People and Power investigates the effects of China’s increasing influence in Africa. Over the past decade, China’s hunger for Africa’s rich natural resources has seen it overtake Europe and America as the continent’s largest trading partner. In this special two-part People & Power report, veteran African journalist, Sorious Samura, went to find out.
The West – for so long the dominant external force in Africa’s affairs – has reacted to this rush of investment with more than a fair degree of unease. Commentators in Washington, London, Paris and elsewhere have openly expressed anxiety that the West’s economic and political influence in Africa is waning and that ‘unless something is done’ this ‘ Battle for Africa ‘ as it has become known, will have damaging strategic consequences down the line.
Yet they know too that China’s often expressed reluctance to interfere in the local politics of other nations – or at least to attach any tiresome conditions about democracy or improving human rights to their investments and aid – is allowing some African politicians to thumb their noses at Western institutions and former colonial powers that have previously tried to make them toe the line. In other words, as seen from outside, it is a narrative about winners and losers, about the big beasts of the global world being rivals in a competition in which China currently has the upper hand.
But what does this changing dynamic mean for Africans themselves? The continent is so full of promise and blessed in so many ways with things the world needs – from oil and minerals and land to vast amounts of people capital – yet it has struggled since colonial times to truly realise its potential.
A few of its wealthier, better led and more stable nations are now beginning to taste some success, but elsewhere poor governance, ethnic division, corruption and strife – allied to the misbalancing effects of globalisation which have usually been to Africa’s disadvantage – are keeping many hundreds of millions of people in poverty and denying them an opportunity to improve their lives. Will the fact that the continent now has an alternative source of external funding and investment and aid really change any of that? Or is the real ‘Battle for Africa’ about other more fundamental things – leadership, plurality, good government, law and order – which the continent has to achieve itself in order to make the most of the new opportunities that East- West competition for its resources is bringing?
For centuries, we Africans have been struggling for control of our own destinies: first from the domination of western powers and then from our own corrupt, greedy, tribal politicians. These are indeed some of the key factors that have prompted hundreds of brutal civil wars in many countries across Africa, including my own, Sierra Leone.
And when I arrived here in the UK with the very graphic footage of my country’s war, I was immediately given the space in the Western media to report more of my continent’s stories. That was almost 15 years ago. Fifteen years which have seen me cover almost every major topic on the African soil; from hunger, HIV/Aids, refugees, illegal immigrants, corruption and even tagging along as the Ugandan Army hunted the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader, Joseph Kony, through the dense forests of the Central African Republic.
Talking about forests, that is exactly what these last 15 years reporting on Africa have been to me – it is like I have been on a long journey through a forest, combing through the trees, examining every leaf and stem, trying to find solutions to my continent’s problems. And these latest two films, The Battle For Africa part one and two, have finally helped me find some of those answers – to work out how we Africans can get out of the woods.
In part one, I go to Kenya to find out what the rise of this new foreign power, China, means to Africans and African leaders in particular. It did not take long to establish that the Chinese have clearly offered African leaders an alternative, a newly found independence from Western influence. Many Africans welcome this. Some of our leaders are now becoming more vocally critical of the West – free to say what would not have been said before – because of the inrush of money and investment across the continent. But this straight away begged the obvious question; will these new opportunities genuinely lead to greater development and prosperity, or will it all be squandered once again by my continent’s age-old problem of corrupt leadership?
Working on trying to find an answer to this question, I realised that the real battle going on in Africa, is not between the West and the East but between us Africans, who are struggling to find decent leaderships and good governance. As this series will make clear, in my view it is tribalism which has robbed us of that decent leadership for decades. Indeed, for me, giving what I have seen and heard during these two films and over the past 15 years reporting my continent, I can now say, without hesitation, that western democracy will never work in my continent – as long as we fail to de-tribalise.
For part two, (available to view here from Wednesday, September 3) I travelled to Ghana and Botswana in search of African countries that do seem to be winning the battle for good government. What was it, I wanted to know, that they have got right. What could we all learn from them?
In Ghana we saw what good leadership and governance really meant – genuinely developed democracy that seems to be working. We also looked at how they do business with outsiders, mainly the Chinese – but what impressed me the most is Ghana is s one of few, if not, the only African country which was clearly listening to its people and responding to the pressure put on them by some of the civil society groups – something very strange in my continent. Many Africans will tell you that once, we have elected our leaders, they become the “Big Men”, we can no longer talk to them or hold them (the leaders) to account; any demonstration or strikes will always be met by brute force. In Ghana that does not seem to be happening.
Then to Botswana. I should say, first, that I have always wanted to go to this country, one of Africa’s real success stories – to understand how they got things so right with the same minerals – diamonds, that brought a curse to my country, Sierra Leone. Here, we were able to see how, when you have a government that have the people at heart, resources can be used to benefit everyone – regardless of what tribe you belong to, the smallest or largest in the land. What really impressed me though was me though, was how they were easily able to demonstrate what a respectable, decent partnership between government and people can do for any nation.
But for me, the most important theme of these two films is tribalism. You will get what I mean when you watch, but essentially it is not just about one’s own tribe, but rather being tribal, thinking tribally, taking on the characteristics of our tribal elders, only voting for the tribe. It is part of our identity but it is also our problem. This journey has clearly led me to believe that my continent and my people will never get true democracy because – as I have seen it in Kenya, in Rwanda, Uganda, Nigeria and even in my own country, Sierra Leone – what people always vote for is not the policies or principle or belief – but rather, their tribe. People do not care if this person is more competent than that person, or if she is more or less corrupt than he – if they do not belong to your tribe, you will not vote for them. My work across the continent has really made me open my eyes to this and understand what “democracy” means here. It simply means voting my tribesman, whether he is capable for the job or not – and that is why we keep producing incompetent leaders, time after time, election after election – whether funded or supported by the West or not. It is the principle that underpins everything and keeps us as we are, unable to move on, unable to take advantage of the real opportunities we have.
This series, The Battle For Africa has taught that as long as we do not have good governments, as long as we keep voting governments that keeps ruling only their tribes and parties instead of serving the national interest of all the people (big or small tribes like the Ogiyek tribe which is almost disappearing in Kenya), the African continent will know no peace and its people will keep leaving their land for better opportunities elsewhere.