By Charles Onunaiju
BEFORE his departure on his current five-nation African tour, U.S Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson delivered a lecture at George Mason University, Virginia on the outline of the vision and issues of Africa-U.S cooperation. Among many other issues, he grudgingly admitted that “Chinese investment does have the potential to address Africa’s infrastructure gap,” but added a curious caveat that “its (China) approach has led to mounting debt and few, if any jobs in most countries.”
Not only does this fly in the face of reality but leaves one wondering if Mr. Tillerson was adequately or properly briefed on issues of China-Africa cooperation.
Last year, in June 2017, a prestigious U.S –based global managment consulting firm, Mckinsey&co issued a report of its elaborate filed research on China/Africa with a title of Dance of the Lion and dragons: How are Africa and China emerging, and how will the partnership evolve? On page 40 of the highly rated report, it observed that “a walk through China factory or construction site almost anywhere in Africa will confirm what our research finds,” that “Chinese enterprises overwhelmingly employ local workers. At the more than 1,000 companies we surveyed, 89 per cent employees were African, adding up to more than 300,000 jobs for African workers. Scaled up across the more than 10,000 Chinese firms in Africa, these numbers suggest that Chinese-owned businesses employ several million Africans.”
Continuing, the report said: “Private companies and SOEs across industries in the eight countries we studied had majority-local workers. In trade, for example, the workforce is 82 per cent African, in manufacturing, its 95 per cent African, and comparing public and private enterprises, SOEs employ an 81 per cent African workforce, and private enterprises employ a 92 per cent African workforce.” According to Mckinsey&Co, “the reason for the bias toward local labour is not hard to understand; employing Africans lead to lower overall cost,” and referring to one Chinese construction company supervisor it interviewed, the report quoted him as saying that “even though Chinese workers tend to be more productive, it is now five times more expensive to bring a Chinese worker to Africa than it is to hire locally.”
This report of a foremost and prestigious American consulting management firm would not have escaped the attention of the meticulous and intelligent U.S Secretary of State,(now former) Mr. Rex Tillerson, and his horde of advisers in the U.S State Department. For why Mr. Tillerson chooses to disparage facts in favour of ideological hankerings is best known to the former oilman who is not at all, a stranger to Africa in his “former life,” as he put it at the George Mason University speech.
Hawking outright lies and slander to tarnish China-Africa cooperation is not new and hardly makes any impression in Africa.
In 1991, a former U.S deputy assistant Secretary of State for human rights in a New York Times report accused China of using convict labour in the Republic of Benin and later it was picked up by the British Daily Mail report in 2008. Without any foundation in fact, the report was a sheer fabrication and evidently did not harm the soaring China-Africa relations.
As Secretary of State, Mr. Tillerson pointed out, U.S-Africa relations is longstanding and has been buoyed by former President Jimmy Carter’s visits to Liberia and Nigeria in 1978 where he announced that “our nation has now turned in an unprecedented way toward Africa.” And in contemporary times, according to Secretary Tillerson, “that turning continues,” as “our country‘s security and economic prosperity are linked with Africa’s like never before,” and “will only intensify in the coming decades.”
As he sees it, Africa by the year, 2030, will represent about one-quarter of the world’s workforce. And by the year 2050, the population of the continent is expected to double to more than 2.5 billion people – with 70 per cent of them under the age of 30.” And secondly, according to him, Africa is experiencing significant growth. The World Bank estimates that six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world this year will be African,” and narrowing it down to Nigeria, Mr. Rex Tillerson said that “for context, by the year 2050, Nigeria will have a population larger than the United States and an economy larger than Australia’s,” and added that “to understand where the world is going, one must understand that Africa is a significant part of the future. African countries will factor more and more into numerous global security and development challenges, as well as expansive opportunities for economic growth and influence.”
With such robust view and understanding of the strategic potential of Africa, the United States of America whose State Department or foreign ministry created its Africa bureau in 1958, should readily mean business by engaging Africa more productively than into a battle-ground for ideological contestations by the unsolicited and false alarm of so-called China’s “Predatory practices.” As former Nigerian head of state, General Murtala Muhammed affirmed in 1976 that “Africa has come of age, and it’s no longer under the orbit of any extra continent power,” in response to the earlier letter of the U.S President, Gerald Ford on how Africa should steer clear of the former USSR and Cuba influence on the matter of then, Angolan Independence. The Nigerian leader warned then, that “for too long has it been presumed that the African needs outside “experts” to tell him who are his friends and who are his enemies,” and affirmed that “the time has come when we should make it clear that we can decide for ourselves, that we know our own interests and how to protect those interests; that we are capable of resolving African problems without presumptuous lessons in ideological dangers, which, more often than not, have no relevance for us, nor for the problem at hand.”
Mr. Tillerson’s current anti-China rhetoric is more likely to meet the same fate as former President Gerald Ford’s in 1976.
The fact is that Africa is open to partnership with any country or region in the world that shows respect to her. China-Africa relations is not perfect but is working and delivering tangible results. It is a work in progress and has established a mechanism for routine consultations and dialogue.Through the mechanism of dialogue and consultation, instituted in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), both sides express their concerns and work through consultation and consensus to drive a process of mutual benefits and win-win cooperation.
China has also offered another meaningful platform and mechanism, the Belt and Road International Cooperation to engage global development and build a community of shared future for all mankind. The United States with her numerous advantages of a lone super-power, can leverage the Belt and Road mechanism to deepen her engagement to the core global developmental issues which are of concern to Africa, but whose neglect are the reasons for the security concerns which Washington seems perennially obsessed.
On the occasion of the U.S Secretary of State visit to Africa, Washington should burnish its solid Africa credentials afterall, it has a size able population of Africa-origin and engage more usefully in sectors that are mutually productive and meaningful to both sides.
China has consistently said it is keen to engage other interested international partners in Africa and therefore, the U.S does not need to revive the outdated cold war rhetoric about China in Africa but to engage in a framework that brings about mutual benefits to all parties.
Mr. Onunaiju is Director, Centre for China Studies, CCS, Utako, Abuja.