Ideas & Debate

Can leasing land to foreigners bring progress in Africa?


Sometime in November last year, I received a call from a BBC journalist who wanted to know my opinion about a fairly controversial statement made by the German African Commissioner, Gunter Nooke.

The “no-chills-nor-frills” Mr Nooke had expressed his views, later cited in the BBC article titled Can Voluntary Colonialism Stop Migration from Africa to Europe, on how to stem migration to Europe by suggesting that the European Union or a body like the World Bank should build and run cities in Africa in order to boost job creation and development on the continent.

In his view it would mean that African countries would lease their land to a foreign body to allow free development for 50 years. For the record, it was the first time I was hearing about the statement and the concept of charter cities.

My response to the journalist was that it would be fairly interesting as it would mean that the citizens of these cities would voluntarily submit themselves to being ruled by a foreign body in return for physical and financial security.

The key words here are voluntary submission. I also said that the rules of engagement would have to be crystal clear: job openings would only be for the African nationals in that region.

Well, the journalist chose to pick the words that made the most tantalising print. Social media responses to the printed article directed at me were rancorous to say the least. Who did I think I was for even supporting the proposition that our land could be given to foreign powers to manage?

I subsequently had to do a quick research to read up about the concept. It turns out that it was first mooted by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Romer in 2009.

Citing Hong Kong as an example of a successful “outsourced” economy, the city state was forcefully signed away by the Chinese in 1842 to Queen Victoria. It ended up being an economic success story, and, if truth be told, was handed back to the Chinese eventually therefore creating a case for build-operate-transfer concept in charter cities.

And yes, I agree that Hong Kong isn’t exactly the poster child for voluntary colonialism.

Romer is the put-your-mouth-where-your-money-is kind of guy and his first stop was in Madagascar. Foreign investors had fled the country due to political turmoil and President Marc Ravolamanana’s government was keen to entice them back.

They had begun discussions with South Korean corporate giant Daewoo to lease giant tracts of land for 99 years to develop agriculture. The government was also in discussions with Mauritius to administer an export processing zone and this fell right into the charter cities theory that Romer was proposing.

Ravolamanana got quite excited by the concept once Romer got some face to face time with him. But according to Ravolamanana’s main political opponent, giving up Malagasy land to foreigners was akin to treason and this led to widespread public protests that ended up with 29 dead civilians and Ravolamanana forced out of office.

The new government promptly cancelled the Daewoo deal. Undeterred by that not-so-little snafu, Romer ended up showing up in Honduras a few years later and managed to convince the government on his concept to the point where they legislated the establishment of Employment and Development Economic Zones which were going to be autonomous jurisdictions with their own laws, courts and police. As with all card bearing members of third world economies, the idea got sucked into the vortex of Honduran politics leaving Romer and his cabal of consultants — who made up a special committee to set up the zones — to resign in a huff. The project ended up dead in the water anyway.

The truth is, there are too many political interests in most third world countries that would prevent the concept of foreign administered, independent territories.

If an African adult is willing to voluntarily submit himself to the jurisdiction of a foreign entity on a patch of his country’s land that has no natural resources to be found but has been converted into an income generating area, then let him exercise his freedom of choice.

This is especially if it will prevent him from crossing rivers, deserts and the treacherous Mediterranean sea only to end up dead somewhere along those obstacles.

The benefits, after the city state is handed back to the original country’s governments at the end of the contractual period, by far outweigh the anti-colonialist pontifications. Ask China about Hong Kong.