about china 4: struggles of African democracy

So. As I discussed in about china part 3 that Africa is becoming an economic battleground where (simplistically because there are others in play) you have china on one side and USA on the other where government (or let’s say “ruling ideology”) and finance are the weapons.

First. Let’s remind ourselves of what Africa offers economically. Africa is a big continent. Like really big. And sorry to say to all of us Americans … much much bigger than USA.


Second. That said there is a lot at stake economically which means their politics should matter to us. Because democracies “play” with us (the USA) and non-democracies don’t like to play with us as much.

(that was simple global economics 101).

So what is happening? (because I titled this that democracy is struggling in Africa).

By the end of December almost half of the sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries will have gone to the polls for an assortment of local, regional and national elections. This is a big year for African voters. The electoral calendar has never been so crowded and crowed with some key “elections” (Kenya even has a constitutional referendum up for vote).

However. Let’s not be fooled. Elections are often a poor guide to a country’s overall state of democracy and civil liberties.

So.  A total number of elections can be deceptive.

The Economist published this awesome map of Africa in their recent article “The democracy bug is fitfully catching on”. the map reflects how countries “rate” in terms of democracy (they had some nifty criteria to measure but suffice it to say the do a nice job of giving us a quick overview of the true state of democracy in Africa).

The Economist is hopeful. They believe the sheer number of coming elections is cause for hope (on the other hand, am not so hopeful).

But. The advance of African democracy remains spotty at best. It is true the “big men” (or authoritative if not dictative leaders) find a way to stay put, whatever the voters may want.

And I am less hopeful than The Economist because I also see the underpinnings of China’s economic influence.

China does not publicly condone democracy yet they certainly do not condone authoritative ruling systems either (and they invest a LOT of money).

In fact their economic support suggests a supportive stance to ‘dictatorship-like’ countries.

China has always been adept at ignoring and even stigmatizing western criticism of its foreign policy or human-rights record. It would be much harder for China to ‘ignore’ if African leaders consistently held China to account with regard to transparency and human rights. But the struggles of democracy point to China not being put in this position but rather being in a position of continuing strength and tight ties to the large number of “flawed” to hybrid to even nonexistent democratic countries.

We in the West would like to emphasize the ultimately unsustainable strategy of courting dictators in key resource-rich African states. However, that strategy certainly looks quite sustainable in the existing, and foreseeable, political environment because democracy seems to be struggling.

Looking at The Economist map it, frankly, becomes difficult to foresee it becoming possible to change China’s oil ventures from the amorality of “business is business” into something more tangible and positive for Africa and its peoples.

The hope?

Elections have become a normal occurrence on a continent once better known for the frequency and violence of its coups and civil wars. Since the late 1990s the number of coups has fallen sharply whereas the number of elections has increased, sometimes in the unlikeliest of places.

It also helps that it appears gone are the days of the cold war when West and East propped up their favored dictators for geostrategic reasons (although China is once again playing by their own rules).

It helps that a lot of aid money and diplomatic support are tied to progress in governance and democracy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, for example, held the country’s recent election as part of a peace deal with the country’s southern rebels, brokered largely by the United States in 2005. Countries such as Ghana and Mali have every incentive to stay democratic to get billions of dollars of aid from America’s Millennium Challenge Account, started in 2002. This requires Africa countries to prove a commitment to good governance and elections if they are to get the money.

(although, once again, I will point to the chart I placed in China part 3 with the billions of dollars being invested by China into Africa … hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm has anybody else noticed this is suddenly beginning to look like a high stakes poker game?).

And it’s not just the money. There is also a true belief beginning to take hold. Africa’s own regional groupings, notably the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have also started punishing member states that fall prey to coups.


It is clear that in the long term, a stable and prosperous Africa is certainly in China’s interest. And, The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing is clear evidence that that China is invested in Africa for the long term.

So. They ain’t leaving soon in other words. And they are interested in stabilizing the continent (in their best interest of course).

Someone else said this but I agree that the rest of the world (see USA although the UN has also stepped up lately) cannot ignore or stigmatize China in Africa. The only feasible strategy is to engage. And by engage I mean take them on.

Militarily? Nope.

Economically? Yup.

And, as noted earlier, it behooves us to tie the economics to government because in the long run that is sustainable (and a good sustainable for USA).

