High Stakes in Africa: Can the U.S. Catch China? A Critique

Published on 4th August 2014

Mr Ejike E. Okpa responds to a piece entitled: High Stakes in Africa: Can the U.S. Catch China? by Howard W. French, associate professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Ejike's comments are in bold. 

To be attentive to history is to be on the lookout for pivotal moments, and in the geopolitics surrounding Africa, the 1990s stand out as a hugely pivotal time. With the Cold War scarcely over, the West turned its attention away from the continent, largely defining its problems as humanitarian issues, which are traditionally the lowest station of foreign policy priorities. Western Europe, which had colonized Africa decades earlier, reoriented its focus to Eastern Europe, attracted by what it saw as large, capital-starved markets with well-educated workers who would nonetheless be satisfied being paid bargain-basement wages by the standards of that continent.

I have no idea what this opening meant except the usual colloquy likened to those who form their opinions about Africa/world seeing it from the Washington DC, perspective or so called experts on Africa who telescope into the continent coming back regurgitating stale and effete lessons. Yes, all animals are equal but some are more equal than others. Why is Africa always the subject and object of others’ wishes? I am a believer no one owes anyone anything except when the relationship is defined and with that, comes duties, expectations and responsibilities.

Africa is not a new invention: It is the oldest documented place of human existence. It has existed like every place else. Yes, colonization and slavery heaped untold and immeasurable damages to the mental composition of the people. But is Africa and her people the only people so affected by sad aspects of human abuses on another? Why is the continent so dependent on what outsiders tell it to do? One can take consolation seeing that in many US African-American communities, where with all the prophets, preachers, pastors and politicians, the people do not listen to their own or trust they can do well without the blessing of some ‘white fella.’ This supports the notion that no prophet is recognized in their own village. Well, others recognize their own except people of black race. Can Africans and her vast off-springs make the move to be partial to themselves recognizing there are no free lunches? They ought to see whatever challenges they face as opportunities and only invite and deal with partners, and not those who come bearing gifts and joining ranks shedding crocodile tears while fleecing the people.

The U.S. took a different route. With a focus dominated by security, it invested its energy and treasure in a series of interventions in the greater Middle East, leading to a series of costly and inconclusive wars in the Islamic world.

The notion that success only comes from/with US or her endorsement is faulty and must be challenged. Determined nations can do well without looking to US for support but only engage on equal footing for mutual benefits. When US president FDR met Saudi King IBN Saud aboard USS Quincy in the Suez Canal in 1943, King Saud minced no words what he wanted in order to yield to what FDR was asking for. It was not a master-servant dealing whereby the master dictated and the servant observed.

Saudi’s success today was not handed down. It was crafted and negotiated, and at the time, no one in the Kingdom had a college degree. Given the nature of the dialogue, FDR formed the view – ‘no nation should undermine its own economic well being’ as a compliment to King Saud’s tenacity and sound mind on what he wanted for his people and Kingdom. That is what statesmen do, xregardless of who may be perceived as higher or lower. It is a no-brainer. The communication between FDR and King Saud was done by interpreters, but they both understood what was at stake and treated each other well to ensure their wishes came true and through. Ironically, Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie also met FDR. But look at the stark difference in terms of economic standing of Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. US involvement in most things is never without compensation or benefit to them. Anyone believing it is all altruistic is naïve. No one should be fooled about that. The notion of invested its energy should not be taken as free. There is reward for US when it engages.

In the 1990s, China’s economic reforms were just beginning to rev up, and the People’s Republic was able to survey the world with the fresh eyes that an emergence from a long period of relative isolation brings. The leadership understood that the good run the country had enjoyed since opening its economy to foreign investment in the 1980s could carry it only so far, and that to sustain growth, China had to hold its own in the global economy by finding new international markets. In 1996 the Chinese committed to a policy known simply as Going Out and selected Africa as a priority zone for expansion.

