Letter from Ghana: Africa embraces its China partnership reluctantly

African leaders, more than a “benevolent” China, should set the tone for Africa-China relations, argues Kofi Gunu

By Kofi Gunu

When I first became aware of China’s growing influence in Africa, I was only ten years old. Ghana was set to host the 2008 African Cup of Nations, the continent’s biggest soccer competition, and work was progressing steadily on a new multipurpose stadium in my hometown, Tamale—one of the tournament’s host cities. Our remote savannah town swirled with rumors about the Chinese construction firm undertaking the project and the files of Chinese foremen who marched chain gang-style to the construction site each morning. I recall my Catholic priest explaining once that the contractor, apparently frustrated with the negative work ethic of his Ghanaian laborers, had replaced all but a few of them with convict labor imported from China.

Later I would learn that this was nothing more than a myth, one of many urban legends concocted by locals trying to make sense of the strangers in our midst. But for a long time afterwards, the imposing Tamale Stadium stood in my young mind as a symbol of China in Ghana and Africa, at once shrouded in mystery and impossible to ignore.

The scale of China’s involvement in Africa is a point of surprising contention. Western politicians and media, alarmed at the significant diplomatic, economic, and military roles China has assumed on the continent, often exaggerate its efforts. Chinese experts, eager to assuage these fears, hasten to cite studies which show that Chinese investment and aid to Africa is safely smaller than the West’s.

However, nothing can obscure the truth that China is Africa’s biggest economic partner now and into the foreseeable future. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner. Additionally, according to the Bilateral FDI database and McKinsey, China is poised to surpass the US as Africa’s largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) stock within the next decade Chinese official development assistance (ODA) and other official flows (OOF) to Africa together added up to 6 billion USD in 2012, making China the third largest country donor to the continent. Besides, since 2012, loan issuance by Chinese institutions to African governments has tripled accounting for approximately one-third of all new sub-Saharan African government debt.

A recent groundbreaking report from Mckinsey & Company, that sought to evaluate Africa’s economic partnerships globally, showed China among the top four partners for Africa across five key dimensions: trade, investment stock, investment growth, aid, and infrastructure financing.

MCKinsey
Source: Dance of the Lions and Dragons, McKinsey & Company, Jun 2017

To objectively analyze China’s footprint in Africa, we must first arrive where reality is. The reality is that China is indispensable to Africa’s development agenda.

This reality is one that many on the continent acknowledge but with mixed feelings. A recent large-scale public opinion survey showed that ordinary Africans appreciate the infrastructural development that closer ties with China has brought. Chinese-led projects and businesses also employ several million people across Africa. African policymakers, a growing number of them Chinese-educated, increasingly look to China, rightly or not, as a model for catalyzing growth and eradicating poverty.

These positive reviews notwithstanding, legitimate questions persist about the motives behind Chinese assistance. Resource-for-infrastructure deals, which may make perfect financial sense to Chinese bankers, set off loud alarm bells on a continent whose vast mineral wealth has been used to enrich everyone but its own people. Citizens decry a political elite that appears incapable of looking beyond narrow political considerations to safeguard Africa’s interests. With a few notable exceptions, African governments lack defined China strategies, master plans for translating increased investment in priority sectors into sustainable development or for ensuring technology and skills transfer. They are waiting for Chinese firms to take the initiative. This lack of confidence in our leaders, far more than a crisis of explanation as proposed in a blog entry by Shou Huisheng earlier this week, is the main reason Africans remain apprehensive about this budding partnership.

Take, for instance, tensions sparked by the influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants to Africa in recent years. In Ghana, these tensions are felt most acutely in the small-scale mining sector, where the arrival of Chinese prospectors  with machinery and heavy equipment has transformed a hitherto unsophisticated industry into a major driver of ecological catastrophe. Galamsey, as the practice is commonly known, has caused irreversible damage to protected forests and polluted vital water bodies. Matters got to such a point that the government was forced to impose a blanket ban on small-scale mining last year and to arrest several Chinese operators, over the objections of the Chinese ambassador. But far from being placated, many Ghanaians continue to point fingers at the authorities for permitting Chinese nationals to flout the country’s laws in the first place. To quote a caller on a Ghanaian radio program: “The Chinese government will never allow us to go to their country and trash it. Why does our government allow it here?”

The fate of China-Africa relations depends on Africans like this caller who are willing to hold African governments accountable for protecting the continent’s interests as they engage with China. As African heads of state convene in Beijing next month for the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), ordinary Africans are expecting them to show more agency in articulating a clear and well-prioritized China strategy. China’s presence in Africa will produce win-win dividends, not because benevolent China pre-ordains it, but because farsighted African leaders insist on it.

Kofi Gunu is from Ghana. He graduated from Tsinghua University’s Schwarzman College in 2018 with a master’s degree in global affairs and public policy. Prior to that, he held roles at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Global Green Growth Institute. He is currently completing a year of national service in Accra.