African countries must be viewed as serious partners rather than subjects

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Africa and China relations feature prominently in the media across the globe. For those unfamiliar with global affairs, the African continent appears to be simply one big country, without any strategic or tactical approach on how it collaborates with its partners, especially Beijing. Why do Africans seem to prefer or favour China? At a superficial level, it seems as if Africans only have relations with China, and other partners matter less. This widely held perception emanates largely from western capitals. It is a perception, rather than reality, that is driven by prejudice and fear of a rising China.

Regardless of the biased Africa–China relations reports, Africa’s relationship with China remains marginal compared to Africa’s relationship with the developed countries. The main reasons behind Beijing’s perceived increased involvement in Africa are the dogmatic beliefs in the post-cold war period that Africa’s embrace of liberal democracy leads to development. Despite the massive injection of resources to promote democracy in Africa by western countries, there are disappointing returns on investments. 

The promotion of liberal democracy without tangible support for Africa in other vital aspects of development such as favourable access to markets, trade, development of physical infrastructure, access to capital and education have forced the continent to seek alternative partners. In other words, China’s popularity in Africa comes from the developed countries’ neglect of the continent. 

Currently, western countries engage Africa for different reasons. Europe’s focus in its Africa policy is mainly motivated by the need to halt African migrants into the EU. The recent visits by British Prime Minister Theresa May and German’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is a good example. The US, on the other hand, has a President with even less respect for the African continent and its people. The newly launched US Africa strategy runs short on any substantive African issues. Its main objective is to limit China and Russia’s diplomatic and economic investments on the continent as part of the broad new economic cold war strategy.              

The African Union’s First Strategic Plan of Action Horizon 2007 under Axis IV on Shared Vision clearly states that, “the objective of strengthening Africa’s position in the world and assigns priority to the development of strategic alliances with regional groupings and particularly emerging powers of the South in order to accomplish this goal”. In their quest for development, Africans entered into strategic partnerships with the major powers all over the world, including China when Nepad and the APRM were established in the early 2000s. African leaders realised that for the continent to maintain respectable economic growth and development they required assistance and lessons from those outside the continent that had achieved development.      

What China has been consistently doing in its relationship with Africa since the formation of the Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is firstly, showing a serious commitment to implement its pledges. Africans realise that liberal democracy cannot prosper in the absence of development. What attracts Africans to China is absolutely nothing other the need for market access, physical infrastructure and learning from the successful programmes and policies of uplifting millions of people from poverty achieved by China. 

Like the US in the 1960s, China is making impressive progress in science and technology, innovation, space and maritime issues. These developments attained in China stand as  ‘soft power’ as described by Joseph Nye. Strategy and tactics guide Africans in their approach towards China. It is not sheer love for China as presented in the media. The lesson for developed countries is that liberal democracy cannot be parachuted into Africa without the promotion of a developmental agenda. When Africa embraces China, it does not inversely mean the rejection of western countries and liberal democracy. Africa needs China and the developed countries. 

It is in this context therefore that Africa will continue seeking close relations with all countries in the world. It will be important for western countries to realise that there is no need to compete with China in Africa. There is no need to advance propaganda against China in Africa through the media. Although Africa does not always achieve its strategic partnership with China, because the AU vision and objectives are implemented at a member state level. 

At times, member state’s direct engagement with Beijing contradicts the AU’s objectives. The Chinese involvement on the continent is starting to register positive results in a number of areas. The classic example of this is China’s engagement with Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda and Egypt. There might be challenges in these countries’ engagements with China, however tangible physical infrastructure and investments in manufacturing is increasingly improving lives in Africa. The western countries can also achieve similar results if they take Africa and Africans as serious partners rather than sheer subjects as is the case right now.