Even before the advent of COVID-19, the relationship between China and African countries had generated significant controversy. It had been a case of different folks seeing the interface from equally varying angles. In one context the Asian country enjoys the image of a benevolent, development partner which comes to the aid of it’s less endowed friends and allies across the globe. In another more poignant angle, and which is even dwarfing other viewpoints, is the widening perspective which portrays the Asian country as an insatiable, malevolent dragon, that is systematically offering booby trapped loans to needy countries around the world, with poor African nations including Nigeria, wallowing in China’s debtors’ ranks. With tales of its Shylock style loan conditions, which demand the allegorical ‘pound of flesh’ from any of its insolvent debtors, its loans are increasingly being seen as debt traps, which are intended to lure unwary nations into eventual vassal status to it. With some of its debtor countries already tasting the bitter end of a failed Chinese loan deal (talk of Zambia and China’s debt trap diplomacy, where the African country is gradually losing its sovereignty to China due to insolvency), the question is growing every day over the wider implications of owing China and defaulting.
For the purpose of clarification African countries owe China a cumulative debt in excess of $60 billion with the leading debtor countries ranking as follows: Angola $25 billion, Ethiopia $13.5 billion, Zambia $7.4 billion, Congo $7.3 billion and North Sudan $6.4 billion. Nigeria’s current debt to China has been a matter of considerable interest both within the country and beyond. The country’s Debt Management Office (DMO), places the total figure Nigeria’s current indebtedness to China at below $4 billion but many Nigerians are willing to swear that the figure is not accurate, out of consideration of the high level of secrecy and official corruption which drive the country’s fiscal regime.
Doubts over the official account of Nigeria’s debt to China are fuelled by the humongous scope of Chinese investment in critical areas of the country’s economy which apparently belie the government’s account of China’s money in Nigerian economy. Chinese money in Nigeria is seen building roads, airports, railway lines and systems, bridges, and several other areas of infrastructure development. This is just as Chinese have invaded the country in millions and permeated virtually every sector of the economy and society, with Nigerian government officials often turning a blind eye to even acts of grave criminality, by Chinese nationals in the country. Hence, even as the Nigerian government has severally given assurances of operating within safe limits in taking Chinese loans, not many Nigerians are convinced. So dependent on China’s money is Nigeria that this column ‘Penpoint’ had once asked if this most populous African country, had become a new satellite province of the Asian giant. And as it is with Nigeria so it manifests across the African continent, which the Chinese now see as their conquered territory, where they can do as they please. After all, was it not the continent’s collective leadership, that have driven it into a dependence syndrome built on handouts from China.
Among the factors that accentuate the ills of preponderant dependence of Africa on China is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic which has placed Africa countries indebted to China in a more prostrate condition, as they are now awaiting the Asian giant to concede to them, some measure of debt relief, at least with respect to repayment conditions on the humongous loans they had obtained. As at last count both the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have commenced series of debt relief measures to cushion the harsher effects of COVID-19 pandemic on their respective debtor countries. China is meanwhile stalling in that respect, and may even be gloating, over its opportunity to rub salt into the debt injuries of Africa. And as is painful to see, there is hardly any significant on-going structural adjustment programme in these African countries including Nigeria, to reposition their respective economies to a new level of reduced dependence on China, at the exit of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence while they may be expecting to return to business as usual at the end of the pandemic, they will be disappointed, for business with their creditors especially China, will not be as usual. The major cause of concern for all Africans living today is the incipience of a dependency syndrome, whereby with the passage of time, the people of the continent will need to depend for even the air they breathe on China; that is putting the situation graphically and metaphorically.
However, while the Chinese may be fingered for now over their loans to Africa countries, can the hidden devil be justifiably be located in the creditor or the debt-seeking African countries? Put succinctly, who is to be blamed for these debt-burdens on African countries? Available evidence directs the blame on the very leadership of the African countries, who are seemingly more interested in grabbing as much money as can be immediately available from the Chinese or any other creditor, without any serious thought of repayment. For a leadership community that has been traditionally groomed in the kleptomaniacal culture of fleecing and pauperizing their own citizenry, the opportunity to enrich themselves through obtaining and personalizing foreign loans, remains a small matter to them.
Until China started featuring on the global development funding scene, it was the Western world and in particular the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and the IMF that were driving the global stocks and flows of development funding. However given that they operated on multilateral terms, which often did not favour the developing world being the poorer countries for various reasons including geopolitical considerations, these handicapped countries were needy of any alternative source of development funding.
The arrival of China on the global stage with its endowment of new found loanable funds and with less stringent terms was seen as a bonanza to cash-strapped countries looking for investible funds. Meanwhile China having seen the geo-political advantages it could garner with its sudden endowment of loanable funds, could not be expected to overlook the benefits of such windfall, especially with respect to its legitimate global aspirations. And seeing needy underdeveloped countries clamouring for easy money even if such were loans under softer conditions, who will blame it for conceding. Hence, China’s ‘Father Christmas’ disposition is not a charity binge, but a calculated plan to consolidate itself on the world stage, with a glaringly apparent longer term expansionist and hegemonistic agenda. Hence too, why the same seemingly knowledgeable African leaders, allow themselves to be baited into loan deals which are scandalously hedged against their countries, remains the matter the continent’s elite need to address.
Against the backdrop of the foregoing, is the fact that African countries need to revisit their loan obligations with respect to vitiating their incremental approach to a vassal status to China. They must start thinking of escaping from a future life of new age colonisation – this time through economic marginalisation. And the time for that turn-around is now.