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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

China and Africa: Economic, but not governance gains Yves Niyiragira

Often the increasing presence of the emerging actors such as China, Brazil, India, Iran, Venezuela and others in Africa is characterised by, among other things, the recognition of Africa as a friend and an equal partner. Consequently, mutual respect and benefit as well as non-interference in domestic affairs are identified as the core factors underpinning this new type of relationship. But, in reality this amplified involvement is mostly triggered by the need for these countries to supplement their energy needs in their industrialisation programmes.

At the recent 13th Ordinary Session of the Heads of State and Government Summit of the African Union held in Sirte, Libya, Brazilian president Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva was invited as the guest of honour to the opening ceremony. During his address President Lula promised that his country would assist African countries, especially in the agricultural sector. Amongst other rising powers, which had sent high profile delegations to the Summit was Zhai Jun, assistant foreign minister, who headed the Chinese delegation.

As much as the Chinese presence could not be ignored, not least because of their deepening involvement in African markets, it is the upcoming fourth Ministerial Conference on Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) to be held at the luxurious resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in early November that was probably the primary feature of their attendance and, indeed, inspires the focus of this short commentary.

At the last FOCAC Summit that took place in Beijing 2006 and which was elevated to the status of Heads of State Summit though not repeated this time around, China had unveiled an eight-point plan that was to enhance cooperation with Africa but more importantly assist with the continent’s economic and social development processes. These were:

1. To double its 2006 assistance to Africa by 2009;

2. Provide 3 billion U.S. dollars of preferential loans and 2 billion U.S. dollars of preferential buyer's credits to Africa in the next three years;

3. Set up a China-Africa development fund, which will reach 5 billion U.S. dollars to encourage Chinese companies to invest in Africa and provide support to them;

4. Build a conference centre for the African Union to support African countries in their efforts to strengthen themselves through unity and support the process of African integration;

5. Cancel debt in the form of all the interest-free government loans that matured at the end of 2005 owed by the heavily indebted poor countries and the least developed countries in Africa that have diplomatic relations with China;

6. Further open up China's market to Africa by increasing from 190 to over 440 the number of export items to China receiving zero-tariff treatment from the least developed countries in Africa having diplomatic ties with China;

7. Establish three to five trade and economic cooperation zones in Africa in the next three years, and

8. Over the next three years, train 15,000 African professionals; send 100 senior agricultural experts to Africa; set up 10 special agricultural technology demonstration centres in Africa; build 30 hospitals in Africa and provide RMB 300 million of grant for providing artemisinin and building 30 malaria prevention and treatment centres to fight malaria in Africa; dispatch 300 youth volunteers to Africa; build 100 rural schools in Africa; and increase the number of Chinese government scholarships to African students from the current 2000 per year to 4000 per year by 2009.

By all indications it would seem that these measures have been fulfilled. Although it must be emphasised that from a non- African government perspective it remains difficult to say with any certainty or clarity whether these initiatives have achieved their mandate of improving the economic and social development framework of the continent since we are unsure what impact these measures have had in improving the livelihoods and lives of ordinary Africans. Herein lies the dilemma.

While it is important to laud the Chinese for undertaking such initiatives since it does engender some positive impacts for the macroeconomic stability of Africa like improving infrastructure and transport networks, connecting markets to ports and being a catalyst for increased GDPs, we cannot divorce the economic imperatives from the African politics and governance dynamic.

The fact that China comes to Africa with a different approach of mutual benefit and respect (a major principle of South to South relationship) without (or little) conditionalities attached to its assistance/cooperation with African countries, is precisely the reason why it is critical to ask whether African leaders and their government are genuinely committed to transforming the governance deficit towards more transparent and accountable government by the people, for the people and of people.

For some time now we have been hearing the lamentations of a few African leaders about Western governments imposing codes of democratic accountability and other forms of governance transparency. Whereas it is true that these moral codes of conduct come with measures of a quid quo pro nature, it nevertheless raises an important point of whether African governments are putting their money where their mouths are and pushing for greater political reform based on free will,

A quick overview tends to illustrate that the trend seems to be reversing despite the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance:

* In Gabon, the former president Omar Bongo’s son (Ali-Ben Bongo) who is accused of bribery and embezzling oil revenues is the presidential candidate of the ruling party (Gabonese Democratic Party) during the August 2009 scheduled general elections to obviously make sure that the Bongo dynasty continues;

* In the Republic of Congo, a country whose industry mainly relies on petroleum, President Denis Sassou Nguesso who is in power from 1979 to 1992 and 1997 up to now has just got another seven year term in office after winning controversial elections on 12 July 2009;

* In Equatorial Guinea (the third-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa since 2004), President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (believed to be one of the richest presidents in the world) is in power since 1979 and even if he won in the last multiparty elections of 1996 and 2002; his victories were internationally condemned as fraudulent. The list could go on.

So as the fourth FOCAC meeting approaches perhaps the time has come to debate how to strengthen African political institutions not only through professional development programmes and other forms of development training but rather through an honest dialogue of whether the needs of ordinary Africans are being met through the FOCAC measures.

Not only will this bring about an honest appraisal of the FOCAC project, it will also mean that Beijing is able to achieve greater PR for its buck by actually achieving greater transparency where Western governments have failed.

Yet to do this would require more alignment between members of the African civil society, in partnership with the still emerging Chinese civil society. Such an alliance needs to be given a voice at FOCAC because they not only act as a shadow peer review but they will help to ensure that both our countries (China and African countries) enter into commercial dealings that do not only benefit the elites in power, but profit the whole African populace, who are the real owners and custodians of the continent’s resources.

In this way, a win-win partnership can be harnessed where African citizens economically and politically benefit from the Africa-China relation.

The stability of African politics and good governance is not only essential for Africa’s economic development, but also vital for Chinese investments on the continent. In a number of African countries, it is difficult to predict how the political landscape will be in one or five year(s). It is therefore, in both Africa and China’s interest that African politics and governance remain stable and predictable over long periods of time so that all the Southern powers find

* Yves Niyiragira is fellow and co-editor of the African Union Monitor, an initiative of Fahamu-networks for social justice.

* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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