EDITORIAL: Africa’s needs mean it cannot choose between US or China
EDITORIAL Africa is often mistaken to be a country. That is because most global powers would like to address the continent as one, under one policy, and probably under one special envoy.
There could be problems with that, given the diversity of this massive region. Yet the issue keeps coming up mostly because of the continent’s similar needs: Infrastructural demands, desire for peace and stability, and just governments that can provide basic amenities.
When the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down in Africa last week, the continent may have been curious to know if this policy stance had changed under President Joe Biden, who took power in February from Donald Trump. Unfortunately, even when it changed in framing, the substance was the same: Africa is still seen as an arena to checkmate Washington’s biggest rival, Beijing.
Blinken toured Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal this time, but his handlers had told the media he would be speaking to the entire continent and its problems of war, poverty, and human rights problems.
“The Secretary will look to advance US-African partnerships and underscore the common values we share with Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal and use those as platforms to really talk to the entirety of the continent but certainly the public and leaders in those three countries,” Ervin Massinga, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs had told a virtual press briefing ahead of the trip.
According to him, economic ties mattered but “human rights are the front and center” of US engagement across the continent and that “there will be a human rights component inbuilt into everything we’re doing.”
And wherever he went, Blinken claimed there would be no political strings attached to their investments in Africa. In Nairobi, he referred to the 50 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines donated to 43 African countries as well as a further $1.9 billion Covid-19 related assistance across Africa to respond to the pandemic.
In truth, both China and the US have been the biggest bilateral vaccine donors in Africa. That said, Africa did not need donations. It needed doses it wanted to purchase but which were hogged by the big players in the market. Given the skewed nature of vaccine distributions, it has become apparent that the donations indeed come with political strings.
In Africa, for instance, China ignored eSwatini, Africa’s last absolute monarchy and the only country on the continent that recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation. Beijing sees Taiwan as its province and hence part of its territory. If vaccines were about saving lives and humanity, political considerations of this nature wouldn’t stand in the way.
Yet the US has overlooked regions that don’t seem to toe the line. Eritrea, in spite of its poverty and inability to seek its vaccines, hasn’t received any from the US, although in fairness, the lack of a free press and transparency from Asmara makes it difficult to know the Covid-19 situation.
Blinken did say the US will not limit Africa’s dealings with other countries. As opposed to his predecessor Mike Pompeo, he refused to mention China by name. “I also know that many countries across the region are wary of the strings that come with more engagement, and fear that in a world of sharper rivalries among major powers, countries will be forced to choose,” he said.
The trip elicited an unusual reaction from Beijing, which went ahead to boast of its tangible influence in Africa by tabling numbers and suggesting the US had engaged in empty promises.
Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman told a press conference China has long been “engaging in practical cooperation with African countries” which he said was based on mutual sincerity. In 20 years, China built 100,000km of road in Africa, 10,000km of railway, and created 45,000 jobs, he said without clarifying the jobs nor elaborating the debt pile since then.
“China will support anything as long as the African people welcome it. We hold that countries, when interacting and cooperating with Africa, should all respect the African people's choice.”
In fact, China’s lack of transparency in what it does in Africa is just as bad. Africa needs infrastructure to develop. But those projects can only be beneficial if officials remain accountable to the public they serve. To assume that people will look away just because you paved their road or build them a bridge to the market is naïve.
Even Beijing’s way of working is such that the corrupt are punished and those with integrity rewarded. China should cultivate the practice of calling out those who divert the monies it sends here, rather than sinking its head in the sand under the guise of being apolitical.
But most importantly, Africa must find for itself the good bits in every world entity seeking to work here. As a needy continent, choosing sides will not exactly be wise.