When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton landed on African soil during her latest tour, many of the continent’s leaders were ready for lectures on democracy as is the norm. But she digressed to address an area of growing US concern, which none of those gathered expected.
While on the Lusaka leg of her tour of Africa, Mrs Clinton warned of a creeping “new colonialism” in Africa from foreign investors and governments interested only in extracting natural resources to enrich themselves.
African leaders had to ensure that foreign projects were sustainable and benefited all their citizens, not only elites, she said.
Several media outlets reported that although Clinton did not identify any perceived culprits, a day earlier she had urged scrutiny of China’s large investments and business interests in Africa so that “the African people are not taken advantage of’’.
“We saw that during colonial times, it is easy to come in, take out natural resources, pay off leaders and leave. And you don’t leave much behind for the people who are there. We don’t want to see a new colonialism in Africa.
“We want them to do well, but also we want them to do good. We don’t want them to undermine good governance, we don’t want them to basically deal with just the top elites, and frankly too often, pay for their concessions or their opportunities to invest,” she said.
And it did not take long before China responded with denial that its influence in Africa could foster a “new colonialism”, saying it too had suffered from colonialism.
The Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei maintained his country was far from a coercive and exploitative force in Africa.
“China and the countries of Africa were historically the victims of colonial occupation and oppression, and they all truly know what colonialism was,” the spokesman told a news conference in Beijing.
“We have never imposed our will on African countries,” he added. “We hope that those concerned can view Chinese-African cooperation objectively and fairly.”
The outburst by the US top diplomat signals the tensions between US and China as a new scramble for Africa hots up, Kenyan experts said.
These experts, however, note that Africa has become a major market for sub-standard Chinese goods, for instance, poor quality mobile handsets from Beijing that would not ordinarily be sold to the Chinese.
Career diplomat Ochieng’ Adala is advising the continent’s leaders to be proactive and assertive to reap from the battle of the global powers that are inching for a slice of Africa.
“There is a lot of sense in what Hillary Clinton said ... African leaders should ensure foreign projects are sustainable and benefit all their citizens,” said Mr Adala.
“None of (Clinton’s) concerns will come to pass unless African leaders allow them to, by colluding with foreign investors and governments interested only in extracting Africa’s natural resources to enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens. The onus is therefore on our leaders to make sure that Africa is not re-colonised.”
However, he said Mrs Clinton’s concerns were motivated by America’s need to safeguard its interests in Africa which are increasingly being threatened by a bullish BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China), particularly China.
“What would have prompted such an outburst? National interests, of course,” Mr Adala stated.
China has increasingly turned to Africa for oil and mineral resources, new markets and diplomatic support.
In 2009, China’s Prime Minister Wen Jiabao offered Africa $10 billion (Sh893 billion at prevailing rates) in concessional loans over three years.
And recently, China became the 17th country to appoint a diplomat to the East African Community secretariat as it seeks to tighten ties with the region, which is one of the fastest growing in Africa. Mr Liu Xinsheng will double as its envoy to Tanzania and the EAC secretariat in Arusha.
The US, United Kingdom and France all have envoys to the EAC secretariat as they jostle for economic and political control of the region.
“For the US to admit that China poses a threat of taking over African resources and independence, the US must have realised that the Chinese scramble for Africa is real and poses a significant threat to the long monopoly of the US engagement with Africa,” noted Prof Kithure Kindiki, a professor of international law.
China has been spreading its influence across Africa with Chinese companies winning major concessions to control the oil sector in Sudan and undertake the construction of the multi-billion-shilling Thika Highway in Kenya, among other projects.
Kenya’s imports from China increased to Sh120.6 billion last year, according to the Economic Survey 2011.
Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks earlier this year revealed just how concerned the US is over China’s activities in Kenya, especially in trade, military and intelligence relations.
“Chinese firms selling into Kenya’s information and communications technologies (ICT) sector are throwing a lot of money around, according to industry contacts.
Indeed, Chinese influence may be so great that it is distorting important investment decisions in the country ... Chinese ICT vendors are difficult to beat on price and quality and, therefore, often win government procurement tenders. However, companies that buy Chinese equipment often find that they end up paying the piper later due to poor after-sales service,” one of the leaked diplomatic cables observed.
International relations experts have warned this scramble for Africa could be disastrous for the continent if its leaders fail to dictate the terms of engagement with foreign investors interested in “helping” Africa.