Western criticism of China in Africa questioned at WEF

“There isn’t anything that the Chinese are doing in Africa which the west has not done [as well]. So why does the question [of China in Africa] arise? And at the moment when you look at the relationship between the western world and China themselves, there are lots of capital flows going in there. So if China is not a good business partner for Africa, why is it a good business partner for the west?”

This was asked by Dr Nkosana D Moyo, founder and executive chair of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies in South Africa, during a discussion yesterday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa, currently being held in Nigeria’s capital Abuja.

China’s investment into Africa has been a topic under debate in recent years, with critics accusing it of being a form of economic colonisation of the continent, and exploitation of natural resources. Moyo highlighted how he has not been to a single African investment conference where the question of China’s relationship with the continent had not been brought up.

“And what is troubling is that it tends to get asked by western business people,” continued Moyo. “And what is clear to me is that we cannot logically answer that question without doing a couple of things, and doing what I call triangulation. We need to look at the relationship between China and the western world, the relationship between China and the western world and Africa over time as well, historically.”

He noted that it was interesting that the west tended to be critical of China’s relationship with Africa when it also has strong economic ties with China.

It is up to Africa to look after its own interests

Nigeria’s Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala added that it was up to Africa to protect its interests.

“Let me say this, I don’t think there is any country on earth that goes into any other country with the interests of only that country in mind. They go for their [own] self-interest. So you can’t expect the Chinese to act like no one else.”

She commented that the real question is whether countries in Africa are articulating their own needs and being “clever enough” so that when other economies come in to pursue their interests on the continent, Africa is safe-guarding itself.

“And that is the mistake we have always made on the continent; that we have not had the kind of preparedness, skills and capacity to deal with the self-interest of others. So I don’t think the Chinese are doing [anything] differently… I think that Africa is mature now. We need investment from everywhere and it is up to us to do our homework so that when we sit at the table we will be equal partners.”

Okonjo-Iweala highlighted how Nigeria is looking after its own interests when she was asked if she was concerned about Chinese companies coming into Nigeria and bringing in their own employees, rather than employing local citizens (a common criticism of China’s involvement in Africa).

“They can’t because we have certain laws,” she replied. “Nigeria is a large country, we have 170m people but we have a lot of unemployed people so we have a local content law. We have a law that deals with the number of people [foreign investors] can bring in. Sure if the skills are lacking… they can bring in [foreign skills], but they must employ local people here.”

China needs a long term relationship with Africa

Okonjo-Iweala said she interacts with Chinese leaders and investors regularly and believes the idea that their interest in Africa poses a threat to the continent is too simplistic.

“They want a long term relationship with Africa because they realise the potential of this continent. So they are not just looking at a short term, ‘let’s grab the resources we can and run’ [relationship],” she argued.

“And by the way, most of the things that they invest in are also things you cannot take away. So they need to think about the methodologies for engaging with the continent themselves and I think they are doing that.”