Africa’s historical contact with the outside world has largely been – for lack of a better word – horrific.
From slavery, to colonialism, and to all contemporary neo-colonial tendencies; the continent’s impasse, as I argue here, has primarily been shaped by the binary of ‘external greed’ and ‘internal weaknesses’.
To elaborate further on this, ‘external greed’ is essentially driven by the hunt for resources; while ‘internal weakness’ is mainly in form of the failure of our societies, particularly the leadership, to safeguard the interests of those they rule/lead. ‘External greed’ is basically natural (widely viewed as patriotism for the country exercising it). It is – in this respect – not necessarily a bad thing. It can be contained by the existing local (majorly political) environment, and it can be aligned to national interests. This greed only becomes destructive when it is not matched with a formidable internal force to contain it and guide it.
The first two major phases of Africa’s contact with the outside world – slavery and colonial occupation – were mainly with Europe.
Though this is not an article on cataclysms as a result of slavery and colonialism in Africa, it is worth noting here that the trails of the enormous resource plunder that characterized these two grander phases are still thick. The third and raging phase was mainly fuelled by the cold war. In the aftermath of World War II, the United States emerged as a powerful force on the global scale, a thing the reigning US leadership exploited in great detail to assert US hegemony and influence on the world.
I am more interested in the US-African connection, which is also vital in understanding the case of China today. From the day President Truman made explicit his country’s alleged global war on ‘poverty’ and ‘underdevelopment’ in 1949, the US was majorly seen – at least in Africa, as a neutral case, more so having gone through the same tragedy of colonialism at of the hands of the British until 1776 – just as many African countries did until the 1960s.
Those who sided with the Americans were convinced that everything was fine, “this being one of us”.
Little did they know that things were by far different from the way they appeared to be. The US had not only became a late colonizing force; it was also committed than none to map and sustain its share on world’s resources and influence on global affairs. We can see this today in very many aspects, especially under the pretext of the raging global war on terror.
However, very many things have changed today. The US is no longer competing with Europe alone for global resources and markets. There is no doubt that China has ascended to the ‘club of top most influential nations on earth’ and on course to joining the ‘league of the most affluent’. Like in the US after World War II, the elites in China are quick to give China’s ascendency a sort of global emblem.
That’s why today, it is common to come across concepts like ‘China’s peaceful rise’, ‘Beijing Consensus’, ‘Chinese Model’, and so on. Just as President Truman denounced old (European) imperialism and pronounced a ‘bold new programme of development’ led by the US; the Chinese are denouncing the ‘Western model’ and pronouncing a new sort of ‘Chinese model’ for global cooperation and development. Nothing new.
But why is Africa, specifically African leadership, so much inclined to the gospel according to China? What are the factors behind this overwhelming fascination, even as it is clearer that just like anyone else, China is interested in nothing but Africa’s natural resources and markets?
I believe key to all this is the fact that China did her homework quite well. The Chinese studied and understood the nature and direction of relations between the West and Africa, and packaged their ‘gospel’ in such a way so appealing particularly to African leaders, majority of whom are troubled with the West’s alleged meddling in continental ‘internal affairs’.
China’s alleged policy of ‘non-interference’ in internal affairs and insistence on collaboration and trade has unsurprisingly won the hearts of many Africa’s leaders, majority of whom have no immediate plans of leaving power. But the Chinese ‘gospel’ is so appealing to the extent that it has registered a reasonable number of ‘converts’ from the African intellectual community!
Yet, what China will never explicitly say – just as the US could not in 1949, is the fact that the whole point is about resources and markets. Nothing more or less.
Unfortunately, just as it was during slavery and colonialism, horrific scenes culminating from immense resource plunder awaits as ‘external greed’, now of China, meets gross ‘internal weaknesses’. Those on the continent who think power is all about them feel comfortable exchanging their countries’ non-renewables with guarantee that their power is intact.
And in the end, it is as it was. The losers are the people, the masses in societies who have to pay a heavy price for the selfishness and irrationality of their leaders. To me therefore, there is hardly any logic in African (leaders’) fascination with China beyond selfishness and megalomania.
For China of course, the game is as it was before and Dambisa Moyo (2012) has a term for it: “winner take all”. Until we organize ourselves to shield our interests first against selfish rulers and second against negative external forces; our continental anomaly will remain painting the face of the earth: being the richest in terms of resources and the ‘poorest’ economically.
Adventino Banjwa, MSc, Development Studies, Lund University
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