There is a legend in Africa about how the colonisation of our continent began: The Europeans brainwashed the Africans with their religion and told them to pray with their eyes closed when the Africans opened their eyes they found the Europeans had their land and they had the European religion.
More than a century later, there is a sense of déjà vu. Only this time it is Asia, not Europe, that’s leading the second scramble for Africa. In the past decade, Asian countries, led by China, have increased their presence in the continent, seeking influence over minerals, oil and food production.
Just last week, India held the India-Africa Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, an apparent attempt to win favour over its global competitors. 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. 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.
Unlike a century ago, there aren’t armed marauders roaming the continent to drive Africans out of arable land – AT LEAST NOT YET. Instead, the Asians are using a more peaceful tactic, but one that’s just as effective. Cash.
In Addis Ababa Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pledged more than $5 billion over the next three years in loans to African countries.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Asian countries have become the darlings of African governments because their loans come the way corrupt African leaders like them: with no expectations of accountability, and no demand for respect of human rights. Deals are often made without seeking input from citizens.
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.
Africans in the United States, too, are so removed from the continent that they don’t appear to be giving much thought to the issue. In fact, many of them defend Asia, saying that unlike the West, it is giving Africa the attention it has long deserved. They point to the roads China has funded and built in Africa, unaware that we have been duped into taking loans to build infrastructure mainly aimed at guaranteeing speedy delivery of African resources to the ports that will ship them to Asia.
Years down the line the impoverished section of the African population will realise that, while they languished in poverty, their governments were busy giving away land. It’s possible that such an awakening will bring another phase of violent uprising. But this time around, regaining “self-rule” will be more difficult, as Asian governments do everything – including subversion of political institutions – to ensure their investments are protected.
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. Last year in Zambia, workers protesting poor conditions at a coal mine run by a Chinese company were met with bullets, injuring 11 of them. Two Chinese managers were accused of opening fire on the protesters but were recently acquitted. Africa can learn from successful Asian countries.
Fifty years ago, many of the Asian countries now leading the economic invasion of Africa were just as insolvent as some of Africa’s nations are. None of the emerging Asian economies became wealthy by relying on agriculture. Rather, it was by investing in innovation and exporting technology.
Africans, too, are capable of turning their continent into an economic power. Contrary to popular myth, Africans are just as intelligent as other people. But we remain silent as foreigners continue to perpetuate the condescending stereotype that the only skill Africans are capable of learning is how to produce more food to feed their hungry selves.
If African intellectuals don’t demand a seat at the table where these deals are made, it’s possible that the clever legend future generations will weave will be about how Asian money made us too intoxicated to resist the second scramble for our continent. They will wonder why we cried, “African solutions for African problems”, but put our destiny in the hand of people, who like us, haven’t quite figured out how to solve their own problems.