China’s relationship with Africa is a historical one. After the end of the Chinese civil war in 1947, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began supporting African liberation movements starting with the National Front for the Liberation of Algeria (FNL) in the late 1950s.
China also supported the liberation struggles of countries such as Zimbabwe and Angola as well as the anti-apartheid movements in South Africa.
Since the 1950s, the tradition is that every year the first diplomatic visit by any Chinese foreign minister should take place in Africa.
Besides playing a role in the political liberation of a number of African countries, China also built the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Line (Tazara) in the 1960s, send Chinese Medical Teams (CMTs) and agricultural instructors to different countries among other aid initiatives.
During this period, China also benefited diplomatically from its soft power investments in Africa.
For instance in 1971, the superior numerical advantage of African countries in the United Nations General Assembly ensured that the PRC replaced Taiwan as the legitimate representative of Chinese people at the United Nations (UN).
Further in 1989, following the Tiananmen Square crackdown against pro-democracy protestors, African leaders supported the Chinese on the basis that this was an internal political affair that the Chinese had to handle on their own.
This brought China even closer to Africa. However, the turn of the 21st century brought deepened and a coordinated forms of cooperation between the two sides following the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in the year 2000.
This is a platform for "discussing" and "negotiating" trade, investment, aid, loans as well as political and cultural issues between the two sides.
However, because of the material differences and the lopsided nature of the relationship monetarily between the two, China is the one that always does the "pledging" and the "promising" with Africa doing the receiving.
This position of Africa as a perennial recipient of Chinese benevolence is the fulcrum of this submission.
The specific focus of this piece is really on China’s donation of Parliament houses/buildings to Africa.
Recently, about 15 African countries including Congo Brazaville, Lesotho, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe among others have been given grants of various amounts for the construction of new Parliament houses.
Zimbabwe’s own was built at a cost of $200 million and was handed over to the president of Zimbabwe in October 2023.
Ostensibly, the reason behind the donations of these new Parliament buildings has been to replace the old buildings constructed with western architecture during colonial times as well as to have more space to accommodate the needs of expanding legislatures.
To some extent as well, this helps African countries to put up "infrastructure" projects that they could otherwise not be able to construct owing to their heavy indebtedness to International Financial Institutions (IFIs), Paris Club, bilateral as well as private lenders.
According to One Campaign, the total African debt to external creditors stands at US$644 billion, which was 24% of their combined gross domestic product in 2021.
The annual African Infrastructure gap is estimated to be over US$100 billion.
It can also be surmised that by building African parliaments, China is paradoxically contributing to democratic processes in Africa.
Parliament houses are the custodians of democracy; they are the centre for robust debates, accountability, interrogation and transparency. In short, they are, or should be the nerve centre of democracy.
However, democracy is more than Parliament buildings.
It is more about the political values of respect for human rights, the rule of law and a society based on strong institutions.
Parliament buildings which do not promote or enhance these values are themselves vain and become an affront to democracy. A lot of African countries are still blighted with the problem of disputed election processes and outcomes.
The recently conducted Nigerian and Zimbabwean electoral processes testify to this fact. A lot of African countries are also still battling authoritarian rule, disrespect of the rule of law and human rights abuses among other ills. Such values must first be entrenched in the political psyche of African leaders and peoples before Parliament houses can add value to democracy.
One troubling issue about these donated Parliaments is the fact that not even one of them has been constructed by local contractors.
All have been constructed by Chinese contactors although significant numbers of locals are employed at the construction sites. The question that arises is; Are there no capable local or African contractors that can undertake these projects?
My research in Chinese aid issues over the years shows that this is the trend in almost every project financed by a Chinese loan or grant. The term used for this way of "doing business" is tied aid.
Tied aid is just conditional aid with a slightly different character. Western lenders of loans and aid have been widely criticised for putting conditions of political and economic reforms before an African country can access aid, but China is doing the same thing albeit differently.
China is governed by its non-interference policy, a position which dissuades it from intervening or interfering with the domestic political and economic processes of other states.
However, by tying requirements for the use of its contractors to undertake Chinese financed projects, Beijing has successfully introduced conditionality of a new kind. It’s not logical to think that all the project tenders were won by Chinese contractors following a transparent and competitive bidding process.
These are conditions tied to the agreements for the construction of not only Parliament houses, but other infrastructure projects financed by China as well.
The problem with a number of African governments is that they rarely make the details of such aid or loan agreements with China public. The details are scarce, there is opaqueness and secrecy to the extent that the African public is left guessing as to what is really going on.
The major loophole I have observed is that African governments do not have robust negotiation and bargaining skills.
They seem to give a lot of concessions to the Chinese simply because of the fear of losing their goodwill.
Further, African political elites and top bureaucrats appear to have this mentality that only politicians from the governing party and senior government bureaucrats should be the ones to negotiate the loan and aid deals.
I believe this approach is what has disadvantaged many an African country in their engagements with China.
There is need for a broad-based approach that brings civil society, the private sector, researchers (academics) as well as community leaders as part of the negotiating and bargaining delegations to ensure effective agency at the negotiation table.
This permits a multi-faceted and multi-pronged approach to the bargaining process which leads to real mutual gains and benefits.
The donations of African Parliaments by China also raise a lot of questions about the extent to which African governments value their sovereignty and independence. The Parliament is the most important institution that symbolizes a nation’s independence. It is the heart and soul of the nation.
This is where the laws and policies that govern a nation are made. Why would African governments accept donations to build such symbolic buildings?
Is this not a way of bringing a new form of colonialism with Chinese characteristics?
In spite of the myriad challenges facing the continent, I do not believe that Africans are so poor to the extent of accepting donations for building Parliament houses.
Africa is a resource-rich continent and has the talent to build such historical and important buildings.
Go to any public works ministry in Africa and you will find architects and engineers who can do these jobs very well.
It is high time that African governments woke up to some of these realities if we are to develop through what has been called African solutions to Africa’s problems.
Lastly, it is not only individual African governments that are accepting Chinese donations of important buildings.
The African Union (AU) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was also built as a donation with a grant of around $200 million. The construction of Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria, is also being financed by the Chinese. This puts the problem at a high level since, for example, the African Union is the regional representative body of all African states.
However, such donations have other challenges as well. In 2018, it was widely reported that the Chinese had bugged the AU headquarters and were snooping on important discussions of African leaders.
Although Beijing denied these reports, the fact that they donate the money and Chinese contractors to build the projects keeps alive the fear that even in these Parliament houses being built in individual countries, such spying activities cannot be ruled out.
This is where the use of local contractors would come in handy. This problem is further compounded by the fact that after the building has been completed, the contactor or another Chinese company becomes responsible for refurbishments and repairs for a certain number of years.
- *Dr Ronald Chipaike teaches International Relations at Bindura University of Science Education where he researches Africa-China and Zimbabwe-China engagements. He is also a research fellow with the Public Policy and Research Institute of Zimbabwe, in the China in Africa Programme. He can be contacted on 0773 244 767, email: [email protected]