If China imprint in Africa is to be trumpeted, how come China has more poor people than all the poor people in Africa? Who are they fooling? Only 20% of China’s 1.2 bn people earn decent wages. In a straight percentage basis, 960 million Chinese are desperately poor. That number is more than all the people in sub-Saharan Africa. China has learned to put its best foot forward while masking its poor people, showing the world its shiny skyscrapers and highways. Anyone serious about Chinese presence in Africa knows that it is hard to track $5b worth of transformative economic projects on annual basis in sub-Saharan Africa by China. China has mastered the act of giving a dollar and telling a thousand dollar worth of stories. Naïve Africans mesmerized by gifts and ‘they Love-us mentality’ get shortchanged.

Africa is so marooned and confused about what they want or they think they are getting from foreigners. They believe and swear to the values and virtues of foreign doled out resources. In the 1970s, no one in Nigeria for instance paid attention to China. Nigeria Naira was stronger than the Chinese currency and US Dollar. But Nigeria/Africa not recognizing the power of sustaining its economic interest unapologetically, succumbed to influences of western recommended prescriptions which saw Nigeria fall and continue to slide abysmally. While there is noticeable presence of China in Africa, that presence is not one that will place Africa on a strong footing in 25 years.

Except Africa shuns the ‘overnight lovers of her’ and take up issues of her economic development without cowing to undue foreign interests, machinations and manipulations, the same songs would be sang a century from now. No one can more do for another when they refuse to pick up the hoe and till their soil for bounty harvest. I am not a fan of China or any undue foreign interests that come bearing ‘Greek gift.’ Nations that seek and hoist true relationships, and are willing to treat foreign interests as suspects while embracing good practices, stand a better chance of emerging than those that fold their hands and wait for ‘manna.’ Africa annoyingly, waits for ‘manna’ and if the ‘manna’ is coming from one whose skin is lighter, it is God sent. How annoying and sad.

Many people who have focused on China’s burgeoning ties with Africa since then have made the easy mistake of believing the country’s strategy is mostly a natural resources play. They’ve missed the big picture of why Africa has become so important to China and of why this is so relevant to the U.S. and other big, globalized economies that may now have to hustle to get into the Africa game.

This is so annoying. It sounds like Africa is open to all except for Africans. Should one only depend on their neighbors for solutions in their household? Why Africa can’t be the conqueror instead of the one always conquered? What schools did these conquerors attend that Africans never attended? It sort of looks like despite college degrees that Africans parade, when it comes to pulling themselves up, they wait for their neighbor’s help? Is Africa the bride everyone wants but no one really invests to make a good partnership with her? The fleecing of Africa is so easy that every Tom-Dick-and-Harry, now ‘Wong-Wei-and-Wang’ need not think deep to come up with what Africa needs to do. Are Africans not offended they are the joke of the human race!

Africa’s resource wealth is certainly of huge importance to China, a manufacturing superpower that is urbanizing and building infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. Unlike Western powers, however, China sees raw materials as only one of the three pillars of its Africa strategy. The second pillar involves using Africa as a springboard to help Chinese businesses emerge as global players.

Nonsense. Mr. French is patronizing. I hope he is not French, since French people in Africa treat their Franco-phone former colonies with contempt and dependence culture. On infrastructure, China has not built 5,000 miles of good highways in Africa and no city in Africa has emerged significantly and strong because China, the so called new ‘Daniel Come to Justice’, has done the people right. Please let Mr. French, be specific as to what countries and what projects. We should verify before we trust. All of Africa has less than 5,000 miles of well-built roads and highways. Many sub-Saharan African cities have no sewer system or regular water supply. What one hears about foreign interests in Africa is like ‘expected and forecasted’ rain in the desert.’ We hear it is coming but it really hardly touches the ground. But again, Africa deserves what it gets since she does not know what to do herself so everyone that shows up, is God sent even when they are there to undermine them.