But China is going full bore using aid, diplomacy, weapons sales and Chinese ex pats with the intent to become the preeminent power in the region. And China’s increased activity in Africa has emerged at a time when the continent’s democratic evolution is at cross roads.

The rash of current elections is a reflection of the fact most African countries embraced democracy and open market economies only in the 1990s. Progress towards consolidation of democracy and respect for human rights has been very slow in most African countries, due to the narrow depth of internal democratic forces, high levels of poverty and role of military in governing but it is happening now.

Most of the democratic concessions obtained in Africa in the 1990s were certainly gained thru western government assistance (conditional economic support).

So. All that said. What are the implications of Chinese economic presence in Africa (and ultimately their presence will impact international relations, democracy, and human rights)?

Now, poverty in Africa is pervasive, and has hardly spared any one, including the political leaders. The Chinese are aware of this, and are preying on the poverty of many African political leaders.


–          In Rwanda, the big modern Chinese embassy bristles with communication antennas and dishes serves as a gateway to the Eastern Congo and its untold mineral wealth. It has been widely reported that China recently purchased half the farm land under cultivation in the Congo.

–          Roads in Nairobi are being widened and repaved with large billboards telling Kenyans that the work is a gift from the people of China. Yet the fact is the roads create a modern infrastructure to move African commodities to ports for shipment to China.

–          Rural South African towns that have been losing population for two decades are seeing an influx of Chinese small businesses. It has been suggested many of the small businessmen who have fanned out across rural farming and mining constituencies have ties to Chinese intelligence.

–          In neighboring Namibia, China established its first overseas military base to track its satellite and manned space flights.

So. Here is the tricky part.

America is in a unique position to promote freedom of choice/thinking and free markets in Africa. The United States can compete with China diplomatically and commercially in the region. The United States does not carry baggage from a colonial past as do European countries. Sub Saharan Africa is a place where America remains truly popular. The Millennium Development Corporation is better known there than here. The United States is lead by a President of African descent, widely admired on the continent, and American pop culture rules in Africa.

Okay. That isn’t tricky. It is actually doing it that is tricky.
To stem the Chinese tide and to give Africans the opportunity to have a better future, the United States must strongly advocate for human rights, democracy and freedom on the continent. We cannot be reticent to criticize African strongmen in forums such as the UN. The people of Africa are looking for us to bolster them as they struggle against tyranny and corruption.

Oh. And, yes, bolster means money (and that is where it gets really tricky).

We should support those countries such as Botswana, Rwanda and South Africa (and any country that appears as democracy, flawed democracy or hybrid on The Economist map) that are committed democracies and nurture any countries that are making progress in the right direction with increased trade, investment and tourism. The budget of the Millennium Development Corporation should be increased and focused on Africa. America should remain at the forefront of funding HIV/AIDS, polio vaccination and anti-malaria programs on the continent.

Ah. But right now the US people are just not interested in spending money elsewhere when we have 10+% unemployment and we want to spend money at home. But. We gotta do it.


Why us?

(I have two answers to that)

First. A non economic reason.

We are the voice of democracy. Like it or not that is our role. We stand for “freedom of” and no matter how much we want to bitch and moan about “focusing on us” our country has a responsibility. Particularly when a bully enters the schoolyard (China).


I write a lot about letting other countries govern as they see fit. Yes. I believe we should sometimes let China govern their own country & people as they see fit (or how about just because they don’t have a democracy we shouldn’t be so high and mighty to a country that has a history that makes our looks like a dot on a  page). But. There is a difference when they seek to bully another kid in the playground.

We are the one, and should be the one, to step up and say “not in this playground.” We encourage democracy and do not stifle freedom to … whatever. So. That said. We need to step up to the plate with emerging governments and give them a chance to really govern. And make a choice. So. That’s that.

Second. Economically.

This where short term pain cannot dictate long term gain development. A free and transparent Africa will be a friendly place for the United States and a partner in trade and culture long into the future. An Africa dominated China is unlikely to be such a partner.

All that said. The time for America to fully engage in Africa is now. Because if we don’t we won’t be allowed to play in the playground. And this is a really really big playground. And our wallets will look a lot slimmer in the future. And none of us want that.

The economic battle for Africa is on. Clearly China has taken the field. USA must also.

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Written by Bruce