Will Africans ever scale the Great Wall of China?


The 3rd Forum for China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) has just ended in Beijing.

Every African country, except eSwatini (Swaziland) was represented in Beijing. eSwatini is in bed with Taiwan, which China sees at its own territory. You can’t be married to Taiwan and also have an affair with China if you are a small African country.

Every African leader who isn’t suffering from post-coup traumatic stress disorder (PCTSD, read Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza), or is too sick to climb up the stairs of the Great Hall of the People (read Algeria’s Abdelaziz Bouteflika), or is about to leave power in exhaustion (read DR Congo’s Joseph Kabila), or is an intemperate hermit (read Eritrea’s Isaias Afeworki), was in China.

Oddly, Tanzania’s John Pombe Magufuli too didn’t show up. In the Cold War years when China was socialist and poor, Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania was one of its closest allies in Africa.

Tanzania and Zambia in 1976 became the site of the grand infrastructure projects that characterise China’s second coming in Africa, with the opening of the 1,860 kilometre-long Tanzania-Zambia Railway (Tazara).

Typically, our people eventually ran down Tazara, now a shadow of its old self.

Magufuli probably has a fear of flying, or is just hidebound, rarely travelling outside East Africa. However as a Tanzanian who’s possibly learnt from Tazara, he must know that it takes more than a railway to grow rich.

Africa will need lots of capital to create prosperity, and right now China is offering it like it’s going out of fashion, without the conditionalities of Western donors that our leaders find so annoying.

This time, China’s President Xi Jinping announced $60 billion more in loans, and a new grace period on debt repayments, much to the relief of the leaders of the countries that were struggling to cut cheques for the billions owed to Beijing.

Yet, watching African leaders trooping past Xi, one couldn’t help but feel it was also a moment of humiliation. Africa is the only continent that other leaders (the US, Japan, India) gather every so few years in a room, to sell them hope that they will help them develop their countries.

Some of them are alive to the inglorious aspects of the FOCAC optics. In the reforms to the African Union proposed by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, one was that these kinds of FOCAC spectacles should end, and Africa should present a unified position and be represented by a few selected leaders.

Nada! The Facebook and Twitter pages of the over 40 African leaders in Beijing all had a photo of them shaking Xi’s hand at the same spot. In the background is a giant photo of the Great Wall of China, the bulk of which was built in 220–206 BC by Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.

The Great Wall of China is 21,196 kilometres long, longer than the length of tarmac road network in any East African country, built at a time when some of our ancestors were still hunter gatherers.

Perhaps that was the point Xi was making to the African leaders: “You can only find greatness and build your future from your own ingenuity. Our money can at best only be a picture on the wall of the house you built for yourself.” I think I like this man Xi.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3

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