Over the past decade, Chinese companies have built bulging order books in Africa, cutting their teeth in a part of the world where Western competitors, when present at all, have not brought their A team. The Chinese astutely calculate that the wealth they accumulate in Africa and the lessons they learn will serve them well as they push into bigger, richer, and tougher markets. Examples of this strategy are particularly abundant in telecommunications, where companies such as Tecno (cell phones) and ZTE (mobile phone infrastructure) have relied on Africa in part to launch themselves globally.

Again, using sporadic data to generalize as if now Africa, is so connected telephonically that its tele-density is the envy of the world. While telephone delivery and penetration have improved, the overall impact in the economy of most African countries has not spiked the GDP such that Africa lame and doldrums will magically change in the near future. Heavy data processing and handling are still absent in most institutions and establishments in Africa. In Nigeria, many colleges and universities do not have access to telecommunication network. Most government offices and public establishments in Nigeria, do not have telephone lines. Police often use personal cell phones to do their job. Most Nigeria police stations do not have landline phones. Deploying mobile technology is easy because all one needs are cell towers and associated equipment.

When it comes to hard core infrastructure that requires long term planning and dedication like delivering water, good transportation networks, electric power, hospitals, Africa will need decades to catch up, assuming they commit today.

There is no Chinese company listed on any stock exchange in Africa that has a trading share value equivalent of $5 per share. Please Mr. French, tell us what companies and what stock exchange. Africa has always being a TRANSACTION driven continent while very little TRANSFORMATION goes on. It does not matter whether it is west or east driven agenda, Africa is a doormat, where the people have accepted this level and are willing both by design and default to lie low and allow others to step all over them. People like Mr. French, have become prophets of what Africa needs.

Boasting scores of already mature multinational corporations, Western countries would not be mistaken to think they had relatively little to learn from this aspect of China’s expansion into Africa. The third pillar of Beijing’s strategy, though, could well become the game changer. Understanding that, for the remainder of the century, the bulk of global population growth will take place in Africa, China is making a long bet on the emergence of vibrant, high-consuming middle classes there, and with each year this wager is looking smarter and smarter.

Making a case why US institutions should consider Africa should not be because of China. It is an ironic that most African families will send their children to US for education but turn around to do business with China. How is that? If schooling in US exposes Africans to what works or at least learn what works, how come China is the new kid in town? No African having their child born in China goes home to celebrate. But when an African has a child born in US, it is a celebration because here is an ‘American baby’ with almighty ‘Blue Passport.’ It is wrong and imperceptive to encourage US to renew its interests in Africa drawing their attention and comparison to China. US should not join the rat race with China on Africa. It should build relationships via Africans in US who may have long term interest for their native land. But again, given Africans’ desire to take from anyone, it will not matter. To me, leave Africa to their own devices until they wake up and want to do things right, selecting and inviting partners for development and not vultures.

Although at a glance Africa still looks overwhelmingly poor, it’s recently become the fastest-growing region of the world, and its share of global gross domestic product has increased to 4.1 percent, from 3.4 percent in 2000—a trend that figures to accelerate. Africa already has a middle class larger than India’s, albeit a balkanized one. And as the economic emergence continues, it will benefit more and more from new technologies that will allow it to leapfrog communication and infrastructure hurdles.

