China: the straw that will break Africa’s back

By Patrick Mbullo


The fact that the United States current debt stands at approximately $20 trillion is not anything new. Of interest, however, is the $1.2 and $1.1 trillion respectively owed to China and Japan, the economic giants of the east. With burgeoning industries bolstered by growing capital base, China and Japan are on a charm offensive to establish new global alliances at a time when the west – United States of America and Europe – is in economic and political turmoil. Rising cost of living, poor governance, capital and political instability are now increasing issues of concern. Entangled in its own domestic mess, the United States and Europe are rapidly losing their long-standing political and economic glory. The authority of western countries in global affairs is rapidly fading, and their claim to global democracy and dominance is now in question. In fact, we can say with confidence that are the days of using political and economic powers to influence global economies and politics are becoming a thing of the past. It is evident that the world’s capital base has now moved to the east.

However, we cannot easily erase from our memories the years of global territorial expeditions and conquests that gave rise to western powers and their dominance of the global economy and politics. Exploitative in its advancement, Europe rejoiced in its victorious conquest, and went about plundering and raping virgin lands for raw material and free labor. The colonial territories, as these new frontiers came to be known, build from scratch the economic power and infrastructures that Europe and America stand on today. Anti-colonial voices such as that of Walter Rodney, have argued that Europe’s success is the fruit of human injustices inflicted on African people through illegal labor and outright robbery of Africa’s natural resources.

Coming out of the colonial business and the second world war that left it devastated – broke and insecure, men and women of productive age killed and/or wounded, industries and manufacturing halted and agricultural production grounded – Europe was in economic and political disarray, economic crisis and inconceivable loss. Trapped in a rut, the only way to bail itself out was to turn to its benefactor, and partner in crime, the United States of America. The United States had indirectly used the war to advance economically and emerged as a leading global superpower after 1945. In the process, the European Recovery Plan, also known as “The Marshall Plan” was born.

Led by George Marshall under President Harry Truman, approximately 16 European nations would eventually benefit from the Marshall Plan’s economic recovery agenda. The result was unprecedented industrial growth, establishment of a remarkable economic relationship that facilitated investment and industrial growth in Europe, which then laid the foundations for the establishment of a European Union.

As Marshall Plan funding ended in 1951, the western nations (Europe and United Sates) under the leadership of the Bretton Woods Institutions – the World Bank and International Monetary Fund –  turned their attention to the rest of the developing world.  Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean this time around became the targets of a new exploitative economic agenda: the structural adjustment programs of the 1970s and 1980s. The assumption was that if economic aid with austerity measures could bring fundamental changes in Europe, so why not Africa and other developing countries? With this notion, the united west – Europe and the United States – turned their attention to restructuring Africa. Their aim was to take “development” to the “un-developed” and “underdeveloped” or the so-called “Third world” countries. For Africa, it was much more of a new era; one that welcomed cold war politics and flexing of muscles between the pro-communist east (the Soviet Union) and the pro-capitalist west (Europe and United States).

A significant change that occurred during the onset of this conditional economic support was the birth or push for political reforms, and the takeover of African economic and political affairs by the capital rich Europe and United States. Equally important was the push for political allies. Large sums of money were set aside to buy allegiance of African leaders. These so-called “development” and other favors were at the disposal of the governments regardless of whether they were dictatorial regimes who cared less about human rights or not. This is how Daniel Moi of Kenya and Mobotu of Zaire became sanguinary despots. Nothing mattered at this time so long as you supported the capitalist west and could denounce the east and its communist agenda.

Covert CIA operations were not unusual. The CIA allegedly financed coups to overthrow unfriendly governments. The United States further flexed its economic muscles to push for self-benefiting trade policies that would later entrench the already biased core-periphery relations with most African countries. In the end, the young and emerging nations in Africa produced and sold their goods through forced unequal terms only to pay unrealistic debts created by the structural adjustment plans. Europe and America were the ultimate beneficiaries.


When capital moves to the east, will democracy follow?

Today, much of this economic power has now moved to the east, increasingly towards China. But how will China use this turn of events? Will there be political coups and toppling of governments similar to the days of Euro-American power? Or will they instead push for democracy, and uphold human rights? The answer to these questions perhaps can be found in China’s global policy initiative to building global development framework, the so-called “One-Road, One-Belt” (OBOR) policy. This Sinocentric economic order largely depends on China’s generous financing and investment into foreign infrastructure projects such as roads, dams for hydro-electric generation, and irrigation projects.

OBOR’s overarching aim is to enhance global connectivity and expand economic growth with a win-win desire for all involved. It claims to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; specifically, the principles of Peaceful Coexistence which include mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. Whether China is living up to these grandiose claims is yet to be seen.

Today, in many of the countries where OBOR is operationalized, Chinese owned state companies are the main drivers of the initiative, an approach so different from the liberal market approach which it claims to observe.

