By Abu-Bakarr Jalloh
Last weekend I had a transit flight through Abu Dhabi. During my 10 hour stopover in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, I came across several Africans from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Uganda. Most of them were on business trips to and from China.
I spoke to a Nigerian – I asked him whether he had ever been to Europe. His response: “Never, and I don’t intend to do so any time soon.” Was I surprised? Absolutely not!
In the last 10 years of China’s increasing engagement in Africa, many Africans with business capital as small as US$5,000 – can now travel to the Asian economic powerhouse to buy and sell goods. It has never been this easy for young and ambitious African entrepreneurs.
Europe prides itself on being Africa’s only neighbor. And not just that, Europeans had managed to spread their cultures and values across the African continent and dominated trade and investments on the continent until the arrival of, firstly, the United States, and then the Chinese.
As bizarre as it may sound in contemporary politics, Europe still does not consider Africa as an equal.
Of course, the European continent is highly developed – far more advanced than Africa. But it is cynical for Europe to still consider Africa as the “begging continent.”
Over 60 years of development aid has not yielded much other than helping fund corruption and putting small shop owners out of business.
The common rhetoric among Europeans is that China’s increasing engagement with Africa is undermining European values and political strategies in the African continent. A statement like this sounds insulting to Africans.
For centuries, Africans have imbibed European values and culture. And yes, we even think and speak in their languages. While many have benefited from these cultural integrations, millions still have not.
It is as if we are back to the 1884 Berlin Conference, where Africa was split into several parts, left to be scavenged upon by power-mongering European colonial masters.
African states are simply trying to forge their own future and whoever they choose to do this with should be decided by themselves and not external actors.
China, of course, is putting billions in Africa to fulfill its ambition of becoming a global player – a world superpower, if you like. African leaders are fully aware of it. But the opportunities China presents to Africa are far better than what Europeans have to offer.
To many Africans, Europe’s development aid strategy is completely outdated. If Europe wishes to fully re-engage with Africa, it needs to do so as a business partner, not as its breadwinner.
China can be criticized for paying scant attention to issues of human rights violations. Beijing has been financing businesses in countries such as South Sudan. Rights watchdogs like Amnesty International have accused the Kiir administration of human rights violations during the conflict against his bitter rival, former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar.
While China should be scolded for such business strategies, it is not the business of the Chinese to dictate to African leaders how to respect the rights of their own people. Africa has grown politically to an extent that its institutions such as the African Union (AU) and the regional East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) could handle such roles.
Workers’ safety and labor standards
Chinese firms have also been blamed for not respecting trade laws such as providing protective gear for mine workers and for those working with heavy machinery. In my opinion, you would be right if you look at it from a European perspective. But if you look at it from an African perspective, you would say that even African factories do not provide safe enough working environments for their employees.
Although it is not enough to say Chinese firms should not be criticized for negligence, I also do not think it is a sufficient excuse to ask them to leave. I think better working conditions are needed for mine and factory workers, and that they should be enforced by government agencies and strong legislation, and not the sole responsibility of the investors.
Back in Abu Dhabi while waiting for our transit flights, my new Nigerian friend explained how much his life has changed due to China’s engagement with Africa. He buys cheap Nigerian goods, which he sells in China, buys cheap Chinese radios, watches and necklaces and sells them in Nigeria. From each business trip, he makes nearly US$700. Not many Africans have had such opportunities in Europe.
While China’s business policy of non-political interference in Africa can be criticized in many ways, it should also be lauded for providing hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Africans, helping so many young entrepreneurs and revamping Africa’s broken infrastructure.
Should Europe wish to keep up with China’s growing influence in Africa, Europeans need to snap out of the “glory days of colonialism” and face the new reality.
Abu-Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean social and political commentator, who also contributes as an editor with Deutsche Welle – Germany’s public international broadcaster.