Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking to rebuild the country following the November 2017 coup d’état that ousted Robert Mugabe, and disastrous inflation peaking at 500 billion percent. To do so, Mnangagwa has strategized to “Look East,” turning from the West to China for assistance in stabilising and developing his country. Part of the larger narrative of the People’s Republic of China’s President Xi Jinping’s estimated US$900bn “Belt and Road Initiative” and in response to Zimbabwe’s policy shift, the two leaders engaged in talks earlier this year. The “BRI” endeavours to increase China’s international dominance against the US’s and produce strong political ties and trade and transportation interconnectivity between South East Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Resulting from the talks, China has garnered privileged access to oil and diamond resources in the Zambezi Valley. In exchange, China has promised to end Zimbabwe’s reliance on surrogate currencies e.g. US Dollar by printing it a new currency to be launched around 2020. To sweeten the arrangement, China has pledged a minimum of US$46m for the construction of a new Zimbabwean parliament.
Key Chinese BRI Projects and Investments in Africa:
US$3bn railway in Kenya and to be extended into South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi
US$526m dam in Ghana
US$475m light rail network in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
US$100m African peacekeeping forces
First Chinese military base abroad, in Djibouti
This new parliament will be built at Mount Hampden, converting the village into a city with all the fixings of a modern capital. Built to replace the colonial-era parliamentary complex in Harare located around 20km southeast, projects of this type have been accused by critics particularly of giving African countries unrepayable loans and thus being exploitatively neo-colonial. However, according to the Centre for Global Development, Djibouti is the only ‘vulnerable’ African nation engaged in this initiative. And many of the loans are issued at low interest rates with long repayment periods. In the case of the Zimbabwean parliament as well, Mnangagwa said that the money from China was a “a grant, not a loan.”
Despite the likes of US national security advisor Joseph Bolton warning against China-Africa partnership, African leaders such as Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya have compared Chinese investment to colonial infrastructure projects, calling the later one built of ‘consent and partnership’ over ‘force and violence.’ And, efforts by the US and EU to offer an alternative maybe too little too late. Africa as a whole and China are now each other’s largest trading partner, in comparison with the EU whose trade with the African continent equals that which it has with Switzerland. Many of these projects are already underway, with Mnangagwa laying the foundation stone for the parliament on 30 November 2018. The history of Western imperialism, along with the conditions often attached to Western grants/loans further justifies Zimbabwe’s decision to conduct business with China.
Importantly, Africa is a continent of sovereign nations with the legal and often legitimate right to decide their own foreign policy without Eurocentric criticism that suggests reliance on China is far worse than dependence on Western nations. If they value the infrastructure projects and the potential to ‘prosper and profit from it’ (Kenyatta) over the risk of engaging in business with China, little maybe able to be done to encourage a reactionary shift in policy. While the West and China tousle over Africa’s favour, the future may see the governments of Africa as the ones to come out on top.
The real problem is not whether Mnangagwa is wrong to engage in “mutually beneficial” foreign policy with Xi, but whether that benefits extends to the nation’s population. As the China-Africa Project’s Corbus Van Staden said, ‘the challenge is to make [Chinese investment in Africa]… not just for the elites.’ But, as the parliament is being built by Shanghai Construction Group rather than Zimbabwean firms, and according to an unnamed envoy, the access to diamonds and oil now given to China allows it to reap the rewards of the nation’s resources without ‘having to cede ownership of those assets to locals,’ the solution to that problem has yet to be seen.