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Comment: African rivalry could explain Chinese coyness

bride wars picBy Bob Wekesa

The recent release of research findings on China’s aid to Africa by AidData has naturally generated loads of heat in the continuing saga of China-Africa. In chief, the fidelity of the statistics presented and the attendant ‘media-based approach to date collection’ method have stoked the embers of this new round of debate on Sino-Africa relations.

For perceptive watchers, this latest ‘event’ is nothing but another episode in attempts to explicate the whys and wherefores of China-Africa rapprochement. Away from the disputations touched off by AidData, the whole question of paucity of information on China’s development assistance to Africa remains a grey area. Foregrounding the AidData report is literature review touching on the why Chinese officials are hesitant to bare all in matters aid. Names such as Deborah Brautigam, Martin Davies, Sven Grim, Dambisa Moyo and Chris Alden to name but a few, pop up in this introductory salvo providing the raison d’être for the research and its controversial findings.

My point of departure is that away from the statistical, theoretical and methodological disputations, some of the factors impelling China to give full disclosure a wide berth are readily discernible in Africa. The AidData report says thus: “Chinese officials have argued that publishing country-level data will draw attention to which countries are the largest recipients and result in pressure from other governments for more aid”. The rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa, even though not exactly donor-aid-specific, illustrates this conundrum.

Only last month, Nigeria’s foremost business journal, Business Day led with the headline: “Nigeria’s role in unlocking Africa’s growth potential”. Citing Jim O’Neil, Chairman of Goldman Sachs and progenitor of BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) before South Africa joined in 2010 to make it BRICS, the centerpiece of the article is a subtle vouching for Nigeria’s prowess on the continent. Drawing on O’Neil’s comments while on a Nigeria circuit, the piece made the case for a new geopolitical bloc (N-11) in which Nigeria would play a pivotal role while at the same time wistfully expressing optimism that one day, “…Nigeria (would be) invited to sit at the same table with BRICS.” The article, also posits a future where a ‘BRICA’ (Africa at the end) would be in place rather than ‘BRICS’.

It can be recalled that it is China that invited South Africa into the BRICS, ostensibly to represent not just herself but the greater Africa as well. However, there is a pervading feeling that South Africa would benefit more from inclusion in this elite emerging nations’ club than other countries. To that extent therefore, China’s invite would be seen to be favoring South Africa vis a vis other African countries but particularly Nigeria, a claimant to superiority on the continent – never mind benchmarks dictating BRICS membership! This example may seem removed from direct Chinese donor funding rivalries, but the underlying intra Africa tensions in competing for donor funding and indeed foreign direct investments are on the same fault lines.

Those who follow international politics would for instance be familiar with the fact that while consecutive Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) meetings have sought reforms at the UN, a euphemism for a permanent seat on the security council, competition by African states on who among them should warm up to this seat has ensured this goal remains pending business. Ideally, China would push for such a position in solidarity with African states but the rivalry, again principally between Nigeria and South Africa, has nipped this idea in the bud.

For the US, bending over backwards to accommodate all African countries is not a challenge because successive administrations have made no pretense as to which African countries are her closest allies, which ones fall in the intermediate category and which ones are ‘rogue’ and therefore off limits. Ditto other Western countries. For China however, the policy of equal treatment is a leash constraining open categorization and this may be the spur for non disclosure of development aid.

A further illustration is discernible in the current issue of The East African weekly newspaper, a pan-East Africa journal published in Nairobi, Kenya. “With $11bn Bagamoyo port, Tanzania prepares to take on EA hub Mombasa”, goes the headline which then makes the case for competition between Kenya and Tanzania on a nearly zero sum basis. The springboard for this article is that China has recently advanced a credit line of $11 billion to Tanzania for the construction of a modern seaport with capacity many times higher than the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Now, the Mombasa port has for long enjoyed the status of the biggest logistical hub serving much of East and Central African landlocked countries. Indeed, Kenya has prided herself as the gateway to Africa riding on the capacity of its port – never mind its well documented inefficiencies! The drift of the article could therefore be decoded as China aiding Tanzania to begin to challenge Kenya’s economic powerhouse of Eastern Africa status.

Not long ago, there were animated discussions on the Chinese in Africa /Africans in China (CAAC) online group over whether Kenya was the first country to get a Confucius Institute or South Africa pioneered in these respects. In the heated if good natured discussion, one member referred to the apparent ‘competition’ as a beauty contest. With China as the suitor, it would appear most if not all Africans want their hands taken. Thus, in a manner of speaking, China must be a wise suitor so as not to break the heart of all the heads-over-heels brides. Indeed, I couldn’t help laughing the other day when a Chinese friend said Chinese officials are not keen to release development aid information on Africa because of “this me-also-too attitude”.
Of course other factors such as the potential for disclosure fanning opposition at home may encourage China to go slow on releasing development aid information. But that is a story for another day.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Communication University of China and a visiting researcher Department of Journalism, University of Witwatersrand.

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