FOCAC should mark real change in Africa’s relations with foreign partners

Africa is very attractive once again, especially to foreigners.  Some of the world’s most influential leaders, huge delegations of business people in tow, have come calling lately, and in quick succession.

In July President Xi Jinping of China was visiting. It was his fourth visit in five years. China has been courting Africa for quite a while, quietly and sometimes unnoticed. In the past decade or so, its big corporations have been involved in construction of major infrastructure across the continent.

Indeed China is attractive because it is willing to invest in infrastructure development and industrialisation, areas where traditional partners have not been willing to put money.

Its textile and leather industries are setting up shop in many countries. Chinese made vehicles, once unheard of, are making an appearance on Africa’s roads. So, too are their electronic appliances.

African business people have been flocking to China for quite a while and Chinese merchandise fill Africa’s shops.

Many more African students are enrolling in Chinese universities.

China has formalised this growing relationship with Africa into a forum with African leaders called the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) that takes place every three years. The last one was in South Africa in 2015.

Today FOCAC opened its triennial meeting in Beijing, attended by most of Africa’s heads of state and government.

Again in July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India was visiting Africa. India, too, has become a very serious suitor. In the past India left its huge expatriate population in many African countries, mainly business people, to do its work. But lately the stakes have become high and the rivalry so intense that it has decided to be more direct about its intentions.

Like China, every three years India brings together African leaders in a forum known as the India-Africa Forum Summit.

Japan does not want to be left behind by these up and coming Asian neighbours flaunting their new wealth and power. The Japanese have actually been at it for the last twenty years, organising a development conference with African leaders known as the Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD) that is held every five years.

The increasing attention Africa is attracting seems to have the west worried. The west thought they had Africa in their tight embrace. Now the appearance of serious rivals has rattled them out of their complacency and the fear of losing what they had always taken for granted has become real. And like someone who has been used to having things his way, the west initially responded predictably, with arrogance, abuse, threats, warnings – never an attempt to win her back.

That is changing as they realise the competition is for real. And so the west is scrambling to reset its relations with Africa.

Towards the end of August, leaders of the two biggest economies in Europe were visiting a number of countries on the continent. Mrs Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya looking for alternative markets for UK products after exiting the European Union.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was hot on May’s heels, coming to Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been a frequent visitor since he became president a little over a year ago. In that time he has visited nine times and been to eleven African countries.

Only United States President Donald Trump hasn’t called. He is not interested in Africa and has shown it by his insulting remarks about the continent and its leaders

But that is not to say that the United States has no interest in Africa. In 2014 President Barack Obama convened a United States-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC. It was held alongside a United States-Africa Business Forum.

Not for the first time, everyone is in on the rush for Africa’s fortunes. The first time resulted in carving up the continent between various greedy powers.

Today the result need not be the same, however. Although the real interest remains Africa’s resources, there is also talk of being interested in Africa’s growth and wanting to be part of it. Another attraction: Africa is getting wealthier and has a youthful, increasingly skilled, population and so offers labour and a good market

.China, India and the other Asian countries offer a model of industrialisation and transformation in general for many African countries, having only recently risen from exporters of raw materials to exporters of industrial goods.

The presidents attending FOCAC and similar forums should use the opportunity to learn about how the hosts got to where they are and adapt the lessons to their countries.

They are already talking about a win-win relationship, real partnership, equality and so on, but the real test is in translating such worthy rhetoric into benefits for the citizens of Africa.

That will happen when they recognise the worth of the wealth of their countries and extract good value for it in these relationships with foreign countries.

@jrwagatare
The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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