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Published On: Fri, Oct 23rd, 2020

FOCAC at 20 and beyond: Issues and Prospects

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GUEST COLUMNIST By Charles Onunaiju

The inaugural meeting referred to as the first ministerial conference of the Forum on China Africa Cooperation FOCAC was held in China’s capital Beijing, on October 10th 2000. Nigeria, which has just then, ended decades of military rule was conspicuously present at the inaugural forum of FOCAC and its delegation was led by the then Foreign minister, Alhaji Sule Lamido. The convocation of the conference of FOCAC was a historical watershed, because it was a consummation of long-standing call for definitive institutional framework for coherent, practical and enduring mechanism for South-South cooperation. Since its founding 20 years ago, the FOCAC mechanism has clearly delivered tangible and practical outcomes but more importantly, has become a veritable multilateral framework for dialogue, consultation and coordination on issues of Africa and China cooperation.
The Forum on China Africa Cooperation has so far held seven ministerial conferences, out of which three, were summit of heads of states and governments that have been held alternatively in China and Africa. The eight ministerial conferences will be held in Dakar, Senegal next year. The Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is in many ways very unique and different from other international and multilateral platforms.
With no bureaucracy and a physical secretariat, it works through follow-ups engagement of inter-governmental dialogue and consultation, through which important decisions made at summits and ministerial conferences are dutifully implemented. Such non-governmental engagements like Think Tank Forum which brings acedemic institutions of the two sides together, private sector and cultural exchanges have become integrated into the fabrics of the FOCAC process.
On critical tangibles and milestones in the exceptionally crucial journey of the FOCAC mechanism in the past 20 years, some are clearly phenomenal and need to be outlined in any serious reflections of FOCAC.
From the founding of FOCAC in 2000, trade between China and Africa countries has grown more than 20 times, hitting 208.7 billion U.S dollars in 2019 from a meager 10 billion U.S dollars in 2000. Of significance is that, China has been Africa’s leading trading partner for the past eleven years in a straight row.
China’s stock of direct investment in Africa has reached 110 billion U.S dollars with nearly 4,000 Chinese enterprises setting up plants and business across Africa.
Along with China-built and invested mega projects like the Kenya’s standard guage railway, Ethiopia-Djibouti first electrified railway and Benguela massive railway project, in Angola, Nigeria,s Abuja-Kaduna railway, Chinese companies have renovated and built over 6,000km of railways and roads in Africa. Additionally under the FOCAC framework, China has constructed 20 ports and over 80 large scale power plant facilities across Africa.
In an executive summary of an extensive field research conducted by the U.S based international management consortium, Mckinsey and company, it said in a report published in 2017 under the title of “Dance of the Lions and dragons; How are Africa and China engaging and how will the partnership evolve?” that “we evaluated Africa’s economic partnership with the rest of the world across five dimensions; trade, investment stock, investment growth, infrastructure financing and aid. China is in the top four partners for Africa in these entire dimensions. No other country matches this depth and breadth of engagement.”
“At the more than 1, 000 Chinese companies, the” field researchers of the Mckinsey and company talked to, “89 percent of employees were African, adding up to more than 300,000 jobs for African workers. Scaled up across all the Chinese firms in Africa, these numbers suggest that Chinese-owned business already employ several millions Africans.”
In a conclusion of its 78-pages report of field study, Mckinsey & Company said “what we do know for certain, however, is that Chinese firms are already in Africa in big way, impacting the lives of millions of workers and hundreds of millions of consumers in almost every corners of the continent. In short China-, Africa’s economic relationship is here to stay,” and added that “a better and brighter future for the continent (Africa) will need to involve Chinese partnership and participation.”
It is no gainsaying that the momentum gained in evolving Africa China cooperation in the few decades were no mere happenstance. It has been largely driven by institutional mechanism of the FOCAC process, thereby strongly underlining the indispensible role FOCAC czn play both in the current momentum of the relationship and in the trajectories of its future.
It is however, important to note that the focused energy of the Belt and Road framework of international cooperation, China-initiated broad network spanning overland, maritime and digital infrastructure connectivity would add tremendous vitality to China-Africa cooperation while synergizing with the FOCAC process.
To be sure, China-Africa relation is not 20 years old. The bilateral cooperation between African countries and China stretches back to 1956 when Egypt became the first African country to established diplomatic relation with modern China, after the founding of the Peoples Republic China in 1949, with Guinea following 1959. Other countries like Mali, Ghana followed in early 1960s and also, Nigeria which established diplomatic relations with China in February 1971.
A major milestone in China-Africa cooperation of that era was the design, construction and completion of China’s built longest railway between the Zambia’s Copper mines of Mposhi to Dar Es Salaam port in Tanzania, spanning more than 1,000km. Zambia then, could only export its major income earner, copper through the Pretoria port in South Africa, then under the racist minority regime.
Been host to many liberation fighters in the southern Africa then, Zambia has the option to eject them in other to access the Pretoria port or seek alternative port to export her major income earner. But neither Zambia nor Tanzania can afford to construct a railway between them. Both leaders went round the world, asking for financial investment to support the construction of the railway. However, every major country and institution approached were categorical that the project has no economic viability. However, it was only China, herself reeling from economic meltdown; largely orchestrated by the devastation of the Cultural Revolution, agreed under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong to finance the project for its strategic significance in accelerating the collapse of colonial domination and also as a spring board for economic self-reliance. The project was completed in five years, opening a key economic corridor in the region.
What the FOCAC process did from its founding in 2000 is to give China-Africa long standing cooperation, an institutional coherence and explore more broadly and deeply, the opportunities of the cooperation and convert it to tangible and practical outcomes, impacting and improving the quality of lives for the mainly, peoples in Africa.
For the avoidance of doubt, the FOCAC process is not Eldorado or an end itself but a work in progress, consistently opening new vistas in exploring the opportunities of China-Africa Cooperation.
As may not be well known, though the initiative to convoke the first ministerial conference in Beijing was executed by China,the idea of a multilateral platform to institutionalize China-Africa Cooperation in a coherent and structural form was essentially African.
According to veteran Chinese diplomat, who later become the first China’s Special Representative to Africa and former director of the African department of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Li Guijin wrote in an article of the journal of China-Africa studies, that “it could be said that China proposed and initiated the FOCAC, but the Africans were the first to put forward the idea.”
According to him, “in May 1999, the Foreign minister of Madagascar said during his visit to China that, since there were the common-wealth heads of government meetings between Africa and United Kingdom, the Franco-Africa Summit between Africa and France and Tokyo international conference on Africa Development between Africa and Japan, it was natural for Africa and China to have a forum with similar functions as well.” Ambassador Liu Guijin, wrote that the then, Chinese foreign minister, Mr. Tan Jiaxuan brought the idea to the fore front and requested the department of Africa Affairs to have in-depth discussion about the proposal and the rest is history as it is popularly said. The FOCAC mechanism was born and 20 years later, it has emerged a solid multilateral platform for international cooperation and now a strategic pacesetter and consummate exampler in the construction of community of shared future for all humanity.

Mr. Onunaiju is director, Centre for China Studies, Abuja and a member of the international Advisory committee of the China-Africa Institute, in Beijing.

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