by Remi Sonaiya
The PUNCH editorial of Thursday, September 27, 2012 is the motivation for sending this previously written article for publication in the same newspaper. The editorial details how there is little to show for the billions of dollars in contracts which have been awarded to a Chinese firm for the rehabilitation and construction of several rail lines in the country.
The photograph on the front cover of the book, La Chinafrique: Pékin à la Conquête du Continent Noir, depicts an African soldier, in full uniform, his left hand clutching a gun, while the right hand holds a green and yellow umbrella over the head of a Chinese man in a T-shirt and knee-length shorts. The Chinese man is holding a cell phone to his ear with his right hand, while the left hand appears to be tucked into his belt. He exudes confidence and control. The soldier is almost standing at attention, with his face looking slightly downwards. Both of the men are standing at a location which obviously is a construction site, a housing estate, with a row of identical houses behind them. The photograph is said to have been taken in Nigeria.
The book itself was published in 2008 (Paris: Bernard Grasset) by two French journalists, Serge Michel and Michel Beuret, who travelled around 11 African countries (Algeria, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) investigating how the Chinese were conducting their various businesses and what kind of relationship obtained between them and their host governments and communities. The book should ordinarily be a must-read for every African leader as well as all those desirous of conducting business with China, if not for the fact that most of our leaders as well as we, the led, are not known to be that enamoured with reading anyway. Also, the fact of the book having been written in French makes it inaccessible to the non-Francophone segments of the continent.
In the book, the authors provide pretty damning details of how Africa is being pillaged by the Chinese, who are arriving by their planeloads and are dealing with Africans in probably the most disrespectful and dehumanising manner since the slave trade, going as far as physically assaulting African workers on their construction sites and practising a system of “apartheid” between these ones and their Chinese counterparts. The Chinese businessmen are said to enjoy unusual perquisites from our governments, as can be deduced from the photograph described above. A Chinese businessman in Nigeria is said to drive around in a car, his personal car, bearing a police registration plate number! The free trade zones being established all over Africa are also normally exempted from accountability as to the impact of the business on the environment.
There are those who suspect the real motivation for writing the book, claiming that it stems more from the fact that Europeans are smarting due to the stiff competition that China is giving them now in Africa. That is, China is gradually edging Europe out of Africa, undermining the Europeans’ age-long privileged presence on the continent. Indeed, Chinese companies are all over Africa now, constructing roads, stadia and dams, setting up power stations, laying railway tracks, building bridges and housing estates. And Africa has welcomed China with open arms, impressed by their hard work and the speed with which they are able to deliver on projects. In the book referred to, the authors begin their prologue with a statement credited to a Congolese civil servant, and which probably sums up Africa’s attitude vis-à-vis China: “The Chinese offer us concrete things, while the West come with intangible values. What is the use of transparency of governance, if the people don’t have electricity and there are no jobs? You can’t fill your stomach with democracy.” (My translation)
Poor, poor Africans! There we go again! Centuries after our shattering experience with the slave trade, we are still being told that part of the reason for the continuing underdevelopment of our continent is the fact that we have not come to terms with that infamous legacy; namely, that we have not faced up to the fact that we connived with the Westerners to sell our own kith and kin into slavery in foreign lands. At least, that is the opinion expressed in an article by Tunde Obadina entitled, “Slave trade: A root of contemporary African crisis”, in which he states categorically that, “The root of the crisis facing African societies is their failure to come to terms with the consequences of that contact” and that “the vast majority of slaves taken out of Africa were sold by African rulers, traders and a military aristocracy who all grew wealthy from the business.” More significantly, coming to terms was equally implied in the important speech delivered by the former President Nicéphore Dieudonné Soglo of the Republic of Benin when he launched the UNESCO “Slave Route” Project on September 1, 1994 at the old slave port of Ouidah, when he said:
“It would serve no purpose also to cover up our own responsibility in the disasters which have befallen and continue to befall us. Our complicity in the trade has been well established, our meaningless divisions, our collective wrongdoings, slavery as an endogenous institution…” (My translation)
History may be repeating itself again, now with the Chinese. If the accounts in La Chinafrique are even only partly true, then Africa might be entering another period of enslavement, the only difference being that this time around, we are the ones solely responsible for our plight, tying the noose and putting our own necks into it to hang ourselves. For example, we are allowing the Chinese to help us wipe out our forests, and they do so with utmost efficiency, carting off the logs to feed their humongous furniture industry back home – and we gladly import the furniture made from our very own trees back from them at exorbitant prices. Foolish Africans!
So, transparency does not fill our stomachs, and democracy cannot be fed upon, abi? I guess our stomachs are being properly filled now that we have China dumping upon us all these useless third-rate-quality goods which have now taken over our markets! Crooked African businessmen are finding in the Chinese the crooked partners they need to make easy money, and they are flooding our continent with garbage – from senseless children’s toys to gaudy, badly-sewn clothes (not to talk of fake and adulterated products), and treating us like dirt on our own soil! Africa, beware! We are being colonised all over again!
•Sonaiya is a retired professor of French Language and Applied Linguistics. She is the PRO of KOWA Party.
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