Last weekend I had a transit flight through Abu Dhabi. During my 10-hour stopover in the capital of the United Arab Emirates, I came across several Africans from Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria and even Liberia. Most of them were on business trips to and from China.
I spoke to a Nigerian, who had squashed himself next to my sleeping bank in the waiting hall of Terminal 1. I asked him whether he had ever been to Europe. His response: "Never, and I don't intend to do so any time soon." Was I surprised? Absolutely not!
In the last ten years of China's increasing presence in Africa, many Africans with business capital as small as $5,000 (4,700 euros), can now travel to the Asian economic powerhouse to buy and sell goods. It's never been this easy for young and ambitious African entrepreneurs.
Europe prides itself on being Africa's only neighbor. And not just that, Europeans had managed to spread their cultures and values across the African continent and dominated trade and investments in the continent until the arrival of, firstly, the United States, and then the Chinese.
As bizarre as it may sound in contemporary politics, Europe still doesn't consider Africa as an equal. Of course, the European continent is highly developed – far more advanced than Africa. But it's cynical for Europe to still consider Africa as the "begging continent." Over sixty years of development aid hasn't yielded much other than helping fund corruption and putting small shop owners out of business.
The common rhetoric among Europeans is that China's increasing presence in Africa is undermining European values and political strategies in the African continent. A statement like this sounds insulting to Africans.
For centuries, Africans have imbibed European values and culture. And yes, we even think and speak in their languages. While many have benefited from these cultural integrations, millions still have not.
It's as if we are back to the 1884 Berlin Conference, where Africa was split into several parts, left to be scavenged upon by power-mongering European colonial masters.
African states are simply trying to forge their own future and whoever they choose to do this with should be decided by themselves and not external actors.
China, of course, is putting billions in Africa to fulfill its ambition of becoming a global player – a world superpower, if you like. African leaders are fully aware of it. But the opportunities China presents to Africa is far better than what Europeans have to offer.
To many Africans, Europe's development aid strategy is completely outdated. If Europe wishes to fully reengage with Africa, it needs to do so as a business partner, not as its breadwinner.
China can be criticized for paying scant attention to issues of human rights violations. Beijing has been financing businesses in countries controlled by warlords such as President Salva Kiir of South Sudan. Rights watchdogs like Amnesty International have blamed Kiir for killing ordinary civilians in his war against his bitter rival, former vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar.
While China should be scolded for such business strategies, it's not the business of the Chinese to dictate to African leaders how to respect the rights of their own people. Africa has grown politically to an extent that its institutions such as the African Union and the regional East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development could handle such roles.
Chinese firms have also been blamed for not respecting trade laws such as providing protective gear for mine workers and for those working with heavy machinery. In my opinion, you'd be right if you look at it from a European perspective. But if you look at it from an African perspective, you would say that even African factories do not provide safe working environments for their employees.
Even though Chinese firms should be blamed if a factory worker dies because he didn't have the right protecting equipment from his Chinese employer, I would also put the blame on the unions, the inspectors and even the government. In most cases, these actors are aware of the dangers involved in the work and either do nothing about it or squander the funds for such purposes.
Although it's not enough to say Chinese firms shouldn't be criticized for negligence, I also don't think it's meant a sufficient excuse to ask them to leave. I think better working conditions are needed for mine and factory workers, but that should be ensured by government agencies, not only the investors.
Back in Abu Dhabi while waiting for our transit flights, my new Nigerian friend explained how much his life has changed due to China's interest in Africa. He buys cheap Nigerian goods, which he sells in China, buys cheap Chinese radios, watches and necklaces and sells them in Nigeria. From each business trip, he makes nearly $700. Not many Africans have had such opportunities in Europe.
While China's business policy of non-political interference in Africa can be criticized in many ways, it should also be lauded for providing hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Africans, helping so many young entrepreneurs and revamping Africa's broken infrastructures.
Should Europe wish to keep up with China's growing influence in Africa, Europeans need to snap out of the glory days of colonialism and face the new reality.
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