A few days ago, Nation Media Group titles had a story about a Washington-based think tank, the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, warning Africa, yet again, about the perils of China.
While Kenya and other African countries can reap from Chinese investment, especially if they kept things clean and efficient, it warned that, when taking on all the loans, African nations should also be aware “that Chinese infrastructure loans are primarily intended to extend Beijing’s political influence and military reach”.
What others have called a “debt trap” and dependency on China, the centre said, aims to establish it as a “great power” militarily as well as economically within the next three decades.
Usually, this is the point where a Pan-Africanist of the nationalist variety pulls out the sword and runs after China denouncing it as bringing a “new form of imperialism”, or if she is a leftist-leaning type, denounces the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies for wanting to continue Western exploitation of Africa and trying to scare us off rival China.
Not this time. The scenario of an Africa up to its neck in Chinese debt — and the Chinese taking away our ports, railways, lands, rivers, lakes, and even children because we can’t pay them back — is not necessarily a bad thing.
That’s because, if we go just 25 years back, the progress that Africa has collectively made over this period owes, to a large extent, to a similar debt crisis in the mid-1990s.
After the end of the Cold War, the easy ideological money countries used to get for being either in the Western or Eastern camp dried up.
Years of corrupt one-party and military dictatorships, and ill-conceived attempts at running economies, left a shell.
Most things had collapsed. Agriculture was kaput. Store shelves were empty. The “nation building” industries had folded.
Commodity markets had stumbled, so we were getting peanuts for coffee, tea, sisal and copper.
Debt forgiveness became the big thing and African governments formed long queues outside the World Bank and IMF with begging hands stretched out. Those were desperate times.
At that time, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation could only be compared to what we saw when Barack Obama visited Africa as US president. Potholes were filled and lavish receptions laid on.
Today, ask most residents of a big African city who the resident World Bank or IMF representative is; possibly 99 per cent don’t know.
In 1999, misspelling a World Bank representative’s name was the kind of thing that got an inept journalist fired.
That dramatic shift of power from African State Houses to the World Bank/IMF and Western donors ended up in the much-hated austerity programmes.
But it also produced some great benefits that decades of activism, campaigning, and even war, had failed to get.
The reason is that African politicians and governments don’t respond positively to pressure, argument and the threat of being murdered by rivals who have gone to the bush to fight them in a guerrilla war.
The one thing that gets them to act most is empty coffers.
When there is no money to feed the Big Man, his entourage, his army and intelligence organs, and his party, and to buy off problematic chaps he can’t kill and feed to the crocodiles, that is when they yield.
Rare is a government that will say, “Okay, we are producing 70 per cent of the food we need; let’s undertake reforms to increase that to 95 per cent in five years”.
They will only do something after a famine has killed 50,000 and hungry citizens are rioting in the streets — and equally hungry riot police refused to shoot them.
Broke African governments in the 1990s allowed not just free market reforms, but also wrote new human rights laws, opened up schooling for more girls, freed media, established revenue collection agencies, allowed pseudo-independent electoral commissions and courts, and even gave in to the clamour for multiparty politics — all so that they could get a cheque from Western donors and feed themselves.
I do not know of a single instance of a government that suffered a bout of selfless enlightenment and said: “The Press is 50 per cent free; let’s change the law so it’s 90 per cent because it empowers citizens.”
That is where this China “debt trap” business comes in. Going by past and current records, the only major source of reform to create new wealth and improve lives will be when Beijing has seized the main airport, seaport or forests of a delinquent African nation that can’t pay back its loans, and the president no longer has money to appease his guards and so undertakes economic reforms (for instance, expand intra-Africa trade or build irrigation) in desperation.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africapedia.com and explainer Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3