Since Sierra Leone’s eleven year civil war officially came to an end in 2002 it has been struggling to rebuild both a traumatised nation and to change perceptions of it as a land of drug crazed rebels, child soldiers and blood diamonds. The story of the small West African country is a familiar one, a tale of aid dependency, hollow promises and rampant corruption. Once the spotlight of the world’s media moved on to yet another scene of trouble, the ordinary people had to make the best of what they were left with.
The last eight years has seen some progress, although in common with most of the rest of the continent a new style of imperialism has emerged on the scene, Sino-Imperialism – a form of indirect colonialism - a colonialism without responsibility. Sino-Imperialism, whilst seemingly subtle and benign in nature, is seeing African nations or those who lead them, sell off fishing rights, precious mineral resources, agricultural land, forests and in effect the birthright of the future generations. Such is the spending power of twentieth first century China that few of Africa’s leaders can resist what is dangled before them, but unlike European colonialism this time there will be no future lowering of flags, no independence or manumission – Africa and vulnerable states such as Sierra Leone are being locked into a capricious embrace from which there would appear to be no escape.
As the Chinese dragon has awoken in recent years it has worked assiduously to court the nations of the African continent. It has realised not only can it have access and influence in Africa more effectively than any other region on earth, but it has sought to fill the vacuum of influence left by the USA and Russia following the ending of the Cold War. European nations such as Britain have in essence all but retreated and been pre-occupied with other foreign policy issues such as Iraq, Afghanistan and the threat of international terrorism. America’s failed intervention in Mogadishu, Somalia (3rd – 4th October 1993) has ensured that officials at the State Department have become wary and ill at ease about active engagement with Africa. Of the former colonial powers only France has endeavoured to exert influence, invariably in the form of a substantial military presence in its former colonies. The likes of Chad, Mali, Niger and most notably Ivory Coast have all been the victim of continued French meddling. Policy makers in Paris like America have had their fingers burnt, as in the case of the fall-out from what happened in Rwanda and estrangement of Rwanda from the Francophone community.
Of the nations with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council only China has invested time and energy in seeking to gain leverage and influence throughout the continent. It has recognized not only does Africa still possess mineral deposits, but that through bi-lateral trade agreements it can also garner support in the UN relating to its stance on Taiwan. To the despots and kleptomaniacs that rule various Africa states the potential future plight of Taiwan is of little or no consequence, they rarely care about their own people, so why should they give a damn about what may or may not happen to the inhabitants of a faraway island. Thus far the clauses related to Taiwan have gone unnoticed by policy makers in Washington, London, Paris and Moscow, but the Chinese intentions are clear. When the time is right Taiwan will be ‘absorbed’ and in the UN the courted African nations will side with China and others powers will be left with little option but to wring their hands.
China’s systematic African charm offensive, especially via the innocuous sounding Forum on China-Africa Co-operation, has been an object lesson in statecraft and self-interest. Many African leaders have enjoyed being courted by the world’s most powerful one party state. For the Chinese there is no danger of the likes of Eritrea or Zimbabwe raising the issue of Tibet or the systematic persecution of the Falun Gong. Beijing’s high sounding pronouncements may flatter to deceive, but are motivated by harsh economic realities, if China’s economic growth is to be sustained and the democratic voice of the Chinese people to be stifled it is essential that China finds the raw materials and food stuffs which it will required to sustain its incredible growth rate and placate its peoples. There is no doubting that China has become an economic powerhouse of the first order. The facts and statistics related to such expansion are impressive on the surface, so much so that that Jim O’Neal, Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management waxed lyrical in an article in the London Evening Standard (We need to be part of the great Chinese march – 15/2/2011) in which he stated that; “Contrary to many perceptions China is not achieving this growth at everyone’s else’s expense.” – such Sinobabble would appear to suggest that Mr O’Neal has made little or no study of the realities of what is going on throughout the continent of Africa.
Evidence of Chinese investment is everywhere, and it would appear that the more unsavoury the regime the larger the investment. China’s gilded cheque book has certainly bought solace and time for Robert Mugabe and has enabled vast swathes of Joseph Kabila’s Congo to be opened up for exploitation redolent of the era of King Leopold II of the Belgians. Capital projects such as roads, bridges, sports stadia and hospitals have also been paid for by Chinese investment or designed and built by the Chinese. Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture, China's largest hybrid rice seed producer has muscled into Nigeria, and the likes of Liberia and Mali are already finding their food production systems are being influenced, not always positively by China.
In East Africa a shortage of ports may well be somewhat alleviated by the Lamu Port Development, but again, at what cost when a UNESCO World Heritage site is directly threatened by such a project. Sadly, all too often investment and the work it generates rarely go to local firms or workers, but is staying almost wholly in the hands of the Chinese themselves. There are even alarming stories coming out of countries such as Algeria of China shipping over its prisoners to work in 8 hours shifts day and night on major construction projects, thus effectively ensuring wage bills are near zero and so through the use of such slave labour it can ruthlessly undercut competitors and ensure that projects are completed in record time.
Inevitably China rebuffs any criticism of its motives or conduct. It will not tolerate criticism from its own people let alone censure from the outside world. There are of course leaders in Africa happy to rally to China’s defence, it is worth noting that Colonel Gaddafi of Libya chose to speak admiringly of China’s handing of protesters in Tiananmen Square during his rambling and bellicose rant (22nd February 2011) Whilst undoubtedly some good has been done by China in Africa, it is clear that from illegal logging in Mozambique to the succour China routinely gives to Africa’s tyrants the peoples’ of Africa have good reason to fear being absorbed into a new Chinese Empire.