Africa needs to industrialize in order to eradicate poverty and create jobs for the 12 million African youths who enter the job market every year. But the lack of productive infrastructure needed to help industries and companies thrive on the strength of their robust comparative advantage is hindering Africa's industrialization.
The Belt and Road Initiative, which is becoming more multidirectional and inclusive, has become a vital platform for China to emerge as a key partner of Africa, including in financing and constructing large-scale infrastructure projects. And, as the 2019-21 African Plan says, Africa is an important partner in Belt and Road cooperation.
Important platform to realize UN agenda
The Belt and Road Initiative has also become an important platform for realizing the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Aspiration 2 of the African Union Agenda 2063, and the African Union's vision of creating more infrastructure links in Africa and provide the continent with the opportunity to reverse its anti-industrialization trend due to the failure of the West's "structural reforms" in the 1980s.
Considering the scope of the Belt and Road Initiative's infrastructure development plan, coupled with the fact that more than half of the 60-plus Belt and Road countries are in Africa, it is hard to not commend China for its willingness to make significant investments in Africa to develop infrastructure.
Many advanced economies have not yet fully grasped the imperative to help African countries boost their development through such investments, or realized that substantial returns can be earned from supporting Africa to narrow its long-standing infrastructure gap. That China has done so is the reason why the public perception of the country in Africa is largely positive.
Nevertheless, this has not eliminated the misgivings, particularly within Western circles, about a perceived attempt by China to colonize Africa. During a trip to Nigeria in February 2006, Jack Straw, then British foreign secretary, said that "what China was doing in Africa was much of the same as what Britain had done 150 years ago".
West is still prejudiced against China and Africa
The inference that China was trying to colonize Africa under the guise of investment was made by Hilary Clinton too, in June 2010 when she was United States secretary of state. And while delivering a speech in London in May 2019, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo criticized China for peddling "corrupt infrastructure deals in exchange for political influence", and using "bribe-fueled debt-trap diplomacy to undermine good governance". Some Western pundits have also described Chinese investments in Africa as "the rise of Chinese neocolonialism".
But despite China seeking to maintain its strategic national interests in the same way as other global powers do, and investing in projects in Africa that are driven by natural resources with the aim of expanding its market for trade and increasing its soft power, the simplistic and populist narrative of colonization does not address the many complex layers of Sino-African relationship.
As such, critics of colonialism dismiss claims that China is colonizing Africa. For example, a study by Ta'yana L. Deych, a professor of history, cited by the GlobalVoices website, has described Chinese investments in Africa as "mutually beneficial and a win-win strategy". Deych's study shows a widely positive perception about China's investments that "convincingly refutes the theory of Chinese neo-colonialism". Other critics of colonialism assert that colonial rule left Africans poorer than they were before Western powers entered Africa. The colonial powers not only over-exploited labor and natural resources, but also undermined Africa's capacity to develop.
Historian Walter Rodney contends in his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, that under colonialism "the only things that developed were dependency and underdevelopment". As far as Rodney and other critics are concerned, "the only positive development in colonialism was it ended".
Accusations against China are misplaced
The critics of colonialism also say the accusations against China are misplaced since the characteristics of colonialism do not apply to China's relations with Africa and the Belt and Road Initiative's vision. Rather than neocolonialism, the Belt and Road projects will create the right conditions for African countries to end dependency and alleviate poverty.
China has made great efforts to distance itself from the Western legacy of colonialism, exploitation, and political and economic interferences in other countries. Instead, it focuses more on Africa's main value proposition that lies in building critical infrastructure that will drive development.
China's investments are essential for Africa's development, and will help the African countries to end their development dependency on Western and other foreign powers. Under the Belt and Road Initiative's framework, China has participated in more than 200 infrastructure projects in Africa. The Chinese companies have completed and are building projects on the continent that will add and upgrade about 30,000 kilometers of highways, 2,000 km of railways, and increase port throughput capacity by 85 million tons per year, water treatment capacity by over 9 million tons per day, generate about 20,000 megawatts of power, and build more than 30,000 km of transmission lines.
The commencement of the Lagos-Ibadan railway in Nigeria in December 2020 was another achievement of China's industrial investment in Africa. Covering 156 km and costing some $1.5 billion, the railway has further boosted China's public image in Africa.
China's goodwill has won Nigerians' hearts
For the past two decades, China's investment in Nigerian industries, especially in transport, has provided the country with the capital and expertise needed for industrial development. The investments have been accompanied by a broad acceptance of China's goodwill.
Chinese investments in Nigeria are substantial. According to a 2019 report issued by the Chinese embassy, Nigeria hosts 70 construction, 40 investment and 30 trading companies from China. In 2018 alone, Chinese enterprises were awarded 175 construction contracts in Nigeria worth $17 billion, and 11,088 Chinese workers were involved in these projects.
Similar projects completed in Nigeria over the past decade have played a big role in shaping the Nigerian people's attitude toward China. For instance, the construction of the standard gauge railway linking the country's capital of Abuja to Kaduna, a trade center and transportation hub in northwestern Nigeria, was completed in 2016 and drew widespread praise from the people living near the railway.
Shuaibu Ibrahim, the father of five children who runs a provision store at the Rigasa railway station, is one such person. He is one of the about 100 people whose source of livelihood is directly linked to the station. In an interview with me, Ibrahim said: "In less than a year, I have managed to build a house. But earlier, despite working for an oil company for years, I couldn't even buy a plot of land. The train station has not only changed the lives of those of us doing business here, but has also brought development to the entire Rigasa community."
Positive view of Beijing
According to a study by Pew Research Center in April 2021, "an average of 62 percent of Nigerians living within 150 kilometers of the project expressed a positive view toward China".
The Belt and Road projects in Nigeria have shown that good transportation infrastructure brings tangible benefits for the people and helps a country become self-sufficient in many fields. This is particularly true for Chinese-invested railway projects, which often replace colonial-era lines that were used to move resources out of Africa but had fallen into disrepair.
Other popular Belt and Road projects include the standard gauge railway linking Lagos, Nigeria's economic capital, to Ibadan, the former administrative capital of southwestern Nigeria, and the Lagos-Kano railway, which is an ambitious project connecting the two most populous cities in southern and northern Nigeria. Then there are the new international airport terminals in Abuja, Port Harcourt in the crude oil-rich Niger Delta region, and the ancient city of Kano. In Nigeria, many of the Belt and Road projects are tilted toward railways.
As for the West's accusations that China is trying to colonize Africa, they have been rejected by Chinese, European, US and African policy experts, who say such allegations overshadow the positive results of the Belt and Road Initiative and hinder any opportunity Western nations such as the US may have to work in collaboration with China to help improve Africa's infrastructure.
Cooperation rather than confrontation
Therefore, it is important to draw a clear distinction between China's activities that threaten Western countries' interests and those that are neutral or distinctly beneficial. Also, Western countries such as the US should see the Belt and Road Initiative as an important tool for strengthening cooperation and collaboration among different countries. The initiative must be shaped in a way that makes it cooperative rather than competitive in nature, because China's contribution to African countries' development has become a driver of their growth.
That's why China and Africa should continue to work together to build a high-quality Belt and Road of cooperation and collaboration, in order to facilitate people-to-people exchanges, safeguard the health of the people, and boost economic recovery, which will help both sides to unleash their development potential. Everyone wins when there is unimpeded development that benefits all.
The author is a Nigerian scholar, lecturer and associate research fellow at the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University. He is also the founder and executive director of the institute's Center for Nigerian Studies.
By Ehizuelen Michael M.O. | China Daily | Updated: 2021-09-04 07:56