The most concerning thing about Sino international relations, and now OBOR’s cooperation, is the inadequate consideration of the host countries interest. Arguably, most trade deals involving China, are surrounded with suspicion and secretive financial agreements, thought to be more beneficial to China. Non-interference in host government’s sovereignty, coupled with lack of commitment to human rights issues, have equally generated debates about China’s real interest in its cooperation with other countries. In Africa, for instance, China has surpassed the United States to become Africa’s largest trade partner and continues to expand its economic interest which currently covers virtually all sectors of the economy – telecommunication, electricity generation, construction of roads and railroads, mining, agriculture, and health.

China’s capital invasion has found a fertile land in Africa; a place where corruption is rife and where it is acceptable to sell resources to a convenient bidder and bleed the state to death. A case in point is Kenya, where huge loans secured from China to improve infrastructure, have pushed the country into an economic brink with huge debts, high costs of living, and political turmoil. The government of Kenyatta, has been accused of using large sums of money from China to advance political party interests, and entrench a dictatorial regime. China-Kenya bilateral relations has emboldened a rich and arrogant political class in Kenya, whose actions now amplify abject poverty, and poor governance.


China’s political and economic power at work

Even though China’s move continues to be debated around the world with mixed reactions, a lot has been said about the true status of Chinese economic power and international relations. China’s economy, its growth, influence, and the ripples it is already creating around the world are enough to have us worried. Over a short period, the Sino giant has become one of the most advanced technological hubs, with incredible security intelligence, advanced military prowess, and shrewd business negotiations. Within a short period of time, China has asserted itself not only economically, and politically, but also socially and culturally to become the most feared emerging super power. How it chooses to use this power remains sharply debatable.

Nonetheless, if cues from Taiwan and the South Sea territory controversies are anything to go by, then we can predict, with precision China’s global politics as a superpower. It is a fact that China’s economic beneficiaries have been astutely blackmailed, intimidated, and coerced to either drop their undesirable criticism or face economic blackout. A case in point is the economic alienation of the former UK Prime Minister David Cameroon in 2012 after he met with the Dalai Lama. Additionally, in this territorial and geopolitical advancement, China has been sharply criticized for its tendency to bribe ruling governments in Africa in order to get cheap trade deals, some which include concession rights on mineral deposits, and agricultural land as has been witnessed in countries like Guinea and Sierra Leone.

In extreme cases, ruling Chinese Communist Party, has been known to deploy subtle psychological and technological warfare to understand and deal with those who go against its wishes. Huawei Telecommunication Company, China’s telecom giant has heightened the information warfare, with its equipment said to be culpable of spying activities. This accusation is what actually led to Huawei’s shutdown in the US. In addition, China’s state media has also directed its focus to cultural expansion of Chinese values. China Radio International (CRI), the only radio station in China running a world service, is making forays into radio frequencies in Africa. In Nairobi, for instance, it is providing 19 hours of programming that comprises of a day in English, Kiswahili, and Chinese. This program mostly covers China’s economic, social and cultural development, China’s friendly exchanges with African countries, and major events around the world.

Critics have argued that the China – Africa bilateral relation is exploitative and similar to the plunder of the imperialist governments of the United States and Europe. To this end, China is likely to emerge as that straw that eventually will break Africa’s back, as economic growth in Africa hits a snag, for while Africa is blinded by the economic goodies from China, the benefits to China are far greater.  It is obvious that China now seeks ways and means to dislodge the United States in most of its strategic positions around the world, especially in control of the world’s economic and political affairs. With  double digit economic growth for more than a decade now, coupled with a closed government system and an aggressive foreign policy, China is obviously the sword that will eventually slay the western dragon in Africa.


*Patrick Mbullo is a PhD student in Anthropology at Northwestern University, USA.


Raila Must Pursue Dual and Contending Power in Kenya, Not Secession

By Patrick Mbullo

When Catalonia, in defiance of the Spanish central government and courts, held an independence referendum, many secession movements engaged in similar protracted struggles in Africa expressed optimism and shared in jubilations. To these movements, Catalans were, at last, free from oppression and the high handedness by their central government. What followed was unexpected: the government responded with excessive force, hunting down those who participated in the disputed vote. That brave step taken by Catalonia has, however, remained a significant aspect to the thinking of secession movements across the world. In Africa, this move can only be compared to the 1967 declaration of the Republic of Biafra by the Nigerian military officer, Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Even though the declaration of the Republic of Biafra led to almost three years of civil war and many people lost their lives, to the Igbo (the ethic group in Nigeria leading the secession campaign) the events left an indelible history that they still reminisce. Many still hoped that they had kept fighting for the right to self-determination.

