By Abdoulaye W. Dukulé
African leaders flew to Beijing in droves early this month. Arriving by long commercial flights or private jets, with large delegations they spent three days or more in China, visiting factories, making deals with the Chinese Government and its multiple state owned “private companies” to build highways, stadiums and a few minimal factories. African leaders left with the promise of a Chinese 3-year US $60 billion dollars in investment and grants.
Africa owes more to China now than to any one country in the world, with some 130 billon dollars outstanding debts. Many countries went to the meeting to renegotiate loans well overdue or beg for “debt forgiveness.” Some time soon, the same leaders will fly again to another one of such meetings, with France, India, or Japan amongst others. These meetings are well choreographed. The “developed” partners always pay for the summit.
Speech after speech, African leaders will find words to positively describe their “special relationships” with the development partner of the day. And then they start to negotiate for funding. After the meetings, pundits will compare what China does – aid, trade, investments, grants – and what other “developed countries” bring to the continent. Some will write and speak of China taking away African natural resources and degrading its environment while remaining silent on human rights abuses, corruption and other political matters on the continent.
Others will praise China’s footprints everywhere on the continent and that China “just comes in for business in a win-win spirit”. Depending on who hosts African leaders, the narrative changes to fit the donor’s interests. This competition for African markets may sound as if the continent is finally playing a major role in the world, by having meetings with the most industrialized nations. But it is not. The continent produces raw materials and imports almost everything it consumes.
The continent is a dumping grounds for low quality products while selling off everything at bargain price. That reality does not change, be it China or France or Israel. There is clamor about Ghana getting $2 billion from China for its bauxite. It sounds good and big. However, how much Ghana could have gotten if all bauxite producing countries on the continent had agreed on a baseline and developed a common strategy to meet with China, together and negotiate?
Guinea, Senegal, Mauritania – just in West Africa – all have large deposits of bauxite. A common approach to the market could change their bottom line. The same can be said about natural rubber, produced in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire. While there is a war on steel, African producers of iron ore are silent on the sidelines, waiting to be told how much to sell their ore for after big powers would have agreed on their new tariffs.
China did not develop its economy by flying around the world looking for grants and loans. It locked itself up for many years, searched for long-term and sustainable solutions to its problems and in the process of finding answers to the challenges its people faced, it developed what is now one of the strangest economies in the world. Since independence, African leaders have always looked at the outside world to solve their problems.
In many instances, “development” means meeting the expectations of the international audience. Trade between African nations amount to less than 7 percent, even amongst member countries of the same economic zones. The Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS) has a population of close to 400 million, which constitutes a big market. It has tremendous natural resources, but the people of the community are as poor as their counterparts in any other part of Africa. ECOWAS countries trade more with their former colonial powers than with their next- door neighbor.
All these summits are about nothing but trade. It’s all about the bottom line. It’s all about what you sell and what you buy and at what price. In 2006, China exported US $529.83 million worth of goods and services to Liberia while Liberia exported a paltry $1.93 million to China. No need here to be an MBA to see the trade imbalance. This was 12 years ago, and the trend has continued. African countries are mortgaging their future by selling raw materials still under ground because they want to build a dam or a highway or a stadium.
President George M. Weah, according to reports, was able to get some $56 million to build an overpass on SKD Boulevard. This grant was already in the pipeline as part of the ministerial complex being built by China. Is this project one of the most urgent issues in Liberia now? Could the money be spent on more productive sectors, such as health, agriculture and education?
In the Common African Position (CAP) on the Post-2015 and the Addis Ababa’s conference on financing development both adopted in 2014-2015, African leaders decided that local resource mobilizations, taxation, intra-African trade and technology would be the surest, most sustainable and attainable path to development. They downplayed “aid” and said Africa can do it on its own. But after signing on to these commitment in Addis Ababa, they were all on private jets heading to Japan for the Japan-Africa Summit.
Same songs, same dances and Africa remains where it was, when the Berlin Conference cut it into pieces to be served to colonial powers. Africa has made a lot of progress, politically. The ghosts of the colonial era and the difficulties of post- independence political instability are slowly fading away. It has created continental mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation. But the political gains have not been translated into economic transformation.
The continent’s first contact with the West was about trade of commodities which morphed into religious, political and military domination. That narrative has not changed. Africa is still a source for raw materials and a market for finished products. Political leaders in industrialized nations who want to stay in power must find new markets for their productions and resources to create jobs and prosperity.
African leaders run after grants, loans and most often end up with bad investment deals. Africa is still poor because it has not managed to assert itself in the world market. Grasping the concept of international relations based on trade will be a good start. Aid and grants will not end poverty on the continent, no matter who gives it. Development is not home delivered like a pizza, it is homegrown.
The fact that Liberia did not negotiate away Putu or Wologisi to bring home a few more dollars may be a blessing in disguise.