sense for me.

That said, I would not refer to it as ‘trap’ but as merely debt and the consequences associated with that. What that implies is that, for example, in the power sector, African requires on average more than 5 billion worth of investment per year for the next 10 years to address this challenge. Inevitably, part of the money will come from debt financing. For me, I am not really worried about ‘productive debt’ – defined as any money borrowed to invest in a project that has the ability to boost economic growth and at the same time, generate a revenue stream that will pay back the loan. I would be worried about countries that borrow to build, say, a presidential palace, a stadium, or to pay salaries. That type of borrowing for me is bad – its destructive and unproductive borrowing, and that must necessarily stop.

I have to disagree with the assertion that China is debt-trapping Africa. Of course, there are some African countries that are in debt distress situation, others have high risk of being in distress, but the contributions of Chinese finances towards that leave much to be desired. For example, countries such as Chad, Sao Tome and Principle, South Sudan are in high debt distress but the contributions of the Chinese towards that is very insignificant.

We also have some countries like Ethiopia, Cameroon and Ghana where the Chinese hold a substantial share of the debt, but those countries are not in debt distress, although they are high risk of debt distress. You will be surprised that according to World Bank, Africa’s debt to China is less than 23%, compared to what Africa owes to private lenders (32%), and multilateral institutions such as World Bank, IMF etc. (35%). Sometimes, I see the hypocrisy of the West – with whom Africa has substantial debt, demonizing the Chinese on debt-trap diplomacy.

Q: In your expert view, what are the key challenges and problems facing Chinese investors in Africa, what are your suggestions how some aspects of the relations be improved between Africa and China?

FC: Of course, like any other relations, Africa-China engagements have their own challenges which need to be worked on to ensure there is mutual benefit and win-win situation. Some of the challenges relate implementation of regulations and standards by African governments when dealing with the Chinese. The issues lie not in regulations, but for me in the implementation and enforcement. This is the first aspect that needs to be addressed by African governments, especially in the infrastructure sector.

The second challenge relates to peace and security. Some of the African countries are in conflict situation or are, at least, under terrorist threat. This threatens some of the Chinese businesses and enterprises.

Third, the unbalanced nature of trade between China and Africa create room for emergence of neo-colonial arguments and such needs to be addressed immediately. Some of the challenges are minor, these include language barriers, differences in culture and work ethics. These can easily be resolved.

The fourth and final is about in some African countries lack policy certainty and stability which negatively impact on Chinese long-term business planning. Such countries include Zimbabwe where there has been of note currency uncertainty, policy uncertainty and even regulatory uncertainty. This impacts on long-term Chinese business interest.

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester is an independent research writer and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union.

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