The dragon’s dance with hyenas
By Alemayehu G. Mariam / February 13, 2011
The Chinese Dragon is dancing the Watusi shuffle with African Hyenas. Things could not be better for the Dragon in Africa. In the middle of what once used to be the African Pride Land now stands a brand-spanking new hyenas’ den called the African Union Hall (AU). Every penny of the USD$200 million stately pleasure dome was paid for by China. It is said to be “China’s gift to Africa.” It was all lovey-dovey two weeks ago when the hyenas assembled to pay homage to the mighty Dragon:
There was no end to the bootlicking and praise of the “generosity of the Chinese government”, and how the “gift” represents “a qualitative leap in the relations between China and Africa”. AU president Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Equatorial Guinea’s dictator since 1979, even saw “a reflection of the new Africa, and the future we want for Africa” in the glassed 20-storey tower.
The Dragon was equally obliging:
It is fashionable among African dictators to pledge allegiance to the so-called China Model of economic development. Meles Zenawi, the dictator in Ethiopia, claimed that by following the “China Model”:
The African Renaissance that we all dreamed of is beginning to happen. There could be no better proof of this than the fact that the pundits and academics who were publicly advocating for the re-colonization of our continent have now refrained from doing so… The magnificent new head quarters (sic) of our continental organization—the AU which has been at the center of the struggle for the African renaissance (sic) is the symbol of the rise of Africa…
But what exactly is the China Model?
African dictators rarely explain the “China Model”, but the phrase rolls off their lips like the voodoo incantations of sorcerers. If the dictators are to be believed, the “China Model” is the magic carpet that will transport Africa from abysmal underdevelopment and poverty to stratospheric economic growth and industrialization. Supposedly, China became a global economic power in just a few decades by opening up its economy to foreign and domestic investment, cutting and reducing taxes, co-investing in infrastructure projects and vastly expanding the labor intensive services sector. It is said to be a “win-win” situation for China and Africa.
But there is one small catch: China did it all by maintaining a one-party system that has a chokehold on all state institutions including the civil service, the armed and security forces and by instituting a vast system of censorship that systenmatically filters or significantly obstructs the flow of information to the people.
What does China think of the “China Model” being exported to Africa? Not much! Liu Guijin, China’s special representative on African affairs assuredly says, “What we are doing is sharing our experiences. Believe me, China doesn’t want to export our ideology, our governance, our model. We don’t regard it as a mature model.”
So, why do African dictators insist on championing a half-baked “China Model” as the Holy Grail of African economic salvation when the Chinese themselves do not think it is a “mature model” worth exporting or imitating? Could it be that African dictators are using the “China Model” hype as smokescreen to justify their clinging to power and sucking their economies like ticks on an African milk cow?
Stripped off its hype, the “China Model” in Africa is the same old one-man, one-party pony that has been around since independence in the 1960s. Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and even the wily and sly eighty-six year-old Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, pull the “Chinese Model” stunt just to cling to power. In the good old days, Zenawi, Museveni and Kagame used their status as the “new breed of African leaders” (bestowed upon them by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair) to legitimize and perpetuate themselves in power. Now they heap contempt on the West for its “band-aid” approach to development, criticize the “gunboat diplomacy” of the U.S. (whose taxpayers have shelled out tens of billions in the last decade) and tongue-lash “extremist neo-liberals” (whoever they are) for slamming them on their atrocious human rights record and mindboggling corruption.
The one-man, one-party state recycled as the “China Model” is nothing new. Kwame Nkrumah was the first Sub-Saharan African leader to try it and fail. Just like the silver-tongued mouthpieces of the “China Model” today, Nkrumah back then condemned neocolonialism (a term he reputedly created) and imperialism for Africa’s exploitation and depridation. Nkrumah’s program of rapid industrialization – to reduce Ghana’s dependence on foreign capital and imports – had a devastating effect on its important cocoa export sector. Many of the socialist economic development projects that he launched also failed miserably. By the time he was overthrown in a military coup in 1966, Ghana had fallen from one of the richest African countries to one of the poorest. Similarly, Tanzania nose-dived from the largest exporter of agricultural products in Africa to the largest importer of agricultural products. The one-man, one-party state, touted as the solution to the problems of ethnic and tribal conflict, also failed as civil wars, genocides, and corruption spread throughout the continent like wildfire. For decades, African liberation leaders and founding fathers qua dictators and military junta leaders have tried all types of tricks to justify the one-man, one-party state and avoid a genuine multiparty democracy. Now Africa’s newest dictators want to rebottle the same old one-man, one-party wine in a new bottle labeled “Chateau China Model”.