Mr. French does not know what he is talking about. While Africa is trumpeted as the ‘fastest growing’ region in the world, it is far from growing with glowing colors. Most banks in Africa are not part of economic development and hardly lend money to businesses. When they do, one is charged high double interest rates on hardly amortizing debts. Corporate debts and financing in Africa are the lowest in the world. How can Africa have a larger middle class than India? Not true. Apart from Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa, and a handful other African nations like Kenya, Ghana, the rest are dependent nations with nothing going on except occasional drop of rain; donor nations supporting and propping up their economies. The combined populations of Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana is about 350m, and less than 5% of this population say 17.5m, earn about $30,000m annually. India definitely has a bigger middle class that is larger than x17.5m with a population of 1.2b. The math is simple. Africa is sold these make believe data but the realities on the ground belies the propaganda. One earning $30,000 in Nigeria is an equivalent of nearly N5m. Well, consider that Nigeria‘s Gross Domestic Product per capita last recorded at $1097.97 in 2013. The GDP per Capita in Nigeria is equivalent to 9 percent of the world's average. The housing need for Nigeria is put at alarming 16m housing units and there are only about 20,000 mortgage notes held by Nigeria banks. Do the math. The world average per capita is about $12,200. Nigeria is light years away from that average. GDP per capita in Nigeria averaged $687.47 from 1960 until 2013, reaching an all-time high of $1097.97 in 2013, a misery annual compounded rate of change of 0.94%. Is that a rate of change one should be excited about given that Nigeria is one of the top oil producers in the world and has Africa’s largest educated people? Per Capita was a record low of $468 in 1968. Do these numbers support the growing perception on ‘Africa Rising’?

Perhaps most important is Africa’s so-called demographic dividend, which over the next few decades will place most of the population in the most productive, youthful, and heavily consuming phase of life. Young people in Africa resemble less and less the peasant multitudes of the past. Instead, they are urban and highly globalized in terms of culture. African investment in education, among the highest in the world in terms of percentage of GDP, can barely keep up with the heavy demand for learning. The thirst for education can be seen in United Nations data that show enrollment in secondary schools jumped 48 percent in sub-Saharan Africa from 2000 to 2008; higher-education rates grew 80 percent.

Africa invests the least in education. In fact, as a matter of urgent attention, Nigeria’s federal government budget on/for education is less than $2b, for a country with population of 165m people. Please do the math and tell us how such number compares to investing in education. Yes, on a ratio basis to GDP, may be, but on actual dollar value delivered for projects on education, the numbers and value are simply not there. There is hardly any Nigerian university with an annual budget of $20m; federal or state supported institutions. Many African nations still spot large rural populations where the living conditions hardly merit mention and formal education is absent. Literacy as measured by reading, comprehension and writing, is less than 5% in most African countries and resources for instruction at elementary and secondary education levels are desperately poor. In Nigeria, the percentage of those attending elementary and secondary schools, the core foundation for later learning, has dropped because parents hardly can afford to sustain kids in school. They may be getting some education, but its effectiveness is diminished because after-school learning and reinforcement gained and occasioned by being gainfully employed is absent.

Anyone who travels in Africa today can see that vision being patiently implemented. It consists of gradually familiarizing consumers with Chinese products, from mattresses to mobile phones. Building brand equity in the markets of the West is daunting and prohibitively costly. The biggest and best Chinese brands are fighting for a toehold there, but for the most part China is placing its chips on this demographic end run in Africa, seeing past the aging, debt-saturated markets of the West. Where does this leave the U.S. and others who have been sleeping on Africa? The mature, rich economies have little interest in competing with China in low-end manufacturing and cheap consumer goods. That said, there is a worrisome complacency in the U.S. corporate world about the continent, which leaves an open path for China to move up the value chain in African markets.

Again, US does not have to engage Africa because of China. It is an annoying proposition and I am no fan of such nonsense. Africans ought to be encouraged to engage themselves, striving harder and making sacrifices and not sitting on the fence and waiting for someone else. Who gave US its money? God? No. US made its money printing the dollar and finding ways to make everyone believe in the ‘Almighty Dollar.’ What did Africans miss from the pages of the same playbook everyone read as them, such that they end up doing things for themselves while Africans are busy seeking who should come bail them out.

