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February 16, 2019

ALEX AWITI: Africa must rewrite the rules of engagement with China, Europe and the US

President Uhuru Kenyatta inspect a Guard of Honour in China. /FILE
President Uhuru Kenyatta inspect a Guard of Honour in China. /FILE

Africa is on the minds and lips of the so-called major global powers. Three African presidents, Egypt’s Fatah al-Sisi, Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari and Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta have been to the Donald Trump’s White House. Buhari, Kenyatta and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa have been to No 10 Downing Street.

In July Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Senegal, Rwanda, South Africa and Mauritius. Senior Chinese leaders have visited South Africa a record seven times, and have been to Tanzania four times. Studies show that top Chinese leadership have visited 26 of the 33 African countries classified as least developed by the United Nations.

French President Emmanuel Macron has established a President’s Council for Africa to spearhead France’s engagement because he believes “the future of the world will largely be played out in Africa.”

In May 2018, Macron announced the launch of a $76 million (Sh7.6 billion) fund to support African startups, as part of the unveiling of a Digital Africa initiative. As part of Macron’s cultural charm offensive, he visited New Afrika Shrine and played some drums with Nigerian musician Femi Kuti.

Last month, United Kingdom Prime Minister Teresa May made a whistle-stop tour of South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya. The vicar’s daughter known for her wooden and drab campaign style danced awkwardly with students and scouts in South Africa and Kenya, and inspected a guard of honour in Nigeria.

During her Africa trip, and at the last Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting held in London in April, May made it clear that the UK wants to become the biggest G7 investor on the continent.

But China is not willing to watch the second iteration of ‘Africa’s partition’ from the sidelines. Since 2009, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner and Chinese manufactured goods make up more than 80 per cent of China’s exports to Africa. China’s role in Africa has been defined by financing more than 3,000 infrastructure projects.

Moreover, China’s engagement in Africa is contributing to rising debt levels that are now the source of loan distress in countries such as Zambia and potentially Kenya. China now accounts for 14 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock, compared to a paltry five per cent in Foreign Direct Investment.

At the 2018 Forum for Africa China Cooperation (FOCAC), Africa must push back against China on cheap imports that are killing Africa’s manufacturing and agriculture sectors. Africa-China cooperation must be predicated on deals that bring manufacturing investments, transfer skills and technology, spur agriculture and create quality jobs for Africa’s youth.

Africa must no longer be the source of raw materials and market for cheap products and infrastructure loans. It must be about high-quality investments that transfer technology and skills, unleash Africa’s manufacturing and revive agriculture, which is nearly comatose.

The lessons Africans have learnt, good and not so well, in the two decades of engagement must now make us wiser, and strengthen our bargaining position as we re-engage with the UK, Europe and the US. And also India and Turkey.

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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