IMPRESSIONS ABOUT aid dependence have to be erased when discussing about the Africa of the future. What defined the continent’s past does not necessarily have to define its future. Africa has benefited much from freebies, hand-outs and aid packages which haven’t translated to anything substantial in terms of development. Some debts have also been written off by other nations, multilateral agencies and clubs of creditors. Any or all of these past benefits could inappropriately influence decisions by specific countries of Africa to either identify with or resist any foreign countries of the industrially advanced world when the latter makes overtures to the former for support.
It is not a good diplomacy for all of Africa to put all its eggs in one basket. But that was what happened in 2018 when all African countries, except one, went en masse to the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing. President Xi Jinping’s opening statement to the FOCAC participants, emphasising a ‘five-no’ approach to China’s African policy, would need to be taken with a pinch of salt. One of them was ‘no interference in African countries’ internal affairs’ and another was ‘no attachment of political strings to assistance.’ It seems implausible to do development cooperation without getting involved in internal politics in any way. We would like to see how China strives to maintain a principle of non-interference as the scale of its African cooperation grows.
Experiences with Sri Lanka could give an idea of how tenable such statements could be. In Africa, going close to Sri Lanka is Djibouti. Their experiences are similar. The China lending to these countries has put their sovereignty to the test as their strategic assets either became, or risk becoming, bargaining chips for loans unpaid. The Western aids and their strings of political reform objectives are no strangers to Africa. Their barefaced interference has been known, in some cases coming in forms of conditionalities. China’s posturing of no conditionalities is suspect. In reality, it won’t stand the test of time. Africa needs therefore to find smart and enduring ways outside these veneered, seemingly harmless offers.
The point about non-aligned stance cannot be over-emphasised. Africa needs to steer clear of the thawing relationship between China and the US under the present circumstances and possible similar future circumstances. In attracting these foreign suitors, Africa should appropriately regard itself as a beautiful bride worth a great bride price. It is important to avoid desperation in attempts to capture values from relationships, either with the East or West. Critical questions need to be asked. For instance, China investors come into Africa with their own officials, somehow tweaking the conventional sense about offshoring of operations, part of which is to seek a lower cost of labour overseas. By China’s approach, citizens in the offshore countries are denied the job opportunities while offshore products are targeted in part at the citizens of the offshore countries’ markets.
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For a long time to come, Africa remains an agrarian continent. It remains to be seen what agricultural commodities Africa has comparative advantages in on a commercial scale. This is in stark contrast with Brazil which is one of the world’s leading producers of soybeans. Brazil is benefitting from the US-China trade war as China has officially switched (at least, for now) from US soybeans to Brazilian soybeans since their trade disputes have escalated. The same cannot be said of Africa as a continent. This is in spite of the platitudes the African leaders were treated to during FOCAC in Beijing. It is now a decision time for Africa with respect to agricultural trade in the context of export and import.
Africa also needs circumspection in its trade relations that bear anything green. The future of green technology and economy is largely in Africa. The African forests remain one of the enduring carbon sinks of the universe. Deforestation will alter that expectation in a significant way. The ‘green’ credential of China easily comes under scrutiny and attack against the backdrop of growing magnitude of trade in natural resources. Of the various natural resources traded, “the biggest exports to China are forestry products, which in 2017 totalled over US$1.35 billion, up from US$747 million in 2010,” noted one commentator. The meaning of this is that China extracts huge quantities of woods from Africa.
In what ways China hopes to be different from the Western countries in terms of sustainability standards should be of interest to African policy makers. In agriculture, for instance, China’s alternatives to fair trade or organic production would be considered novel and out-of-the-box. It will be a pity if African countries remain unaware of the urgent need to feed the world and how many rich countries of the world are scheming and strategising on how Africa could help meet their future food supply. China, one of the world’s greatest food importers, may have done its homework on Africa and is now trying to unleash its long-haul programme upon the continent.
The story of the global ‘green economy’ will remain incomplete without Africa. Countries already adopting zero-emission automobile technologies need an essential component of that technology that is of African origin. The cobalt-lithium battery that powers electric vehicles comes from a rich deposit in Africa. And Africa’s leaning on the importing countries would need a change of configuration, away from mere trade partnership to responsible collaboration. Existing governance structures and trade documents would need a thorough review to put Africa on equal footing with countries importing the precious metals to drive their green economies, China included. Countries rich in uranium deposits need to change their strategies as well, from mere exporters to true collaborators in an energy world that tends to place some developed countries on higher pedestals than others in the pursuit of clean energy.
The stakes are high and, indeed must be. As the prospects to grow wealth and prosperity grow, Africa must realise its true worth, with a long-term view rather than short term expediency. The continent must therefore not pander to either the US or China, but rather realise that it is a continent of the future, in terms of food security, minerals that would power the future environmentally friendly cars and the future electricity supply – whether nuclear, wind, solar or geothermal. The poverty associated with Africa could be consigned into the dustbin of history if the nations of the continent could realise just how rich it is in natural resources and how such resources could be turned into an engine to power its economic growth.
Shifting from short-term convenience of export earnings, Africa should rapidly evolve ambitious programmes to transform its resources to sources of enduring wealth, prosperity, political and economic relevance. But this will require a convergence of policies, strategies, visions and a resolve to do things differently and to raise the stakes to take Africa to higher heights socially, technologically, politically and economically. Outsiders will not do it for Africa. The change has to evolve from within. Aligning with the US, Europe or China will not do it either. That would be disastrous and would continue to place Africa on the path of dependency and all the risks associated with it. Africa can choose to be firm in its dealing with outside forces and could dictate its tastes, preferences and choices instead of leaning on one powerful country or another, and making itself vulnerable when any two of such nations are at loggerheads. African leaders have the challenge as well as the opportunities to make a positive difference. The remarkable changes anticipated are possible. But what of the will to make the difference?