By DR Tom Odhiambo
Africa seems ripe for the taking again. And this time around it isn’t a bunch of men stuck in some smoke-filled room somewhere in Europe, Asia, Latin America or India, scheming how to chop and chop Africa.
No, our great-grandchildren won’t have to blame some faceless mzungu, mhindi or mchina when they find themselves dirt poor and enslaved to banks with headquarters in some Chinese city; they will likely be shown papers, signed by their leaders and endorsed by the silence of their ancestors, handing over chunks of Africa’s forests, farmlands, mineral-filled lands, factories or cities to foreigners.
The auctioning of Africa is what is happening whenever our dear leaders travel eastwards. They may claim that their “looking East policy” is about equal partnership but do they really know what they are signing on about or what they are signing away? What is the material equivalence between a sports stadia, railway or “superhighway” and acres of fertile agriculture land?
Well, if the cry that colonialism was the exploitation of Africa’s resources to develop Europe and America, what are the consequences of neo-colonialism of multinationals and the new wave of foreign “investor” in Africa, especially from China?
What are we to make of Howard W French’s conclusions in his book, “China’ Second Continent: How a Million Migrants are Building a New Empire in Africa” (Vintage, 2015)? Are the Chinese men and women settling in Africa here purely to do business or are they part of a yet-to-be known plan – real or still imaginary – to create colonies in Africa?
Are these men and women transferring much-needed skills and resources into Africa or are they simply another wave of colonists, who will migrate once Africa’s natural resources – pretty much its only claim to world trade – are exhausted? These questions often appear like mere prejudices, what the Anglo-Chinese journalist, Ben Chu, calls “Chinese Whispers”.
Laissez faire migration policies
But reading Howard’s book raises several questions about the significance of the presence of thousands of Chinese in Africa today. Howard travelled through parts of East, South, West and Central Africa, following a trail of Chinese settlement on the continent. His journeys took him through Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania, Congo (DRC), Senegal, Liberia, Mali, Ghana, Namibia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. In each of these countries, Howard reports on Chinese involvement with different institutions and business, or in various activities. He visits a town in rural Mozambique where a Chinese, Hao Shengli, was farming an abandoned colonial-era farm.
In Zambia he meets “Yang Bohe, who ran a large copper-processing plant …” Yang is one of the many Chinese who arrive in Africa every year to build roads, bridges, stadia and such other infrastructure projects that African leaders love to brag about. However, after the end of his contract he had learned a thing or two about Zambia’s copper, formed a company, later built a smelter and became a beneficiary of a rise in the price of copper on the world minerals’ market. Yang was another case of a self-made Chinese making it big in Africa.
In Senegal, Howard met Chinese petty traders in the streets of Dakar selling all manners of wares but also running restaurants and entertainment spots. The trouble with the Chinese in Senegal, according to Howard, was that they were being largely seen as competition to the local traders. And Howard says that this tension was wont to arise because of the millions of unemployed youth in countries like Senegal, whose only means of earning an income would be petty trading. Yet such trade is increasingly being controlled by the Chinese migrants who know how to access the goods back home and therefore are better placed to determine the profit margins, essentially undermining the locals’ businesses.
The point about China’s Second Continent is for Africans to think more critically about the laissez faire migration policies of many African countries that allow hundreds of migrants to “stay” after their contracts – with their own home-based companies – expire. Indeed, many recent Chinese migrants into Africa originally came to work on infrastructure projects.
Those who decide to stay and later invite their relatives and friends or even go back to hire others to come work in their businesses in cities all over Africa are merely doing what many other travellers to Africa have done for centuries before. The Portuguese, Dutch, Lebanese, Indians, Italians or the British have arrived on the shores of this continent before and overstayed their visits.
In some parts of the continent, these visitors have stayed on and eventually colonised their hosts. In other parts, the foreigners have been beacons of change, introducing agriculture, commerce, education, acting as benevolent agents of Western-derived modernity. As Howard shows, right from the first character in his sketches, Hao Shengli in Mozambique, some of the new Chinese “investors” in Africa are reviving abandoned commercial projects in Africa.
Chance or grand scheme?
But, as he also demonstrates, the hundreds of Chinese setting up shop to sell trinkets, household goods and groceries are actually taking away job opportunities from Africans. How much money are these so-called investors adding into the local economies? How do they manage to get stay permits and open businesses? Undoubtedly some of them enter into partnerships with locals.
But there is no doubt that corrupt local immigration and trade officials are having their hands greased to issue the recently arrived Chinese with official permits that allow them to engage in what otherwise are trades protected by international conventions. Else how would Chinese immigrants be roasting maize on the streets of Nairobi or shaving hair in Dakar or selling shoes in Kampala?
Are African governments keeping track of how many Chinese are immigrating to Africa, how many are being born on the continent – and therefore possibly have the right to African citizenship – how many of the immigrants are part of a global crime network, hence involved in ivory poaching and smuggling, trafficking of women and children to work as prostitutes, trading in drugs and arms etc? Howard’s book talks of one million Chinese in Africa at the time of its publication in 2014 but some estimates put it at two million, the equivalent of the population of Botswana.
In the end, Howard’s story seems to suggest that the waves of Chinese arriving in Africa might not be propelled by some grand scheme but by many factors both internal to China and external to it as well. He writes his last words thus:
“Indeed, what often impressed me most about the stories of the new Chinese in Africa I met was the almost haphazard quality to the life stories that had landed them in places like Mozambique, Senegal, Namibia, and elsewhere. There was little hint of a grand or even deliberate scheme, but in the end, that’s not so important.
As the outraged Ghanaians who seem to have awoken one recent day to the discovery that thousands of Chinese newcomers were scrambling illegally to take control of their country’s lucrative gold mining sector, digging up the countryside, despoiling land, and bribing local chiefs and police officials in the process, might say, it is the outcomes that count.”
In the end, one can only hope that in the end the Chinese in Africa are true friends of Africans and, over time, they will see Africa as “home” and not just be another bunch of neo colonial adventurers and exploiters.