There has been a lot of discussion around Africa’s interaction with the global north. Some opinion leaders and experts think that this relationship has not been beneficial to Africans. Slavery, colonialism and the pursuit of vested interests by European powers and the USA have been used to make this point. The emergence of the Four Asian Tigers or Asian Dragons has led to theories advocating a South-South approach to international cooperation for African countries.
Those who hold these views think that South-South Cooperation (SSC) has the potential to reduce inequalities and alleviate poverty and unemployment in Africa. However, this is likely not going to happen if leadership in Africa does not change. The ever-widening gap between the Asian tigers and Africa means they will not treat Africa on an equal footing. As long as leadership remains corrupt and self-serving in Africa, South-South cooperation will tend to replicate neo-colonialism.
The great gap: a comparison between China and Africa
According to Investopedia, “China has experienced exponential growth over the past few decades, breaking the barriers of a centrally-planned closed economy to evolve into a manufacturing and exporting hub of the world. China is often referred to as the “world’s factory,” given its huge manufacturing and export base.” China’s 2018 nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stood at $13.41 trillion.
Africa, on the other hand, has been unable to escape a sclerotic economy. Its economy has remained reliant on the primary sector and industry and services have failed to take-off at least as compared to Asian countries on par with the continent in the 1960s. It has remained the source of raw materials and a dumping ground for manufactures. Its 2017 nominal GDP was only $2.2 trillion.
These figures show that China dwarfs Africa in economic terms. Interestingly in the 1960s, China was poorer than most African countries but today it bankrolls development projects in Africa and has its own China-Africa forum. Besides, “China is now Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade topping $200 billion per year.” While there is a trade surplus for Africa, several African countries are registering trade deficits with China and the relationship has remained the same as with the global North with Africa providing raw materials and China sending cheap manufactured products to Africa which are often of very low quality.
In “China in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities”, Olu Ajakaiye notes that cheap manufactured products from China to Africa mean that China-Africa cooperation can reduce poverty, offset super-normal profits by other external partners, create an enabling macroeconomic environment by reducing inflationary pressure, increase government revenue. He, however, notes that cheap Chinese products are equally a recipe for de-industrialisation, lack of diversification, truncation of economic transformation and the perpetuation of a resource curse in Africa.
China, resources, and conflict in Africa
China wants everything from Africa: its strategic location, its oil, its rare earth metals, and its fish, leaving African nations indebted to Beijing, writes Panos Mourdoukoutas in Forbes:
In its long history, Africa has served the global ambitions of many foreigners. Foreigners have reached out to Africa as missionaries, financiers, and infrastructure builders. They have promised to place the continent on the globalization map and help its people grow out of poverty. But they ended up grabbing Africa’s riches, colonizing one nation after another, and letting their people steep in poverty.
That may end up being the case again, with China’s recent infrastructure investment projects in the continent.
On the surface, these projects seem to serve the quest of African nations to build a sound infrastructure. But on closer examination, they serve China’s ambitions to write the rules of the next stage of globalization.
There is a wide consensus that China’s quest for resources in Africa is leading to conflict. Constance Ayabei for example “examines how China’s activities in Africa are contributing to conflicts by looking at the transfer of Chinese-made arms to Sudan in the name of acquiring oil to protect her national interests.” China has also played a major role in the conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR). Its quest for resources in the country has been an age-long cause of conflict when its interests clashed with that of the former colonial power.
A change in leadership style will be crucial
Africa’s leadership has largely failed to secure a win-win strategy when knitting cooperation ties with foreign partners. Unable to ground political competition in viable economic structures, the freshly independent African State became the battle-ground for ambitious politicians who only wished to grab the vestiges of the post-colonial economy which was formatted as a source of raw material.
The perpetuation of this state of affairs, as dictatorships persist on the continent when combined with the rigid character of the world system means that Asian dragons, notably China will only take advantage of Africa further. China has embarked on a project to take over from the USA as the world’s leading economy. It would need natural resources to do so. Africa is the destination to extract these resources and it is unreasonable to think that China will not take advantage of Africa to secure these resources.
As such, with African leaders akin to corrupt practices and who lack the incentives to significantly transform their economies, South-South cooperation will not help Africa. Democracy remains the only way out for Africa as it would bring about the type of leadership that understands the imperative of win-win cooperation and not the elite’s cuts that drives the continent’s dictatorships.