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China in Africa

By Obi Nwakanma
IN 1890, the French statesman Jules Francois Camille Ferry wrote, “an irresistible movement is bearing the great nations of Europe towards the conquest of fresh territories. It is like a huge steeplechase into the unknown…whole continents are being annexed…especially the huge black continent so full of fierce mysteries and vague hopes.”

Jules Ferry basically foreshadowed what later became known as “the scramble for Africa” by the great European powers in the 19th century, whose exploitative work, is signaled fundamentally by the legacy of King Leopold in the Congo, and generally of the entire colonial system in Africa.

Three important books, to me, are must reads for any one wanting to understand the context of that history and its impact on Africa: one would be Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, the other would certainly be How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney’s classic excursus on that subject, and another would be Thomas Pakenham’s felicitously written book of the title, The Scramble for Africa.

Pakenham takes us particularly on a tour guide of the terrain of the nineteenth century and the shenanigans of the European powers, some acting out of misguided charity, others out of sheer greed, and others by a combination of both, and whose efforts not only raped Africa, but powerfully turned her face towards the abyss.

Many Africans today increasingly connect the situation of internal wars, ethnic cleansing, and even amputations, to the colonial legacy, and that indeed is quite true. It is reminiscent of King Leopold’s methods in the exploitation of the Congo; an unfinished business which continues today, and which has rendered Africa, and one of the world’s potentially wealthiest nations, the Congo, into a geography of chaos, instability, and mastery.

Pakenham also gives us an insight into how the usury laws especially caged the Egyptian Khedives, already vassals of the Ottomans, and ruined their moves towards economic modernization and independence in the 19th century, through a trap-door loan for the construction of the Suez Canal. They took a loan, derived neither benefit nor satisfaction from it, but became burdened by a debt overhang.

The method is classic and has since been put to use for newly decolonizing African countries who were given or forced to take toxic loans from the powerful Euro-American global finance and political alliance, as a means of containing, it now seems, any African political and economic exuberance in the postcolonial era.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have done extremely remarkable jobs of doing this dirty business for the west, and the impact of its usurious relationship with Africa has crystallized in the quarter century that former European colonies in Africa were given what now amounts merely to symbolic or gestural independence in the 1960s.

Africans and other people in the world who have read that terrifying book, Confessions of an Economic Hit man by the American John Perkins, now understand, but only in part, the methods of the west in dealing with Africa and many other of the so-called developing nations, and in playing that “game as old as empire, but one that has taken new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.” Much has gone on between Africa and the Euro- American west, and it has not been quite pretty.

Some Africans now wonder what indeed went on at the council of Yalta, at the end of the Second World War, where negotiations fully materialized it seemed in a new world order that retained Africa in the margins, while offering them the Greek gift of independence from late in the 1950s.

There has arisen in Africa especially, and perhaps more acute among this generation of Africans, a growing skepticism about the west.

The US government for instance often speaks volubly about its “charity” in Africa, but it is often left-handed charity. The images of Africa that it continues and conspicuously, and continuously retails is of a dark, primitive, sick, and corrupt continent, that requires the “feeding bottle” and doses of American aid packages. Nicholas Sarkozy once came to Africa to declare that Africans were not yet in history.

They are trapped in the pagan cycle of time. They require their colonial big brothers to “help” them. Africa – ancient and brooding with rage and incomprehension at these insults – is continuously infantilized in the cultural unconscious of the West that is clearly not in tune with the reality of its dynamic and mobile population; its vast resources; its capacity for consistent self-renewal; the mystical fount of its cultures.

Conditions placed before newly independent Africans by the West, and this is only in part, have made it difficult for the true leaders of Africa to settle to the serious business of creating prosperity and organizing the post-colony. In places like the Niger delta, the greed of Western multinationals aided by their home governments have turned these places into a cauldron of conflict.

This is how Africans see it. Africans have seen these, and so comes China into Africa, speaking a different language.

While China does not send haughty and pretentious  emissaries to African capitals to harangue African political, economic and intellectual leaders about their “responsibility,” they enter into mutually beneficial deals: in exchange for developing the much needed infrastructure in Africa, they are getting access to Africa’s natural resources.

They are building roads, hospitals, research facilities, telecommunication links, etc, and they are not forcing African governments to take usurious and unpayable loans. They are not hanging the threats of assassination and fear on those who do not play ball.

They are showing some respect and understanding to people like Mugabe, whom many in the west still fail to comprehend, maintains symbolic weight in Africa.

China therefore poses a challenge to Africa’s traditional Western alliances, as indeed more Africans look towards China, and as they see the new scramble for Africa, and as they anticipate what may indeed become a vast military conflict on the map of Africa.


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