When on January, 30 2018 Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga was sworn in as the People’s president at a massive rally that drew thousands of his supporters, the pattern of excessive police force witnessed in Catalonia and Biafra equally unfolded in Kenya. The Kenyan government responded with a media blackout and an excessive police brutality unleashed against opposition activists and supporter. Armed police went on the rampage hunting down those who took part in Odinga celebrations. Many Odinga’s supporters and opponents of the current government, including Dr. Miguna Miguna, were arrested and are held in police custody without trial.

But what was the political situation in Kenya prior ahead of Odinga’s oath swearing ceremony? And why would a larger proportion of Kenyan citizens take on the responsibility of inaugurating a “People’s President”?

It should be remembered that Kenyans went to the polls on the early August last year to elect a new president and regional leaders, the majority felt the outcome did not reflect their aspirations. Neither did it reflect a true representation of their votes. The incumbent party candidate Uhuru Kenyatta unilaterally declared himself president despite the unresolved questions that emerged over a protracted electoral dispute. The opposition claimed the elections were rigged and that the electoral officials allegedly colluded with the government to hand the presidency to Uhuru Kenyatta.  The opposition had successfully challenged Kenyatta’s alleged victory in court proceedings. A surprising verdict of the Supreme Court had also invalidated the presidential elections result, and ordered a repeat of the elections within a sixty-day period. To the opposition, this was not enough: they called for an overhaul of the entire electoral system and the removal of its current officials, claiming that the repeat elections would not be different if were organized and supervised by the same electoral staff. A demand for an overhaul of the electoral body did not materialize, forcing the main opposition leader to boycott the repeated elections held in late of October 2017. Even though the repeat elections were more of a sham than the first, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared duly elected and the sworn in as the supposedly legitimate president of the country.

To continue their search for electoral justice, the leading opposition party, National Super Alliance (NASA) has since engaged in different strategies. First, it is on record that the opposition has been pushing for secession and that a bill to be presented to parliament has been drafted to that effect. Secondly, the opposition has formed a National Resistance Movement as an alternative mandate to contest power should other means fail. But what the opposition leaders need to ask themselves is whether secession is the best way to achieve their aspiration, or Raila’s oath taking. First, let us briefly examine the history of secession movements in Africa.

Secession debates across the continent have been alive since the emergence of independent states in late 1950s. Only two countries, South Sudan and Eritrea, may be said to have successfully seceded. Some movements have had protracted military engagements with the government and lost. Nonetheless, over 20 movements are still active in their quest for autonomy. Currently top five countries with political secession movements are Mali, Angola, Ethiopia, Morocco, and Senegal.

A common phenomenon with most secession movements in Africa, however, is that they are mostly identified as ethnic groups, whose members feel disfranchised by the state. The OLFP in Ethiopia, for instance, has been seen as a movement for the Oromo people, an ethnic group that forms nearly forty percent of Ethiopia’s population. In Nigeria, the call for a breakaway state of Biafra in the south-east was led by the Igbo.

Nevertheless, secession movements that have been vibrant have been able to do so because of organized military outfits or vibrant guerilla forces that are equally able to engage with government forces. In addition, others have been able to maintain external collaboration with regional and international support. For instance, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), a secessionist group seeking independence for the Oromia region from the government of Ethiopia, has received unwavering support from Eritrea and the Oromos in the diaspora.

Despite their resilience, secession movements have been met by heavy response from the government. For instance, decades of Biafra uprising have been marred and quelled by heavy military intervention, especially after the deadly three-year civil war that followed.

It is not surprising therefore that, secession movements success is minimal. Lack or national support when it is viewed as favoring a particular group and strained financial and human resources make secession harder to achieve. In the event that secession is successful, the biggest challenge is establishment of infrastructure and systems required to make a functional government. Most often, the new states secede with nothing, including financial base. Establishing international trade partners is difficult to build in a dynamic world where people want to deal with the familiar, and not chart new frontiers. The end result is that the citizens of the new state end up heavily taxed, cost of living increased, and political stability become a mirage.

Back to the current situation in Kenya, it is obvious that the opposition leader, Raila Odinga has consolidated a support base across the country. He should therefore distance himself from secessionist demands. Instead, Raila should use the Jan 30 oath as a political strategy to create a dual and contending power within Kenya.  This entails naming a parallel cabinet and creating functional structures that will compete with the current government. Kenya’s constitution, I think, provides him this mandate through the newly formed People’s Assemblies. The last stretch should be to push for devolution of the police force. With the counties paying allegiance to the Peoples President, an independent security apparatus, whose command is at the county level would provide Raila with the much-needed police force, without necessarily creating his own army.

Indeed, as Salim Lone, Raila’s former spokesman observes “the idea behind the swearing in and the People’s Assembly is to provide a range of ideas and initiatives through an alternative leadership to both the Presidency and the National Assembly.” Raila, Mr. Lone notes, “faces his greatest test yet, against a rough regime which has little respect for the law or human life.” His only way out is a dual and contending power within Kenya, and not secession!


About the Author

Patrick Mbullo is a PhD Student in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University, USA