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Taking a Trip Down Memory Lane: The Call for Renewed Pan-African Agency in China-Africa Relations

File image of the 32nd African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa on February 10, 2019. SIMON MAINA / AFP

In the first days of November, the world turned towards the United States. Would Trump, one of the most divisive figures in global politics, secure another four years in the White House? Or would the American people vote for a change? While he is currently refusing to concede to his competitor, Trump lost the election to the democratic candidate Joe Biden. This victory quickly became a symbol of a renewed hope not only in U.S. democracy but also in the survival of the Western-led liberal international order, which had suffered several blows under the Trump presidency.

Many African countries had grown weary of Trump’s caustic rhetoric towards the continent and of being caught in the crossfire of ongoing US-China tensions. The election result may very well have caused them to breathe a sigh of relief. President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari took to Twitter to congratulate the President-Elect on his victory ‘at a time of uncertainty and fear in world affairs’ and in another Tweet encouraged Biden to ‘deploy his vast experience in tackling the negative consequences of nationalist politics on world affairs’. Perhaps the shift in US politics would mark the beginning of renewed US interest in Africa and would even help heal the wounded U.S.-China relationship that Africa had been drawn into on several occasions. However, it may seem overly optimistic to expect such a détente from the same man who referred to Chinese Premier Xi Jinping as ‘this guy who is a thug’.

Debt Distress Across the Continent

This hope for change is further heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the continent’s complicated debt relations with China. The pandemic-induced global crisis has made debt distress widespread and has made economic collapse a real possibility for many African countries. Although there is a multitude of actors involved in Africa’s debt landscape, the nature of China’s involvement is arguably making matters worse. While the narrative of ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ has long been discredited, Beijing’s insistence on conducting negotiations bilaterally, as well as refusing to disclose the nature of these negotiations, has made it very difficult to know exactly what is going on. It is possible that more transparency would better serve China’s larger geopolitical interests and it is quite difficult to understand Beijing’s motives on this.

The Domino Effect of Zambian Debt Distress

While the world has been observing the dramatic US election, current events in other parts of the world have gone under the radar. Zambia is within a hair’s breadth of defaulting on its debts to a group of external Bondholders. And this is just one part of a complicated debt puzzle. While it must be acknowledged that the responsibility ultimately lies with Lungu and his government, China has not helped on their side. In a surprise move in October, the China Development Bank (CDB) delayed the date of Zambia’s debt repayment until next year. Wu Peng, a senior Chinese official in Sub-Saharan Africa, reacted to this on Twitter, affirming that ‘other Chinese financial institutions are […] actively resolving the debt issue of Zambia and other African countries’. But how exactly is China working to ‘resolve’ the debt issue in Africa? And what message does this send to other governments experiencing debt distress? Everyone has been left very much in the dark.

Debt default in countries such as Zambia will produce some serious knock-on effects across the continent and will plunge even more Africans into poverty. Using Twitter to assert China’s official support for debt relief, all the while keeping the negotiation process under wraps seems very unfair to African countries. So, if African governments cannot fully depend on the U.S. or China to help them during this global crisis, who should they turn to? The answer is simple: towards each other.

The Legacy of the Pan-African Movement

Never before in history has such a sweeping fervor for freedom expressed itself in great mass movements which are driving down the bastions of empire’. These were the words of Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana and an important figure within the Pan-African movement. This movement was sparked by the desire to end colonial rule on the continent and to promote a shared African identity. This solidarity also eased the task of entering an international order that was built by and for Western powers.

The notion of collective agency thus emerged, changing the narrative of Africa as a continent brimming with poverty violence to a place unified under the common desire for self-determination. Although it is largely ignored in mainstream academic and media accounts of Sino-African relations, African countries have often been able to exercise their agency in their dealings with Beijing. For example, Angola, emerging from a 27-year civil war in 2002,  was able to leverage its natural resources in order to obtain better loan conditions from China and to obtain vital funding to rebuild the country’s infrastructure.

Africa Now Has the Opportunity To Lead by Example

Turning back to the present day, the possibility of economic collapse now looms large for many countries. On top of this, governments are caught between China’s inconsistent approach to debt relief and the slightly unrealistic hope for more genuine US engagement on the continent.

The stakes are incredibly high and while disaster advances, so does opportunity. If the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us anything it is that Western powers don’t always hold the answers and they don’t always know the best way forward. Many countries have turned their gazes inwards, with nationalist sentiment and ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentalities on the rise.

The African Union published a video in May of this year titled ‘Africa, Ubuntu!’, drawing upon Pan-Africanism to encourage solidarity in these difficult times. This crisis is an opportunity for African leaders to return to the main tenets of the Pan-African movement and to remind the rest of the world that we are all inextricably related to each other. That debt default in Zambia will hurt the entire continent. And that coordinated action against debt distress could also serve as inspiration for other world regions.

What’s Stopping Leaders?

So what is really stopping African leaders from taking a leaf out of their own history books and presenting a collective position on debt relief? Perhaps it is the reluctance to move beyond the cheerful rhetoric of ‘win-win cooperation’ and to acknowledge that, as things stand, not everything is win-win. Or perhaps it is the realization that if African leaders signal the need for change, many Western powers who have criticized Chinese involvement in Africa will shake their heads and say something to the tune of I told you so.

Regardless of what is preventing a show of collective agency, there is too much at stake during the ongoing crisis for leaders to sit around and wait for China to decide the parameters of debt relief. It is Africans, and Africans alone, who can decide on and promote their own interests in their dealings with China. Those involved need to acknowledge that while relations are not perfect, there is plenty of room for meaningful improvement.

In 2014 Wang Yi, China’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, attended a joint press conference with Hanna Tetteh, Ghana’s then Minister for Foreign Affairs, on the topic of Pan-Africanism. Yi spoke highly of the Pan-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah and affirmed China’s support for Pan-Africanism. However, it is not enough for China to voice rhetorical support for Pan-Africanism. It is ultimately up to Africa to promote its own interests within the framework of Sino-African relations, and these interests would be best secured by formulating a common position on debt issues. Although a country such as Zambia may have very little bargaining power when it comes to negotiating debt relief with China, it would be very difficult for Beijing to ignore the unified voice of African countries standing in solidarity with one another. And that while Africa needs China, China also needs Africa. The importance of collective agency also rings true for Africa’s external relations with other global powers. It’s time for Africa’s leaders to return to the moral of the Pan-African story: we are stronger together.

Lauren Ashmore is a recent graduate of the MA in International Relations from Leiden University in the Netherlands.

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