The Obama administration, which has generally made little impression on the continent, has been smart to push electricity generation as a priority aim in Africa. Over the past decade or so, China has been the main actor in terms of African infrastructure development, with its companies racking up huge profits constructing highways, ports, airports, and railway systems. The continent is as underserved in electrical power as it is in roads, and this is a sector in which the U.S., if it is disciplined and ambitious, can make a huge difference in the years ahead, doing good while doing well. The Obama initiative, known as Power Africa, was announced in June 2012. It relies on a mixture of government and private financing and aims to double the African electricity supply, by adding 10,000 megawatts to production. A recent Senate bill proposes doubling that goal.

President Obama is not a rescuer of Africa, and Africans not knowing how to engage US establishments believe President Obama was going to wave a magic wand and ‘wa-la’, things will happen for Africa. Well, charity has to start from home. How are the African-American communities, the highest voting block for the president doing in terms of reduced unemployment, enhanced and improved economic development in their communities? President Obama has about 2 years to go, maybe the magic will now start to happen. We shall see. Again, what happens in black communities in US America is what Africans do: Blood does not lie. Does it?

There is a ‘wait-for-the-president-to-do-for-us-and-tell-us-how-to-make it’ mentality. #Really? While everyone comes with strategy to access US resources and presidency regardless of who is in office, blacks and Africans approach with empathy and give-me-and-do-for-me mentality. How come? President Obama’s Power Africa initiative is a great sound bite with promised $7b investments. Well, Africa is estimated to need about $100b in various infrastructure developments. $7b is a far cry from $100b, and even if the world were to fold its hands and handover their monies to Africa, like ‘Oliver Twist,’ Africans will ask for more. Go figure!

Positive and favorable US policies towards Africa cannot be gained because of sentimental motions and emotions. African nations are the least invested to influence good policies towards them. Altogether all the 54 odd African nations spend less than $500m annually to lobby US congress and the executive arm. No one gets anything from Washington DC, without investing in this process. Call it pay-to-play, policy is a human crafted endeavor therefore, human beings that are the ‘keepers’ of this process must be engaged dutifully and gainfully.

A US president can do very little because they do not have right of appropriation on spending. Therefore, one has to invest in the arm that holds that authority and call on and hope for the blessing of a US president. With Jimmy Carter’s renewed interest in Africa since leaving office some 33 years ago, and Bill Clinton gaining the dubious reputation as ‘first black president’, even though Arkansas the state he was its governor for many terms ranks among the lowest 5 states in US, he enjoys following in Africa as if he is the savior. Africans wait for US presidents to do for them, which often is motivated by their ‘after-office self-serving’ roles/agenda.

Africa needs to get in front of US policy formulation to see change. President Obama’s wings are clipped as far as many things he would like to do are concerned. And given absence of independent wealthy blacks or Africans who have clout and deep pockets to make things happen positively, black folks and Africans, I am afraid, will have to settle for whatever is left after everyone has had dinner. It is what it is.

Being disciplined means not only maintaining consistent priorities toward Africa, but also rethinking how one talks about the continent. The U.S. corporate world is in need of massive reeducation about Africa, and Washington must learn to speak about opportunity there without muddling the message with talk of terrorism and security, which have increasingly dominated U.S. policy toward the region since the end of the Cold War. Obama’s pan-Africa summit, starting on Aug. 4 in Washington, is a chance to start making a difference.

Africans need to take charge of their destiny unapologetically and do so without fear or favor. The classroom appearance of some 40-something Africa Heads of State with President Obama scheduled for August 3-5, will not produce any tremendous spike in new wave of concrete results. The pupil-Africa Heads of State will act like what former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said of one Head of State visit to the Oval Office, he was so excited to meet the president, he forgot to say what he came for. Before he knew it, his time was up, the president shook his hand and welcomed him to DC.

In the 3-days that President Obama will jamboree with these odd fellows, there is no planned White House Dinner for anyone of them. Nigeria President Jonathan’s request to meet President Obama one-on-one, was turned down. So the president of the world’s most populous black nation - Nigeria, will join the rest of the class act, diminished and dwarfed in sea of heads. Size does not earn one respect. The pupil Heads of State will be ushered in group or classroom herd and given lessons on what is expected of them.