The Record of the “China Model” in Africa
Are Zenawi and the other members of African Dictators, Inc., really following the “not mature” “China Model” in practice? Are foreign and domestic investors free to to do business in Africa without being bogged down in silly and mindless regulations and running the gauntlet of a buzzsaw of corruption? For instance, how much of Ethiopia’s business environment is really “negotiable” for investment? The 2011 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index which ranks 183 countries (1=most business-friendly regulations) shows dismal figures for Ethiopia: Overall Ease of Doing Business Rank (111); starting a business (99); dealing with construction permits (56); getting electricity (93); registering property (113); getting credit (150); protecting investors (122); paying taxes (40); trading across borders (157); enforcing contracts (57) and resolving insolvency (89).
The “China Model” is obviously a smokescreen for Zenawi and African Dictators, Inc., to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Africa. It provides a plausible justification for avoiding transparent and accountable governance, competitive, free and fair elections, enforceable property rights and suppressing free speech, the press and independent judiciaries. It is a hoax perpetrated on the people to ensure absolute political obedience and control, maximize the ruling class’ monopoly over the economy and justify the brutal suppression of all dissent.
The “China Model” naturally appeals to Africa’s kleptocratic dictators because it enables them to project the illusion of economic development as they suppress the democratic aspirations of their people and suck their national economies dry. Global Financial Integrity recently wrote: “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry. No matter how hard they try to fight their way out of absolute destitution and poverty, they will be swimming upstream against the current of illicit capital leakage.” That is what the China Model means in Ethiopia, and for that matter much of Africa.
Why the China Model? Why Not the “Ghanaian Model”?
The “China Model” may be just fine for China, but why can’t Africa have an “African Model”? Is there not a single country in Africa worthy of some imitation. Must Africans always worship before the altar of Western or Eastern political Deities?
In July, 2009, in one of my weekly commentaries I asked a simple question:What is it the Ghanaians got, we ain’t got?” I argued that present day Ghana can offer a reasonably good, certainly not perfect, template of governance for the rest of Africa. Ironically, it is to Ghana, the cradle of the one-man, one-party rule in Sub-Saharan Africa, that we must now turn to find a model of constitutional multiparty democracy.
Ghana today has a functioning, competitive, multiparty political system guided by its 1992 Constitution. Article 55 guarantees that “every citizen of Ghana of voting age has the right to join a political party”. Political parties are free to organize and ‘disseminate information on political ideas, social and economic programs of a national character’. But tribal and ethnic parties are illegal in Ghana under Article 55 (4). That is the key to Ghana’s political success. The Ghanaians also have an independent electoral commission (Art. 46) which is “not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority” and has proven itself by ensuring the integrity of the electoral process. Ghanaians enjoy a panoply of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. In 2010, Ghana (with a population of 24 million) ranked 26 out of 178 countries worldwide on the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI).
In contrast, Ethiopia (with a population of nearly 90 million) ranked 139 out of 178 on the WPFI. There are more than 133 private newspapers, 110 FM radio stations and two state-owned dailies in Ghana. Ghanaians express their opinions without fear of government retaliation. The rule of law is upheld and the government follows and respects the constitution. Ghana has a fierecely independent judiciary, which is vital to the observance of the rule of law and protection of civil liberties. Political leaders and public officials abide by the rulings and decisions of the courts and other fact-finding inquiry commissions. Ghana is certainly not a utopia, but she is positive proof that multiparty constitutional democracy can help overcome political and economic dystopia in Ethiopia and the rest of Africa. Why not adopt the “Ghanaian Model”?
