Africa’s leaders absolutely adore China. At a meeting near the end of March with China’s President Xi Jinping and thirteen prominent African leaders in Durban, South Africa, Equatorial Guinea’s hard-fisted President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo led the others in lavishing praise on China. So did Angola’s President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, Chad’s President Idriss Deby, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and several others. The front page of the weekend China Daily for March 29 trumpeted their obsequiousness and China-Africa friendship.
Each of these long-serving rulers, including despots such as President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Omar al-Bashir of the Sudan, would hardly have wanted to bite the hand that has fed so well, and so consistently. The aforementioned leaders reign over regimes of rampant corruption. Despite vast pools of petroleum wealth in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Chad, the Sudan, and now Uganda, (and diamond wealth in Zimbabwe) very little has trickled past the greedy hands of each president’s family and entourage to benefit improved living standards among their respective citizens.
As African leaders were quick to tell President Xi in Durban, fears of China colonizing Africa were “utterly groundless.” Indeed, China neither desires land (aside from leasing agricultural properties on which to grow food crops for export back to China) nor seeks, as Europeans did, to “civilize” Africans. But it does want access to African oil, African copper, African ferrochrome, African iron ore, and many more minerals. For that overriding mercantile reason, China is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to befriend even the most outrageous African despots, and to help to support them in the manner to which they have become accustomed.
China’s unwillingness to interfere in local politics actually enables these continued internal tyrannies. China willfully ignores well-documented trails of human rights violations, turns a blind eye to egregious corrupt practices, and does not confront presidents such as Mugabe and Bashir when the UN or other regional organizations threaten to investigate their regimes. China has also helped to shield Bashir from the consequences of his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
China has also provided arms to Africa that have been used during times of internal conflict. Chinese aircraft and ammunition were used by the Sudan against its opponents in Darfur and now in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Zimbabwe received Chinese jets, uniforms for its army, a military staff training college constructed by Chinese labor, and material assistance employed when Mugabe’s Zimbabwe National Army intervened in the lucrative Marange diamond fields.
Many of the world’s most corrupt countries are those with the tightest ties to China. In Africa, according to Transparency International, the Sudan, Chad, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, the Congo (Kinshasa), Guinea, and Zimbabwe are the most corrupt, ranking in the depths together with such global pariahs as North Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
In Angola, along with Nigeria Africa’s largest producer of petroleum, President dos Santos and the men around him have pocketed $3 or $4 billion a year; very little of that largesse benefits the mass of deprived Angolans. One of the three big diamond mining enterprises in Zimbabwe is Chinese, in partnership with the heads of the country’s security apparatus. It (and the other Mugabe-related) firms illicitly transfer diamonds to Dubai and Hong Kong in defiance of officials in the Zimbabwean Treasury (which has been run by a Mugabe rival).
As President Xi attempts to curb corruption in China itself by forbidding his associates and officials from abusing their authority, dining lavishly, drinking incessantly, and providing positions for relatives, so he might want to begin cutting official and unofficial ties to the more obviously compromised heads of state in Africa. Given Africa’s willingness to sell its minerals and its gas and oil resources to China, to permit China to explore for new offshore deposits, to mine manganese and gold in national parks in Gabon and Ghana, to grow crops for export home in Madagascar and Zimbabwe, to own copper and coal mines in Zambia, and to construct export processing zones in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Mauritius, and so on, President Xi’s China may not need to continue to consolidate its commercial ties by so strongly supporting particular individual leaders.
Despots eventually fall. During President Xi’s decade of power he and his government may find it more enduringly profitable and more in line with China’s global self-interest to reduce its backing of the worst of the worst of Africa’s leaders. After all, those anti-democrats are gradually being replaced by a new legion of modern prime ministers and presidents who are prepared to spread the returns on foreign investment and export profits beyond their immediate coteries and to lead responsibly on behalf of all of their peoples.
Robert I. Rotberg is the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Political Development at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Visiting Fulbright Scholar at CIGI. Rotberg is the founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and was previously professor of political science at MIT, academic vice president of Tufts University and president of Lafayette College.