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What are the Chinese Doing in Yoni and Mabang?

 - Monday 14 May 2012.

Commentary

By Muckson Sesay, Winnipeg, Canada.

After a long day under the red-hot savannah sun, I walked into a grocery store, in Mile 91 to buy Fanta soft drink. In Canada, at least in Manitoba, we don’t have Fanta; we have Crush which is a bit similar to Fanta but not quite the same. So, Fanta was my drink of preference while in Sierra Leone. As I walked out of the store, I ran into an elder who is also a member of the local chiefdom authority (name withheld), whom I have known since I was a teenager. “Muckson! When did you come back!” he shouted. A few days ago sir! I replied. The conversation quickly evolved into something I couldn’t resist, so I reached for a chair.

We began talking about the Ishaak Muckson Innovative Technology Institute and then moved to the proposed Chinese’s agricultural development project in Mile 91 and its environs. He continued that the Chinese are on business negotiations with the government of Sierra Leone to acquire 750 acres of land to construct a “huge agribusiness” in Yoni and Mabang Chiefdom. “This will mean more jobs for the youths in our chiefdom” he enthused; I shifted my chair, changed my sitting position and began paying closer attention to what he had to say. Do you have any idea who is involved, from the chiefdom level, in these negotiations? I asked. “The government negotiates with the Chinese, and the chiefdom negotiates with the government then we are ready to go!” he replied. I paused a little and nodded my head in agreement with a self-deprecating smile, trying to maintain the discussion.

As I walked home, I began taking an in-depth look at the reasons behind the Chinese tsunami to Africa and their rush to claiming concessions on our land and resources especially oil and mineral deposits in Africa. I continued asking questions like, is the 21st century the century for Africa? Are we failing to make good use of an opportunity? The western economy has reached its climax and the capacity for the Chinese economy’s investment is reaching its limit. Is Africa the new economic frontier? In my next article I will look into these questions and analyse the social structure of accumulation of some Africa economies and try to establish why Africa economies stand a better chance of leading in this new era. However, for the purpose of this article I will limit myself to examining the role of the Chinese in Africa and see if our new friends, the Chinese, will bring development to a ‘star-crossed’ continent where the Western model, which has provided over $2.3 trillion in the past 50 years, had failed.

Many people I’ve spoken to prefer the Chinese over western approach towards Africa development. Some have argued that the western Aid-driven model has not worked for Africa, claiming it tolerates corruption and doesn’t foster development, therefore prefer the Chinese model, (which has seen much improvement in terms of infrastructure, farming and Chinese foreign investment) as a better alternative. Mohamed Koroma, a student at The University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, argues that unlike our Western friends, the Chinese relate to Africans as friends with a respectful handshake by doing business as equals and shared values.

I personally see the two models (both the Chinese and the Western model) to be the same and have the tendency to produce similar results. This is because, they [the Chinese] haven’t changed the fundamentals of extractive economic engagement which has to-date been a characteristic of colonialism, western interventions and engagement – and which is part of the cause for Africa’s economic stagnation.

After the 2006 China-Africa summit in Beijing, the economic strategy of the Chinese is to extract all the resources out of the African economies and take absolute control of Africa’s raw materials to feed its own “resource-hungry” domestic industries, without transferring skills/technologies or fostering industrialization or creating a value chain development. These resources are extracted and shipped back to China to feed and strengthen domestic value chains, and in turn Africa is inundated with cheap Chinese foodstuffs, manufactured goods and higher-value products, chopping off what little potential exists for Africans to capture these markets. This observation could be identified with, on the Economic Observer report, an independent Chinese weekly newspaper, which stated that China “faced with increasing pressure on food security,” is “planning to rent and buy land abroad to expand domestic food supply.”

Another Chinese newspaper the South China Morning Post, reported that about 3,000 Chinese settlers are to migrate to Mozambique to farm in the Zanzibar River Valley. The report further stated that farmers from the Chongqing province of China are publicly encouraged to embark on mass emigration to Africa after they lost their land in 2006 flood. Their investment in Africa could mean more job opportunities especially for African youth hit by mass unemployment; but ferrying their nationals to take up jobs that could be done by locals is an unfair game and exposes the actual motive of our Chinese investors as merely a hoax.

Africa is a continent full of paradoxes: it has vast fertile land and yet has never been able to feed its own people. One of the continents’ millennium development goals is to ensure food security for its people, however, the Chinese investment – often in reality a land/resource grab, may actually discourage this goal and inhibit Africa’s long term economic growth. To quote a recent report by the Oakland Institute , “While there is undoubted need for foreign direct investment in Ethiopia, there are widespread concerns that these land investments are not being undertaken in a manner that safeguards the social, environmental and food needs of local populations.” The study also found that negotiations on the terms of contracts in all land contracts remain secret, and without consultation and compensation to indigenous people who have lived there for generations.

The Chinese policy of “see-no-evil approach to governance” in its investment model is making it possible for unscrupulous regimes in Africa to subsist on revenue from large Chinese contracts behind-closed-doors dealings, to solidify their positions. In June 2011, the Chinese government invited President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan to China even though the International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. al-Bashir, accusing him of war crimes during the conflict in Darfur. China continues to pure millions of dollars into his regime for oil extraction. Another example of this is demonstrated by the Atlantic Post which states that China “is conducting secret contract with one of President Joseph Kabila’s close personal confidants, a man without a government portfolio” on land accusation.

Using the threat of capital-flight, the Chinese are striking heavy deals across Africa. Since China huge investment power and monopoly in certain export markets means, if one Africa country (often corrupt , with illegitimate or weak government ) tries to bargain hard to get a fair deal on mineral, oil and land concessions they simply leave for their neighbour. So, despite having a more respectful, business-oriented approach, as my friend Mohamed seems to have observed, this respect comes with price.

Rather than African governments rushing into handing over our resources/ national identity (land) to foreign ownership. What Africa needs is to focus on proper democratic reforms with stronger legal institutions to fight corruption, protect investment, and promote investment policies that strengthen domestic value chains development in Africa.

Finally, Until African governments are ready to work for their citizens, our iron ore would continue to be shipped to China, our diamonds will still be taken to Belgium and our rutile would still be shipped to the west without transferring skills/technology and/or adding value to these resources. Africa will still remain the same, I “Still see no change coming.”