The New Scramble for Africa

18 August 2010 at 23:20 | 2884 views

Scramble for and re-partitioning of Africa

(The case of Sierra Leone between the two powers: China and USA).

By Patrick Brima Kapuwa, Jilin University, Changchun City, China.


This article will attempt to critically scan through the dependence theory, and show how best the concept of asymmetry with Sierra Leone in between the skyrocketing interests from the world’s two leading powers (USA & China), is best applicable. It is no secret that Africa has long had western powers as their very strong and strange bed fellows especially owing to the colonization story, but her romance with China is slightly above six decades.

I am going to examine how this so-called long romance with the West has (if any) positively impacted Sierra Leone, and how natives both intellectuals and ordinary view it especially in the face of a threatening China who seems to be fastly winning the hearts of the entire country. In essence, I seek to find an alternative explanation of the implications of such competing interests from the USA and China over Sierra Leone. What does such a growing interest offer to Sierra Leone socio-economically? At the end of this paper, I am more inclined to argue that owing from the years of history and relations with the West, and comparing it to contemporary Africa and the undistracted attention Africa continues to get from China, I do posit that if Sierra Leone/Africa were to attempt to replicate the East Asian (China) development model, then would it stand a high possibility of dusting off the chronic economic backwardness that it is struggling with? Any attempt of a return to a full time romance with the west especially Great Britain and America, would erase any possibility of a booming and rising African and/or world power socio-economically and otherwise.

To start with, Sierra Leone was never colonized by the USA, but rather by its colonial counterpart, Britain. Therefore from the late 1700 to the early 1960s, Sierra Leone was administered by the white man under the indirect rule system introduced by British born Lord Luggard. The question remains…what has Sierra Leone got to show as strong relics and admirable initiatives of British reign?

The difference is absolutely very clear when you compare British Africa to French Africa, as French Africa through their assimilation and association policies to some extent developed their colonial territories. The answer is VERY LITTLE especially when you compare it to what was and is being gained from Sierra Leone right from the slave days to now. The subsequent American war of independence (1775-1783) actually started laying the foundation for the collapse of the once enviable British Empire, and being replaced by the new world order, the USA.

Today, if you ask the average scholar in Sierra Leone about the USA in Africa, their best memory will be those connected with USAID with stiff conditions such as democracy, human rights, capitalist economy, military bases, double standards in domestic political affairs etc. In achieving these objectives, the US has often sent its citizens in the name of expatriates to squarely benefit from their aid. There has not been any visible and deliberate action on the part of the USA to better the lives of the hundreds of thousands living as destitutes in Africa, without stiff aid conditionalities, yet they continue to have investments that are craftily stealing away the resources of Africa like oil, rubber, ore etc.

In Sierra Leone, not surprisingly, the only visible aid was food aid during the war through American NGOs. The relationship has been like this for decades until recently when our nation suddenly saw a change in the US policy towards Africa/Sierra Leone which I will without any hesitation say is because of the bulldozing actions of China in Africa thereby rendering US interests and status questionable in the continent. In early August 2010, the US President Obama invited young African leaders, civil society activists, entrepreneurs, etc for what he described as the 50th anniversary celebration of 18 African nations’ independence in Washington, which is a copy of the China-African forum held in Beijing in 2006. Why is such a conference only now from the USA? At the August 2010 conference, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, addressing the conference described Africa as “a continent brimming with potential,” with 60 percent of its population under the age of 25 and connected and empowered through technology…

“Africa has no shortage of ideas, innovations or entrepreneurial drive,” she said. “We want this conference to be a start where we work with you to help you create the conditions in which your ideas can be translated into real-life solutions for Africa and beyond.” The participants were invited to Washington to meet with Clinton, President Obama and other officials because the United States was “trying to empower you,” she told them. “We are looking for leaders who know that empowering citizens is something that is in everyone’s best interests. In the world in which we live in today, top-down hierarchical power is not sustainable,” even if it persists for a long time. “We believe that you have the talents, the determination and the ability to bring these dreams to fruition,” and Americans “stand ready to be your partners.” At the same time, the U.S. relationship with Africa “is not a one-way street,” “We expect to benefit. We expect to learn. We expect to look to you for models and ideas of what we can do better ourselves,” Clinton said.