Why is the Dragon Dancing With Hyenas?
China’s economic investment in Africa is said to exceed USD$150 billion; and hundreds of Chinese companies are doing business in all parts of the continent. The Chinese government through its banks has given billions of dollars in low interest loans and credit lines to undertake a variety of infrastructure projects and other high profile projects, including the new African Union building. It has provided a range of technical assistance programs and provided scholarships and training opportunities to African students.
But why is China so generous with Africa? The conventional explanation is that China is hungry for natural resources to feed its economy. It uses its loans, grants and development assistance to project “soft power” and access Africa’s vast natural resources in oil, timber and minerals while cultivating a market for its surplus production in industrial and consumer products. Others say, loans and assistance programs to Africa are velvety gloves that hide an iron fist of neocolonial and neo-imperialist ambition. Last Summer, in an interview concerning the growing role of China in Africa, Secretary Hilary Clinton plaintly stated: “We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.”
China’s role in Ethiopia in particular raises some troubling questions. According to one study, “whenever Ethiopia sought Chinese aid, loan, investment and arms, the latter has responded positively by providing debt reduction and technical assistance to Ethiopia with no political strings attached.” Another study concluded: “In the construction and the energy sector, Chinese involvement in telecommunication, road and power plant construction projects through very low initial bid-prices (as well as offering credit to finance such projects) has been displacing both local and other foreign construction firms (Notwithstanding, for example in the case of power plants, the fact that the very low initial entry bid-prices are off-setted by high operational costs when the projects start operation; and the fact that Chinese big credits are almost at commercial terms).” Others have complained of trade deficits, dumping of low price textiles and clothing, industrial products and consumer electronics. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise to anyone. At the 1963 inaugural O.A.U. Summit, H.I.M. Haile Selassie said, “Africa was a physical resource to be exploited and Africans were chattels to be purchased bodily or, at best, peoples to be reduced to vassalage and lackeyhood. Africa was the market for the produce of other nations and the source of the raw materials with which their factories were fed.”
Blowback for China?
Sooner or later China has to come to terms with three simple questions: Can it afford to fasten its destiny to Africa’s dictators, genociders and despots? How long can China pretend to turn a blind eye to the misery of the African people suffering under ruthless dictatorships? Will there be a price to pay once the African dictators that China supported are forced out of power in a popular uprising?
Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from Zambia where just a few months ago the role of China became a hot political issue in the elections. Michael Sata, who became president of Zambia last Fall after four attempts, “made a sport of baiting China, calling its businesspeople in the country ‘profiteers,’ not investors”, and denouncing the Chinese for “bringing in their own people to push wheelbarrows instead of hiring local people.”
The Dragon is known for breathing fire. If China does not re-think its African policy carefully and continues its blind association and unquestioning support of corrupt African dictators and tyrants, in time it will likely suffer multiple “blowbacks” across the continent from the flames of popular upheavals and backlashes from revolts against dictatorship.
China’s policy of “noninterference” (a/k/a “hear no evil, see no evil and say no evil” about Africa’s dictators) is actually the most conspicuous and underappreciated from of interference there is. What can be more “interference” than providing the economic means to sustain and nurture repressive and dictatorial regimes? In time, “noninterference” will logically and inevitably evolve into tighter defense and military relationships with the dictatorial regimes; and significant military presence may be unavoidable to defend Chinese economic interests and investments in Africa.
In Chinese folklore, the dragon is known for his intelligence, strength, goodness, longevity and wisdom. In African folklore, the hyena is known for treachery, gluttony and stupidity. Jia Qinglin, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), in his speech at the 18th summit of the African Union inaugurating “China’s gift to Africa” said, “As an African saying goes, to be without a friend is to be poor indeed.” But the Dragon should think twice before befriending hyenas because the African people, like African elephants, have long memories. They remember their friends and the friends of their enemies. But Chairman Quinglin should also heed a couple of wise Chinese sayings: “A man should choose a friend who is better than himself” (unless, of course, the man believes that “birds of a feather flock together”). But more importantly, “One should not lift a rock only to drop it on one’s own foot.”
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/