China and India on safari to a subordinate continent


In the past week, some powerful leaders came calling.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Senegal, Rwanda, and South Africa where he also took in a BRICS summit.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi also pitched up, dropping in on Uganda and Rwanda, and then to Johannesburg to join the leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa in the BRICS parleys.

It was fascinating to see how growing wealth and a rise in global clout changes a nation. Forty years ago, China was little more than a communist backwater. Today, it is the world’s second largest economy, and in 10 years could be the world’s leading economic and political power.

At that point, India was mired in poverty, like virtually all of Africa. Today it is the hottest emerging market, a leading technology innovator, and in less than 15 years could be a First World economy, and by the middle of the century be among the top three.

Forty years ago, Chinese leaders talked “international solidarity.” Now Xi rails against “unilateralism,” and is a leading spokesman for global free markets.

Forty years ago, India was all about the Non-Aligned Movement and a world order that treated the South fairly.

Modi is no longer that limited. He is touting India as a global manufacturing hub. Like Xi, he too is talking world trade.

Both Modi and Xi got sore fingers signing deals, and dropped a lot of largesse along the way. In South Africa, Xi inked deals worth billions of dollars.

In Kampala, Modi spoke about how it was important that Africa does not once again turn into a “theatre of rival ambitions” – he meant with China, although he didn’t specifically mention the Asian giant by name.

The reality is that he probably meant to say Africa has become a theatre of rivalry for China and other powers. But more significant in his statement, was the unsaid fact that Africa is still in a subordinate position, where the rest of the world does things to it, not the other way around.

In May, the African Development Bank (AfDB) president Akinwumi Adesina seemed not to strike a very optimistic note when he said Africa is “de-industrialising.”

“Between 2012 and 2018, Africa’s industrial value added contracted from $702 billion to $603 billion with countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Algeria leading the decline,” he said. The only country in Africa not de-industrialising is Ethiopia.

But maybe, the fact that both Xi and Modi visited Rwanda, and the Chinese leader’s detour to far-away Senegal, were veiled pointers to how “Africa’s China” or “Africa’s India” could emerge.

Rwanda and Senegal have a few things in common. One, rarely covered in the mainstream media, is a robust embrace of science. A few governments in Africa are, unfortunately, still ruled by superstition and old ways.

The second is that both are reasonably effective and enlightened governments that have invested significantly in ICT. It matters whether a government spends its capital to set up a pornography detection committee or an innovation council.

Third, they try to do something to limit corruption and capture of the state by cartels.

And fourth, something rather boring – a middle-of-the road foreign policy.

And, last, along with many other African countries, an embrace of Africa and freedom of movement for its peoples.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3

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