If the words of the US government officials are anything to go by, then my next question will be why now? It is surprising to hear the US saying they are ready to learn, benefit, copy models etc, from Africa. Could it also be that it is because of China, now strongly in the equation and with an emerging and strong economy that is warranting this undistracted US interest in Africa and my country, Sierra Leone? In Sierra Leone, what used to be the ageing memory and ‘lust’ for the USA is fast fading away as natives are now more inclined to romance with China because of the services it is offering. This takes me to the question or much trumpeted criticism of lack of quality and standards in Chinese products. Why does the USA want us to believe that only goods from their markets and factories are of good quality? Does they have to be US or European products to be tagged standard products? I honestly think the problem is that of some self made world which the USA keeps building around itself and forgetting that such myths have long been demystified. If an average income earner in my native Sierra Leone can’t afford $800-1000 to buy a 21 inches flat screen television from the US but can afford $200-300 to buy a Chinese made one which is sometimes more sophisticated than the US product, so be it. Economists would argue for marginal utility as a principal necessity between the consumer, the producer and the seller.

China’s presence in Africa and Sierra Leone stems from complicated historical relations with China breaking off twice in search of a ‘romance’ with the west. Briefly, the relationship between Africa and China dates to the founding of modern China in 1949. The Asian-African (Bandung) Conference of 1955, which brought together Asian and African states – most of which were newly independent (Marafa, 2007, p. 3) – marked a watershed in Africa-Asia relations. The aim of the conference was twofold: to promote Africa-Asia cooperation and to combat neo-colonialism.

For Sierra Leone, the PRC and the Republic of Sierra Leone established diplomatic relations on July 29, 1971. Bilateral relations between the two countries have ever since achieved a smooth development at least politically. On trade, economic and technical relations, China, unlike the US and other western countries, has helped Sierra Leone to complete numerous projects, such as stations for popularizing rice-cultivation techniques, road networks, bridges, sport complex (stadia), sugar complex, office building, hydropower station, power transmission and substation projects, hospitals, schools, civilian housing, tourism and so on.

Sino-Sierra Leone cooperation of mutual benefit started from 1984. Since 1985, Sino-Sierra Leone joint ventures and China-funded ventures had started business in Sierra Leone. Between the 1980s to date, but to mention a few, China’s presence in Sierra Leone is seen even by the blind. There are currently more than five Chinese investments and infrastructural projects in Sierra Leone. In the fields of Culture, Education, Health and Military, Sierra Leone signed a cultural agreement in April 1981 and since then cultural delegations from the two countries have exchanged several visits; educational exchanges began in 1976 and as at date a total of over 330 students from Sierra Leone have been offered full scholarships for studies in China; in return also, China sent 8 students to go and study English at Fourah-Bay College in 1976.

In the health sector, since March 1973, China has sent 14 groups of medical teams to Sierra Leone with a total number of around 190 persons. In July this year (2010) Sierra Leone’s Mineral Resources Minister Alpha Kanu on Friday welcomed a 1.5-billion-dollar investment in a major iron ore mine in the country, noting that it will boost the local economy and create thousands of jobs. The Shandong Iron and Steel Group Co., Ltd. of China has signed a binding Memorandum of Understanding with the London-listed African Minerals to acquire a 25-percent share of African Minerals’ Tonkolili iron ore mine in Sierra Leone at the cost of 1.5 billion U.S. dollars, July 16 (Xinhua) press).

What better interpretations can one offer with these striking developmental projects? But as Andrew Harding in his article, ‘How China is changing Sierra Leone’ (JULY26, 2010) notes, “It’s still far too early to judge China’s impact in Africa - whether it is simply bleeding a supine continent dry, shoring up authoritarian regimes, providing essential infrastructure, injecting cash, fostering crony capitalism, offering a welcome alternative to failed western development models, giving countries a little economic breathing space, or simply inspiring people to work and study harder.” Brilliant as that piece may be, I would want to differ with Harding on the grounds that the ‘fruit is ripe for shaking’ and that the years of relationship between Sierra Leone and/or Africa and China can be judged with tangible evidences if we were to compare it to the centuries of Africa’s relationship with the west. Achebe notes that “you can tell a ripe corn by its looks”, thus you need not another decade or year to judge the implications of China’s relationship with Africa.