The Heads of State, will then retire to meet with natives dubiously called Diaspora from their countries in often 2-by-4 venue, where another lousy lessons are mentioned. For the 72 hours of this DC jamboree, historic as it is, since no such gathering of foreign leaders have occurred in DC, assuming President Obama is kind and available to meet each and everyone of them on one-on-one basis, it means barely an hour and few minutes. But given other hot issues before the president, his meeting and interaction with them will be more courteous but not with marking and trappings of presidential welcome. Prove me wrong.

This does not mean abandoning an emphasis on democracy or neglecting the importance of stability and good governance. On the contrary, it means recognizing that Africa is overdue for a more mature kind of conversation, in which its economic life is not subsumed by other topics. That means recognizing, belatedly, that robust, inclusive economic growth can probably do more for the continent than any amount of military planning.

xDemocracy is not a panacea for economic development. Effective leadership with capacity building are tools that can help a nation emerge. Many Africa nations lack effective leadership as well as capacity. China that Mr. French touts as leading in Africa is a communist nation and India, the world’s largest democracy is still begging and looking for relevance. The Middle Eastern countries now spotting the highest per capita in the world, are monarchies and hardly democracies. So what is the lesson Mr. French? Africa needs to find what works for her - individual nations and forget the lousy and often wishful loose ‘pan-Africanism’, that promotes nothing except let’s work together. Nations must be selfish and centered as they strive for success and need not be tied to undue situations and conditions in their geographic sphere.

Conversation on Africa can never be meaningful and productive without first Africans becoming selfish and centered deciding with pride that they will not engage some countries and setting the right tone for their wellbeing. Waiting and depending on others’ ‘whiff of money’, is recipe for failure. I cannot wait for the day when what Africa is thinking becomes subject of serious concern in the corridors of power the world over. Why can’t a black nation conquer, dominate and influence another country in south/central/north America, Europe, Asia, etc? Power respects power, and often yields to it on mutual basis. Africa Heads of State are powerful in their native enclave but not influential on the world stage. Influence is more powerful than raw power Africans tend to enjoy and crave.

Finally, Western countries may never compete across the board with their Chinese counterparts in the African infrastructure boom, but they are neglecting another kind of infrastructure in which they hold a massive advantage: education. American schools are investing heavily in China and the Middle East, but their biggest potential markets and greatest potential impact are arguably in Africa, where the population is expected to nearly triple, to a projected 3 billion. The prolific bank robber Willie Sutton, asked why he robbed banks, had a charmingly simple answer: “That’s where the money is.” Almost every young Chinese person dreams of an American education. Why should American universities and other schools train their sights on Africa? Because in the 21st century, that’s where the students will be.

Mr. French has done nothing here except perpetuate the same nonsense one reads from so called experts on Africa. His comments are non-collateral and I welcome him any day for a rigorous debate on Africa. Africa does not need ‘2-by-4’ pseudo-prophets and induced intellects who themselves have no visible business enterprise except copy and paste solutions. If the best way to rob a bank is to own one, Africans need to own their banks, and rob them while keeping the loots at home and not in some foreign banks. There is no university in the world an African has not triumphed academically, and if that is the case, why yield to overnight sensations who come prescribing solutions for Africa when while in school, Africans helped them to get their homework done.

Africans need to be brave and take ownership of their accomplishments, possession and occupation of their interests while welcoming mutual partnerships that respects them and treats with utmost regard. Never take anything from anyone who does not respect you no matter the sense of depravation. Instead, rise to the challenge and earn yourself respect that is priceless. That way, respect is earned and sustained, and one is seen as ready to compete. Africa is not ready to compete and no lessons from the West or East, in itself will deliver Africa until Africa prompts herself to RISE and SHINE, by its own making and doing.

By Ejike E. Okpa
Dallas, Texas.

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