China cannot avoid the messiness of African politics

This piece was published in The East African (Nairobi) February 6-11 2012. (Web version, missing a by-line, here.)

China’s gift to the African Union of a US$200 million headquarters in Addis Ababa symbolises not only the Asian giant’s increased engagement with Africa, but also the nature of that engagement.

Whilst the West has—since the end of the Cold War, at least—ostensibly striven to promote ‘sound macroeconomic management’ and ‘good governance,’ China’s style has simply been to do business with whoever is in power. Air-conditioned debating chambers for ruling elites are a logical sweetener.

The West’s more ideological approach has had, at best, mixed success. Its first victim was Malaŵi’s Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda who, starting in 1992, was dislodged from his ‘life presidency’ by a donor-driven democratisation process. Today Malaŵi is ruled by Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika, whose democratic credentials are at least as shaky as his academic qualifications, which many Malaŵians believe to be fake. As in Banda’s day, women who dare to wear trousers (in this predominantly Christian country) are liable to assault. Political opponents, civic activists and same-sex lovers are liable to be slung in jail. Meanwhile, dominating Lilongwe’s Capital City skyline are a shiny new parliament building and conference centre gifted by China.

There are some ‘governance’ success stories. Ghana and Zambia recently managed peaceful transfers of power through the ballot box, and are more respectful of civil liberties.

But there are also embarrassments for the West—like Uganda, where former donor darling, President Yoweri Museveni, has become increasingly autocratic and is widely suspected of departing from ‘sound macroeconomic management’ by raiding central bank reserves for military spending and vote buying.

There are signs, too, of backsliding in some surprising quarters, such as Senegal, long hailed a democratic exemplar. There, 85 year old President Abdoulaye Wade—a stout defender of Chinese aid and investment—is now hoping to extend his rule by a third term, despite a constitutional two-term limit.

In Nigeria and the DRC kleptocracy continues to fare at least as well as democracy. Both countries are too big and disorderly to ‘fix’ with simple remedies. The DRC barely qualifies as a functioning nation state, while its vast mineral wealth continues to attract commercial adventurers from all points of the compass.

In North Africa, the West’s taste for ‘good governance’ was long tempered by strategic considerations, including American desire to buy off Egyptian hostility to Israel, and by energy and commercial interests: oil. Western media and publics cheered on ‘Arab Spring’ protesters —encouraging politically beleaguered President Sarkozy in France and Prime Minister Cameron in Britain to vie for prominence in leading the NATO charge on Libya. But although the outcomes remain far from certain, Western governments are unquestionably worried lest an overdose of democracy might lead to the wrong sort of people winning power.

Given all this, it is not surprising that China should wish to stand aloof from African politics, but that position is becoming ever less tenable.

The current, ugly spat between Sudan and its recently seceded southern neighbour illustrates the point. If South Sudan stands by its decision to cut off the flow of oil to the north, in protest at the high transit prices Sudan is charging, China, as end consumer of that oil, will suffer.

Chinese media and citizens are meanwhile outraged at the abduction by rebels of 29 Chinese oil workers in Sudan’s Kordofan region. Those rebels were probably equipped with small arms manufactured in China, a major supplier of cheap weaponry, much of which finds its way into black markets.

Chinese military ties with African states, although secretive, have not reached the levels of Western engagement. But, according to a report by the NGO, Safer World, China has trained government forces in Angola, DRC, Guinea and Zimbabwe. Chinese-trained special forces in Guinea, where China has invested US$7 billion in infrastructure projects, were implicated in the shooting of 150 civil protesters in 2009.

China has also quietly joined efforts to ‘stabilise’ Somalia. Since 2009, Chinese warships have patrolled Somali waters to protect shipping from piracy, “rescuing 46 vessels” so far, according to a Xinhua report. Modest Chinese support has also gone to equipping AMISOM forces in Somalia, including a US$4.5 million contribution last December. Although probably less concerned than America with the threat of Al Shabaab terrorism at home, China likely wants not only safer shipping routes but also the chance to explore Somalia’s significant oil resources which, prior to that country’s implosion, were the purlieu of Western oil majors.

It has been said often enough that China is mainly interested in African resources and African markets to feed its own growth. That is largely true, although it is a truth that China has not sought to disguise by wearing lofty governance principles on its sleeve. What the cases above suggest is that the main principle Beijing does profess—non-intervention in domestic affairs—will become ever harder to abide by as its commercial interests deepen.

It is also true that the very survival of the Chinese Communist Party depends significantly upon sustaining domestic growth, partly by ‘going out into the world.’ Given which, African nations should be well-placed to drive decent bargains with China.

The irony of the AU headquarters gift, however, is that Africa’s bargaining power is deeply undermined by its lack of unity.