There is a joke among Africans which explains how the colonialism of our continent began. A European Christian missionary came with a bible in hand and told our ancestors to bow their heads for a prayer. When they opened their eyes, their land was in the hands of Europeans.
More than a century later, there is a sense of déjà vu in Africa. Only this time it’s Asia, not Europe, that’s leading the second scramble for Africa. In the past decade or so, Asian countries, led by China, have increased their presence in Africa, seeking control of natural oil to fuel their rapidly growing economies, and minerals for profits.
Unlike the Europeans before them, the Asians aren’t coming armed. They aren’t marauding the continent to drive us out of our arable land – at least not yet. Instead, they are using money, a more peaceful tactic, but one that’s just as detrimental.
India and China have hosted regular economic summits with African leaders and offered billions of dollars in loans and aid, apparent attempts by the Asian giants to get hands on Africa’s rich natural resources. Even Bangladesh – not a country likely to come to one’s mind when talking about Asia’s emerging economic powerhouses – has been at the forefront of this new rush to get a piece of Africa. Bangladeshi companies have acquired close to 100,000 acres of farmland in Uganda, Tanzania and the Gambia, and they plan to lease an additional 1.5 million acres in Kenya, Mozambique, Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia, according to the Bangladeshi government. Some of the leases are for as long as 99 years and give the south Asian country at least 60 percent of the rice it plans to produce on African soil.
Land was the reason we waged war against mighty European empires. To see us give it away so cheaply breaks my heart.
As an African, born and brought up in rural Kenya, I have watched helplessly as the people of my continent turn from landowners to share croppers. Land is the most valuable thing in Africa. We’ve gone to war because of land, because without it there is no life, and without land there is no Africa. Land was the reason we waged war against mighty European empires. To see us give it away so cheaply breaks my heart.
For almost a decade, I jumped into wagon of people criticizing China for leading the second colonization of Africa. But after a 2011 visit to China, I realized that everything I thought I knew about China came from my 20 years of living in the United States, where journalists and politicians often have nothing positive to say about China. Today I’m a firm believer that the Chinese and other Asians are only acting in the interests of their countries. If Africans want to succeed in growing and strengthening their economies, they have to stop blaming Asians and start thinking like them.
Fifty years ago, many Asian nations had economies comparable in size to many African countries, some even smaller. Thirty years ago, Shenzhen, the Chinese city I visited, was a small fishing town. Today, it is the manufacturing capital of the world.
But one cannot look at the history of many of these countries and say that they have been too different from that of many African countries. In the last 50 years, Asian nations have had the same major contributors to Africa’s stagnation: corruption, poor governance, civil unrest, and vicious dictators. What sets Asians apart from us is that they do not look to outsiders to solve their problems.
We Africans on the other hand see formal education as a means to make us like Europeans.
We Africans on the other hand see formal education as a means to make us like Europeans. At independence, the focus of formal education should have changed to learning for the sake of using that knowledge to better our lives, not to be like the citizens of the empires that colonized us. Unfortunately, western education has continued to meet the objectives of the colonial governments – to make us hate ourselves and where we come from so that we may embrace western ways. It makes the efforts of our freedom fighters pointless, and their deaths in vain.
Whenever I visit Kenya I’m awed to learn that people still believe that one’s intelligence is directly related to skin color. Do well in an exam and you might hear a teacher or a parent say that you are “as clever as a white person.” If the white doctor at the missionary hospital fails to diagnose your disease, people might say your death is imminent.
Even among the “educated” this plague runs deep. I have run into Kenyan university graduates who have asked me if there are white people among my students at Berkeley. To them, the idea of a black man teaching a white person is unimaginable.
What I saw in China were proud people who believed that it’s their intellect that has attracted the European and American companies that have moved their manufacturing there. Yes, there are issues of cheap labor, but western companies picked China because they could find highly qualified people there, too.
My host during my travel to Shenzhen is Chinese man in his early 30s, who like me has a European first name. We’ll call him Larry. But unlike me, Larry didn’t get his European name at birth. He adopted it when he moved from his rural home to Shenzhen. In the office there are Chinese men and women with names like Hugh, Amy and Emily, and many of them came to Shenzhen from rural China in search on better lives.
Located in Mainland China, just north of Hong Kong, Shenzen a city sprawling over a large area in a valley. To give me a sense of how big it is Larry and his wife take me to the top of Lianhua Mountain Park.
“There is a statue of Deng Xiaoping there too,” Larry says as we hike up the hill in the swelter of a humid Saturday noon.
It’s possible that such an awakening will bring another phase of violent uprising against the imperialists from the east.
I have no idea who Deng Xiaoping is, so I ask.
“He is the father of Shenzhen,” Larry says. “This city is the manufacturing capital of China because Deng designated it as a special zone. Before 1979, it was only a tiny fishing town.”
Looking at the city from the top of the hill, it’s difficult for me to believe that just over 40 years ago this was “just a tiny fishing town.” I try to take pictures of the city from the hill but it is impossible to fit it all in one frame. In fact it is impossible to get it all in three frames. Yet, I can still see constructions cranes to the far right of the city, evidence that the expansion is far from over. A lot of the growth is the result of billions of dollars in foreign investment from companies in the west. This influx of cash is the reason young people like Larry are changing names. They work during the day and take English lessons at night.
Solving our own problems
Large as it may be, China doesn’t have enough local resources to accommodate the wave of people from rural areas to cities like Shenzhen. The practical thing is to look outside, and what better place to go to than Africa, a continent with a track record of selling its resources for pennies on the dollar?
Other than in Madagascar, where in 2009 an agreement that would have given a South Korean company nearly half of the country’s arable land led to the overthrow of the government, opposition to Asian deals elsewhere in the continent has been insignificant. This is mainly because the cash flowing from Asia has created a new African middle class, which has become indifferent to the long-term consequences these agreements will have on the continent’s people.
Cash flowing from Asia has created a new African middle class, which has become indifferent.
Africa has already had a taste of what is likely to happen to local people who might want to stand up against this new order. In 2010, Zambian workers protesting poor conditions at a coalmine run by a Chinese company were met with bullets that injured 13 people. Two Chinese managers accused of opening fire on the protesters were acquitted by Zambian courts without an explanation, though it won’t be far fetched to say that bribes might have played a role.
History has shown, again and again, that the collapse of empires begins when a significant section of their citizenry grows disenchanted and begins to demand policy change. The freedom of citizens to express themselves and to organize is necessary for this process to succeed. For example, slavery was abolished in England because citizens had the constitutional right to free speech, and landowners could petition their government. The struggle that followed in the 20th century to end European rule in Africa prevailed because citizens of the western empires were free to question the morality of colonialism.
People in most of Asia lack such freedoms. Need I say anything about China’s labor and human rights record? India, “the world’s largest democracy”, is home to some of the most destitute people in the world. Bangladesh ranks close to the top in the list of the world’s most corrupt countries.
It would be naïve to expect citizens from any of those countries – who are engaged in struggles similar to Africa’s – to monitor their governments’ foreign policies to ensure they don’t violate the rights of Africans. Only Africans can do that.