Returning to the concept of asymmetry relationship between China and Sierra Leone and especially what I have highlighted above does not presuppose an immaculate relationship between China and Africa/Sierra Leone. There are a lot of inadequacies in such a relationship but having them on a scale will see more of a pro-Chinese attitude than the once enviable US/European myth. What arises in this asymmetry is whether we are dealing with equal partners within this relationship or whether it is the case that one or the other of these friends is dictating the relationship. In order words if the applicability of asymmetry is questionable, then is it possible for Emmanuel Wallenstein’s Dependency Theory to hold here? Is this what the US Secretary of State meant when she told young African leaders and entrepreneurs that the USA equally relies on Africa…’wants to learn and benefit from Africa?

I have often been tempted to argue that there is not much of interdependence theory between China and Africa, rather it is a form of dependency theory where Sierra Leone for example in the field of commerce/trade, technology and investment relies on China. China’s level of involvement in African economies is as a result of their core Foreign Policy mission statements principal among which emphasizes ‘Non-interference’ into the affairs of sovereign states and but instead promotes economic prosperity regardless of the nature of the regime in such a state. The question then that arises is, to what extent is this really true?

In Sierra Leone, the high rate of Chinese involvement in dominating the Sierra Leonean Economy might just end up dictating the pace at which the country should be run. What every politician want is a booming economy which enhances their re-election, without necessarily paying attention to its attendant effects. I do honestly welcome any Chinese investment into Sierra Leone but it does not imply Sierra Leone should carelessly put up its resources for sale as it is being done now. The relationship should graduate from one-way Beijing supply to bilateral. My honest opinion is that there are a lot of inconsistencies in China’s so-called non-interference policy and strongly think it is temporary.

Unquestionably, China has invested enough money in Sierra Leone and thus it is common sense that it may soon move to protect such investments, which will definitely boil down to political interference. Little wonder we now see China also setting up military bases in Africa. China is also doing so in Sudan by supplying arms and ammunition to the Sudanese Muslim-Arab government to exterminate its Christian population. What happens as strong effects of China’s increasing involvement in Sierra Leone thus disintegrating the asymmetry relations is that, its (China) financial muscular build-up, with visible infrastructural investments may further reduce the already damaged legitimacy of western institutions like the World Bank, IMF, WTO etc thereby offering strong alternatives to Sierra Leoneans. Unapologetically, Sierra Leone now realizes that their long time colonial mentors, Europe and the USA who for long dominated the African resource base, are now confronted with various internal economic and social issues (the financial crisis/recession), and are a little crippled in a decisive way on Africa’s challenges. Coincidentally, and by chance and fate, China thinks it is a wonderful opportunity to come into the equation as a fellow third world partner.

For the Sierra Leonean case, my submissions here are two fold: First is the undisputable fact that China is a credible alternative to that of their UK/USA counterparts as far as economic and social capital investment is concerned. Today, the average Sierra Leonean sees the presence of the Chinese as a saving grace while denouncing that of the west of further keeping them poor with stiff aid conditionalities. The major difference is that the West had companies in Sierra Leone which would extract raw materials and take them to Europe /Americas for processing, but today what we see the Chinese doing is to actually set up the processing plants in Sierra Leone and other parts of Africa, thus addressing lots of economic problems such as unemployment, affordability and accessibility.

In Nigeria and Sudan, China is spending billions of dollars to establish oil refineries. Not withstanding the advantage China’s presence may have when you compare it to the British occupation and presence in Sierra Leone, I still do think that the asymmetric relations are not on a level playing field and cannot be interpreted from a win-win approach but that of dependency.

China gets more in return, as it has now grabbed huge natural resources while dumping into the country cheap industrial manufactured products. China has not for now reversed the unequal terms of trade that attracted strident criticism like the western nations. In the 19th century, the early colonizers (Britain) came to Sierra Leone with alcohol and useless gifts to lure the local inhabitants.

This is what we see China doing aided by greedy leaders, and I honestly think that once their objectives are attained, they (China) may drop Africa again as they (China) did some two or three decades ago. The only way out for Sierra Leone and the rest of the African continent is by solving our economic problems ourselves. We can use the technological knowledge we have learnt from both our former colonial powers and life partners and that of our current marriage with China to map a way out. Our leaders, be they Democrats or Autocrats should desist from being selfish and think African by judiciously utilizing Chinese investments in the respective African economies.