Ideas & Debate

China’s fingerprints on African political order


China has been making aggressive inroads in Africa with mega project deals. FILE PHOTO | NMG

I’ve been thinking about China’s growing influence in Africa and whether it is linked to growing autocracy, especially the East Africa region.

However, it is not China alone that seems to be informing a move towards authoritarianism in the region. When Africa is given examples of countries that managed to catch up economically, the Asian bloc is often presented as the case study.

Look at Singapore, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea. We’re told, they all managed to pull millions of out poverty and substantially improve the quality of life of their citizens in a relatively short period of time.

What is not mentioned is that, for the most part, these countries were developed or are still developing under an autocratic state-led capitalism model where government drives and leads the articulation of capitalism and, to a greater or lesser extent, monitors and guides its evolution.

Africa is also not told that even Europe and North America made significant economic gains using models that were not democratic. The US relied on the slave trade and slave labour to build wealth that was then used to drive industrialisation.

Much of Europe relied not only on financial involvement in the slave trade to amass wealth but also colonialism which played an important role in providing colonial powers with land and labour that generated immense profits that were then repatriated to European metropoles. 

So some are asking: Why is Africa being told that the continent must develop under a democracy when so many others haven’t? And is this the most efficient path towards economic development?

In East Africa, we can see a move towards autocracy; indeed it can be argued that Kenya is the only viable democracy left. Ethiopia and Rwanda have made no secret of the fact that they are essentially autocratic states.

Uganda has been under the hand of Museveni for well over 30 years and in Burundi President Nkurunziza seems bent on retaining control and extending his autocratic rule beyond constitutional provisions.

In Tanzania, signs of autocracy are emerging given that the chief whip of the opposition party was shot, and President John Magafuli shut down several newspapers.

Beyond philosophical questions as to why there seems to be growing autocracy in the region, international dynamics are also playing a role, specifically growing insularity in Europe and North America.

The Trump Administration hasn’t even bothered to table a strategy for Africa and Europe seems preoccupied with Brexit, anti-immigration sentiment, and calls to use European money on Europe rather than on ‘others’.

As a result, the voice from the global north that lectures Africa on the merits of democracy is receding and the power vacuum is intensifying the influence of autocratic China in Africa.

Indeed, the autocracy that is emerging in Africa seems to be modelled more against the technocratic autocracies of Asia rather than the old African autocratic model exemplified by leaders such as Uganda’s Idi Amin, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam and more recently, Robert Mugabe.

It seems it is time for Africa to ask itself some tough questions: Should growing autocracy be encouraged? And if so, what will it cost Africans in terms of freedom of expression, human rights and political freedom? Or is democracy, despite all its problems, still the best way forward for the continent?