By Seifudein Adem*
“My advice to African leaders is to make sure that if, in fact, China is putting in roads and bridges, number one, that they are hiring African workers; number two, that the roads don’t just lead from the mine, to the port, to Shanghai.” These were the words of US President Barack Obama, uttered on the eve of US-Africa Leaders’ Summit which took place in Washington, DC from 4-6 August 2014. In attendance were about fifty Heads of State and Government from Africa. Incidentally, the Summit received little attention from the US Congressional Republicans; and in the mainstream media, the Ebola crisis in West Africa dominated the news. Many decades ago, there was a time when an African Head of State who was visiting the US would be invited to address the Joint Session of the US Congress, when The New York Times would carry the full text of his address, and when TIME magazine would name him the man of the year, carrying his photo on its cover. The African Head of State in question is Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. But that was long ago.
President Obama’s carefully-worded statement mentioned above obviously disheartened Beijing. Probably China never expected the first African-American President of the United States would hold such a view about what it was doing in Africa. Although not as cut and dried as the President implied, there are certainly areas in which China’s behaviors in Africa look either suspiciously similar to or worse than those of the ex- colonial powers. But, it must be admitted, it was also China which almost single-handedly ended the steady marginalization of Africa in the global economy by buying more from Africa, by selling more to Africa and by investing more in Africa.
Barack Obama was not the first or the only American high official to hint that China was exploitative and less forthright in its relations with African countries. Three years ago, Hillary Clinton, then US Secretary of State, said: “We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave…We don’t want new colonialism.” Clinton was, obviously, talking about China. Similarly, in a barely disguised swipe at China, Joe Biden, the US Vice President, told Africa’s leaders on 5 August 2014: “The United States is proud of the extent to which our [sic] investments in Africa goes hand in hand with efforts to hire and train locals to foster economic development, not just to extract what is in the ground.” Biden’s observations is generally accurate—but is misleadingly incomplete. In 2012, only one per cent of America’s overall direct investment was in Africa.
America’s renewed interest in Africa is not therefore totally unrelated to the growing influence of China in Africa. The US-Africa Leaders’ Summit took place more than a decade after the “China-Africa Leaders’ Summit,” or, as the Chinese leaders prefer to call it, the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), was held in Beijing, China. FOCAC now takes place every three years. To the question of whether the US was playing catch-up after China’s accelerated activities in Africa, the typical answer out of official Washington is sometimes formulated in this way. It was others who were playing catch-up; after all, the US had been in Africa long before them. True, US engagement with Africa is long, but is it also deep?
What comes out of Washington also suggests America is trusted or even loved more than China in Africa. What emerges from Africa itself is nevertheless a more complex picture. This was, for instance, what a leader of a major opposition group in Ethiopia told me about the perceived gap between China’s and America’s diplomacy in Africa. Chinese officials work hand in glove with Africa’s dictators during the day and dine and wine with them at night; American officials criticize African dictators during the day and dine and wine with them at night. In other words, on this specific issue, Chinese leaders say what they mean and mean what they say; Americans follow a different approach at least for the time being.
The Washington Summit also demonstrated the variation in the level of comparative specificity in Sino-American diplomatic discourse. Chinese leaders generally seem to believe, or would like us to believe, that they are Africa’s “all-weather” friends. Americans like to highlight their own “self-interest” as the guiding principle of their foreign policy toward Africa. Accordingly, American leaders are not shy about specifying in concrete terms how the relationship with Africa is beneficial to them, too. For instance, on 6 August 2014, US Congressman Gregory Marks gave concrete numbers about how many jobs were created by African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) related investments— 300,000 jobs in Africa, and 120,000 jobs in the US. China’s diplomatic pronouncements lack this level of specificity.
China says it welcomes a deeper US involvement in Africa. Whether or not what Chinese leaders say is to be relied upon, there is no doubt in my mind that it is in Africa’s own interest to invite and encourage a greater participation of all major powers in Africa’s political economy. As Ali A. Mazrui says: “To be owned by one master is outright slavery; but to be owned by many masters, who can be played against each other, may be the beginning of freedom.”
** The Author is Associate Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Associate Research Professor, Binghamton University, New York, USA