The new African Union Building in Addis Ababa is a gleaming
and magnificent piece of architectural design and
engineering feat. It was a gift from the People's Republic
of China (PRC) to the African Union (AU). China's president,
who was in the Ethiopian capital earlier this year, handed
over the keys of the establishment to the AU in the presence
of very large number of African political leaders.
The Dome, as I prefer to call the complex, showcased China's
economic and engineering prowess, and was celebrated as a
symbol of the new productive relationship between the Asian
superpower and the African continent.
A number of African scholars have recently argued that China
is working with African countries to advance the continent's
development, while the United States is deeply engaged in
security and terror issues in Africa. This argument is made
in order to explain why China is beating the West in Africa.
Most recently, China has overtaken the US as biggest trading
partner of South Africa. Although there is an element of
truth in this thesis, particularly with regard to the
American involvement in Africa, I beg to differ with the
claim that China's interventions are significantly advancing
Africa's capacity to develop.
It is often noted by well-meaning but misinformed people
that Ghana had a higher per capita income than China and
other East Asian states when the former became independent
in 1957. These people equate per capita income with
development capacity, and consequently suggest that Africa
wasted its potential while East Asia relentlessly pursued to
expand its economic capacity over the last 50 odd years.
More recently, scholars have recognised that public
institutions and the development infrastructure East Asians,
such as Taiwan, inherited from Japan was qualitatively
better than what the British (Europeans) left behind in
places like Ghana. This difference partly explains the
contrasting trajectories of Asia and Africa.
It is now well established that Ghana's (and other African
countries') incomes reflected the high price of primary
commodities they exported. And when commodity prices
collapsed in the late 1960s, these countries were plunged
into a deep economic crisis. Therefore, Africa's weakness
was fairly due to the orientation of the inherited colonial
institutions and infrastructure.
Most certainly, the continent's industrial base was not as
developed as those of former Japanese colonies in East Asia,
and African government policies have made matters worse.
The critical question is: What the Asian or PRC leadership
did differently than Africans to advance their economies?
For starters, the younger Asian Tigers had a model of
industrial development in Japan. East Asians and PRC
understood that without a strong industrial base they could
Consequently, their industrial strategy was qualitatively
different than any other Third World government through the
discipline their state exercised. State companies took the
lead and this approach blossomed in China after the post-Mao
reform in the late 1970. It is the emergence of
state-directed industrial development that has given Asia or
China an incredible competitive advantage in so many fields.
To gain such an edge, the PRC did not invite others to China
to build such things as domes of shame, but instead ensured
that its people learned to build and develop enterprises by
doing it the old fashioned way. Chinese companies that are
building infrastructure in Africa developed through such
Unfortunately in Africa, the state elite prefer to have
others build world class structures for them as they do not
trust that their people can learn to do so.
Travelling around the continent, one readily sees all types
of construction, such as highways, railways, hydroelectric
dams, theatres, government buildings, etc, being built by
Chinese public and private companies. In such sites, one
easily observes that Africans employed in these projects are
labourers. All the technical operations are carried out by
Chinese and in some cases, even the labourers come from
The net effects of these projects are that Africans do not
gain the individual skills by doing it. Consequently, these
workers cannot join an expanding and complex workforce. This
disables the continent from engineering the kind of public
enterprises and institutions that are essential for Africa
to catch up and leapfrog in the global economic competition.
If China followed Africa's strategy it would certainly have
remained the land of famines where hundreds of thousands if
not millions used to perish regularly let alone aspire to
become the economic power house it is.
The art of adopting and adapting innovative ways of
developing economies and organising institutions was
pioneered by Japan after that country was confronted with
the real prospect of Western domination. More recently, a
younger generation of Asian Tigers copied and adjusted the
Japanese route to development to their circumstance, and the
PRC is the latest progeny.
The point of this essay is not to blame China for the
African elite's incapacity or unwillingness to look after
their people's interests. However, one must strongly dispute
the declaration that China's current engagements in Africa
are facilitating the continent's internal capacity to chart
a prosperous future for its people. China is consciously
safeguarding its economic and strategic interest in Africa,
no more and no less, but who is minding Africa's own?
It is nearly a half century since most African countries
became independent and the African political elite and their
international associates have done an excellent job in
maintaining the continent's unenviable rank as the poorest
region in the world. This is why the African people are
compelled to operate in the margins of projects developed by
Chinese and other investors.
Highways in Nairobi, the Beltway in Addis Ababa, apartment
buildings on the outskirts of Luanda, government buildings
in Botswana and other facilities elsewhere in the continent
built by Chinese state companies are clear manifestations of
a crippled continent.
Beneath the media glare that surrounded the inaugural
ceremony of the AU ceremony, the Chinese guest must have
minimally felt pity for his hosts whose incompetence created
the opportunity for such gift giving. In the colonial era,
Africans were denied the opportunity to develop their skills
and build their enterprises.
For instance, early last century, King Khama of Bechuanaland
(today's Botswana) established a state company to assist his
people compete with South Africa's white businesses in his
territory. But the British authorities forced Khama to
liquidate his enterprise and this damaged the future
Republic of Botswana.
More recently, African governments have failed to learn from
their history and those of others by squandering
opportunities to capacitate their people so they can design
and construct their own domes.
The African people's disability is unmistakably exemplified
by the AU building and that is why it is Africa's "Dome of
Shame". To challenge this history, the response of young
Africans must be: never again will others build things for
us and steal our precious natural resources and markets.
The ultimate antidote to the "Dome of Shame" is the
development of African public and private enterprises that
can nurture skilled and talented workforce which will create
vibrant economies that can sustain decent livelihood. If
African governments allow their people to learn by doing, I
am confident that Africans will build their monuments of
Abdi Ismail Samatar is Professor of Geography at the
University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the
University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is the author of An
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