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Competing for a stake in Africa

President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in November 2019. Two decades of competition between France and China is playing out in Africa, says the writer. Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/POOL/AFP

President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing in November 2019. Two decades of competition between France and China is playing out in Africa, says the writer. Picture: Nicolas Asfouri/POOL/AFP

Published Jun 26, 2022

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“So let China sleep, because when China wakes up the whole world will tremble,” said the attributed prediction to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1816, to which no trace is found in his writings.

The 19th-century renewed anxiety about China as the pejorative “yellow peril” still haunts the US-led West, including France. For years, I wondered about the supposed awakening and rise of China in the world, what it means for the international order and particularly for old colonial powers in Africa.

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The case of France came to mind with two questions. In today’s great game of geopolitics, can France successfully compete against China in Africa? And, more importantly, how well do Africans understand such a competition, and its impacts on their lives and learn to deal with it?

But before I attempt to answer the questions, three interesting anecdotes are worth mentioning about the long colonial and revolutionary history of China and France.

(1) Did you know that in 1860, during the second opium war, British and French troops pillaged, burnt and razed the summer imperial palace – a magnificent building in the north-west of Beijing?

(2) The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921 in the French concession of Shanghai, ceded to France during the colonial era after China’s loss of the opium wars in 1842?

(3) Deng Xiaoping, the famous Chinese Communist Party member who replaced chairman Mao in 1978, and known for cautiously instituting significant economic reforms to modernise China, lived five formative years in France in the 1920s when Marxism-socialism was a dominant idea and ideal in Europe?

Today, and to a large degree, the competition between France and China has been under way for a little more than two decades. The Berlin Conference of 1884-85 and its aftermath gave an early advantage to European nations to carve out Africa into zones of exploitation and influence.

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As part of this colonisation, France established itself as the most rapacious coloniser in Africa, making it perhaps the most dominant colonial nation with Britain, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Portugal and Spain.

After more than a century of wealth extraction, no African nations under French tutelage can be said to be developed or economically independent of France. All of them remain subservient, mostly poor, ravaged by the four horsemen of poverty, inequality, unemployment and corruption.

While the disgraceful statistics about Africa’s challenges continue to make the cover pages of special reports in the news media, France remains in denial of its role in the misfortunes of Africa.

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It blames African leaders and populations for the mismanagement of their polity, unwarranted coups, shambolic economies, societal upheavals, and refuses to acknowledge the horrific reports produced by international institutions and to assume part of the blame.

Sadly, successive French governments maintained and portrayed France’s Africa Policy as progressive, avant-garde and sustainable for development. However, the evidence of colonial extractions by the French companies and corrupt business practices in Africa persist in oil and gas, mineral deals, telecommunications and many sectors.

France’s geopolitical centre in Africa is not holding. Protests in Mali, the Central African Republic, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and South Africa by the EFF political party are the testimonies of France’s troubled and waning reputation in Africa.

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The French believe Africa is their future and they have no future without it, so concludes a French Senate report published in 2013. However, their ideals hardly match their actions on the continent. Once a golden goose, Africa is becoming an albatross and, at worst, a slow noose black mamba around the neck of France.

The sentiment that France’s Africa foreign policy, mainly toward its former colonies, remains patriarchal, parochial and patronising still holds. The geopolitical scramble for Africa’s periodic table resource economy has heightened interests in the continent and weakened France’s ability to maintain its colonial grip on many African nations.

This leaves room for the rising interests of other non-Western powers like Russia and China to fill the discontent gap. China, especially, is filling the diplomatic and economic vacuum left by France. According to a recent special report by The Economist, titled “China in Africa”, “no other country comes near the depth and breadth of China’s engagement in Africa.

It is Africa’s largest trading partner, bilateral creditor and a crucial source of infrastructure investment. Chinese firms count for an estimated one-eighth of the continent’s industrial output.

“Chinese-built digital infrastructure is critical to the platforms on which Africans communicate. Political, military and security ties are becoming closer. Understanding the China-Africa relationship is key to understanding the continent – and the global ambitions of (President) Xi Jinping.”

This is a powerful summary of what China has achieved with Africa in a short time. A sketchy comparison between France and China tells it as well and some illustrative numbers tell the remarkable story of China in Africa.

China is the first investor partner in Africa with more than $300billion (about R4.8trillion) while France is rapidly surpassed by China. In 2019, according to EY, France ranked among the second largest investors “by a number of projects in Africa”, the list comprising the US, France and the UK, respectively.

However, “China was the largest investor in terms of total capital, investing more than twice the dollar amount of France or the US”. The report states that foreign direct investment (FDI) flows from traditional investors are partially driven by strong historical relationships: France, for instance, is a key investor in francophone Africa.

“Emerging partners, including China, the UAE and India, are playing an increasingly important role in Africa, accounting for 34% of total projects and more than 50% of jobs created and capital investments.

“Additionally, intra-African investment continued to grow in 2018: South Africa remained the most extensive investor in other African countries, and Kenya and Nigeria contributed significant FDI to East and West Africa respectively.”

China and France are battling it out in Africa with clear evidence that rings in favour of China, today and tomorrow. The intense geopolitical and geo-economics competition for Africa shows that China has taken a lead and ranks much higher than France.

In 2019, the International Monetary Fund reported that Africa was the world’s fastest-growing region and the World Economic Forum predicted its population would double to around 2.2billion by 2050, a huge potential market that China is serving well.

“China is Africa’s biggest bilateral trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. Before the coronavirus crisis hit the world economy, the value of Sino-African trade reached €161bn ($192bn) in 2019. As well as infrastructure, China has invested massively in media in Africa, with the state-run Xinhua News Agency developing the continent’s biggest network of correspondents.

Nairobi is at the centre of China’s African media presence, with Xinhua moving one of its headquarters from Paris to the Kenyan capital in 2006.”

So, while France struggles to shed its toxic colonial credentials with military public relations in the Sahel and in Central Africa, attempting to revitalise and redouble the marketing of the French-speaking club of nations, the francophonie, China is economically carpet-bombing France’s old fiefdoms across the continent.

That’s an act of sweet Chinese revenge against France in Africa for the destruction of the Summer imperial palace in Beijing 162 years ago. However, as China’s economic soft power grows in Africa, France’s influence in Africa may diminish, possibly increasing economic tension with China.

The modern geopolitics of China and France in Africa and their impact on African affairs and futures matter. Africans are grappling with the complexities of such geopolitics.

Although China and France are nuclear powers and holders of UN veto powers, most Africans have little clue about how powerful China has become and how fast France’s influence is fading in Africa in relation to China.

It is best to assess these nations’ Africa policies and how to deal with them. And it is equally important that Africans understand the geopolitical dynamics of such policies that will redefine France’s future and probably spell her demise in Africa. The rise of China’s geopolitical influence in Africa seems unstoppable.

That influence is also creating anxiety and fear for the US West-led countries. “The West must try harder to offer African countries alternatives to China,” concludes The Economist in its special report.

I agree. But can the West offer genuine non-paternalistic alternatives?

* Koukou is an Africa Analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre of Africa China, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

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