Be wary when villains want to be angels

You get a lot advice and warning when growing up. At home and school, you are warned against things that may harm you. The warning is usually given as a list of things not to do or boundaries not to cross, which if you don’t heed will often attract punishment. Religion gives more warnings presented as rules, the breach of which will earn you eternity in hell if severe, or a stint in purgatory if minor. All through life, there are more warnings, most of which can safely be ignored when you are fully grown.

Many of these warnings are well-intentioned. They are meant to steer us away from the bad and harmful to the good and productive, and shape us into better individuals. However, there are others whose motive is questionable, like the ones making headlines these days about African countries’ debt to China.

There are very loud alarms about China exploiting African countries, taking away their resources almost for free, and giving them loans they will not be able to repay. The alarm is accompanied by a warning: Be careful. If you keep borrowing from China they will give you whatever you ask for but you will pay for it dearly. You may even lose your territory to them.

You would be right to be concerned if the dire warnings about African countries’ unsustainable debt burden and China’s use of credit as a trap to control their resources if they were entirely true and made in good faith. You need only to look at who is sounding the alarm for alarm bells to start ringing in your mind.

So, who are the good Samaritans seeking to guard Africa against profligacy? One is the western media, not known for its concern and respect for Africa. The others are western academics keen to get published and noticed for raising such questions of a humanitarian nature, or who want to advance a certain theory. Then there are western governments that are clearly in competition with China and are concerned about the loss of influence in Africa.

Doubtless, there may be countries where they borrow irresponsibly or where the borrowed money is stolen by some officials. But that does not extend to all.

It is not the first time we hear warnings of this nature. Some of us can remember a time when we were warned daily about capitalist exploitation and the dire consequences if it was not stopped.

The devil then were the trans-national corporations, mainly from the west, that were accused of taking our resources for nought, underpaying our labour, and repatriating all profits, leaving us nothing.

Multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) soon became accomplice villains in the capitalist exploitation. The World Bank got a lot of stick for its refusal to fund what African countries regarded as transformational areas: education, health and infrastructure. The IMF, with its Structural Adjustment Programmes, became hangman.

At the time the alarm came from African politicians and intellectuals especially of the leftist persuasion, as well as media from the Eastern Bloc. Capitalist exploiters were bashed in newspaper columns, learned journals and political rallies and summits.

Then the great east-west ideological divide collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union. The warnings against capitalist exploitation and resistance to World Bank and IMF prescriptions also ended.  African countries liberalised their economies. We all became capitalists of sorts.

However, the rivalry between them did not end. Soon another eastern power, China, grew stronger and began to fill the space vacated by the Soviet Union. It showed great interest in Africa and increased its presence on the continent.

As long as China had remained a peripheral presence, offering support to liberation movements, training gymnasts for grand national events, or doing the odd project to show its friendship, it was not a threat to vested western interests. But the moment it showed appetite for Africa’s resources and investing in such areas as infrastructure that the World Bank had ignored, and lending money for other projects, alarm bells in the west began to ring. The World Bank got wiser and did what it had refused to do earlier.

Another rivalry was growing, and with it, new warnings began to be sounded. And so in a sense we are back to a familiar set up of conflict. There is a complete reversal of roles but the script remains the same. It’s only that the villains of the past want to appear today’s angels and paint the saints of yore devils of the present.

As in the past, Africa is again the battleground in this conflict. The warnings of then or those of now are not because anyone is concerned for our well-being in the same way our parents and teachers were. They care about themselves and the valuable resources of this continent that each wants exclusively for themselves. We should beware of those who cry loudest on our behalf when we are supposed to be the bereaved.

views expressed in this article are of the author.

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