While the US and much of the West fixates upon the acts of terrorism conducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, China continues to hurry around the African continent to carve spheres of influence through major investment. The two trends are, of course, unrelated. However they do highlight the different ways China and the West are treating Africa on the whole; and it looks as if China is doing a much better job of winning African nations over to their side.
How Boko Haram is reinforcing the West’s negative image in Africa
Africans feel as if the West has traditionally viewed the continent as a sort of basket case, and African nations as incapable of looking after themselves. Take the various policies, like those stipulated by the IMF Structural Adjustment Programme, which came tacked on as conditionalities for the billions of dollars in foreign aid and investment sent over by developed nations throughout the last half century. While, for the most part, those nations meant well by trying to direct African countries to spend their money in the ways that led other countries to development, the policies were widely regarded by the African recipients as another way of “lecturing” them on their internal affairs. This was especially problematic for the West’s image in Africa, in a post-colonial world where Africa demanded – and required – independence and autonomy from the former imperialists.
This brings us to Boko Haram. After the militant group abducted over 200 girls from their school, the developed world has looked on in horror and anger. Millions of people turned to social media to call in the world police – the US government, or anyone who would hear their calls – to do what the Nigerians couldn’t do and “bring back our girls” by force, in a campaign not dissimilar to the #Kony2012 viral crusade to get Western powers to militarily intervene in the mass atrocities committed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. Both then and now, the implication was that all Africa’s problems could be solved by phoning in foreign (read: Western) superheroes to come clear them up.
Indeed, the US has responded by sending in personnel to provide military, law enforcement and information-sharing assistance; assistance which US officials were later frustrated wasn’t being used effectively by the Nigerian government. France, perhaps the most active in African politics of the past colonialists, “declared war” against Boko Haram during an anti-terrorism summit it hosted this past weekend. This is all well and good; no one should decry anyone attempting to help save innocent children from the hands of militants intent on using them for political fear-mongering. The problem is, this all misses the point of what kind of threat Boko Haram poses, both to Africa and to the West.
Boko Haram has been more than a nuisance in Nigeria for over a decade and has pulled off similar attacks as this in the past. It is not a cohesive group, like Western media are like to portray it as, but a haphazard insurgency that gains support by feeding off the chronic poverty in the North Nigerian countryside. The area is a symbolic representation of what the West confronts all across Africa, as it has become a hotbed for militant Islamist groups which stir anti-Western sentiment, blaming the socio-political and economic issues in the region on the colonial powers of old (and new). As such, it would be extremely difficult to wage a war against Boko Haram, like with most makeshift guerrilla terrorist groups, and doing so would only reinforce in many Nigerians’ minds (and those of other African nations) the anti-Western bitterness and pro-Islam sentiment that pervade the country.
What China is doing differently…
China, on the other hand, is promoting itself across Africa as a champion of South-South cooperation, a relatively less patronising way of encouraging Africa’s rise. Earlier this month, Chinese premier Li Keqiang conducted a four country tour of Africa, making stops in Ethiopia (including the African Union headquarters which China donated to the continental body), Nigeria, Angola, and Kenya. The latter stop proved most interesting, with China signing an agreement with Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, to fund a 600 kilometer railway linking the Kenyan port city of Mombasa to Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan.
One of the reasons for the visit was to persuade African leaders that global scrutiny over China’s vested interests in the continent was unfounded. China has been committed to developing ties with Africa for a long while now; after looking to Africa to advance its Cold War interests, China increased trade with Africa a whopping sevenfold overall during the 1990s to become Africa’s largest trading power today. But it is generally believed that China has been doing all of this because it wants to exploit African nations for their abundance of raw materials, or to facilitate its own geopolitical rise by securing the allegiances of African nations left disenfranchised with Western powers.
The move to fund a cross-continent railway is an important indicator of China’s intentions, however. According to John Eddington from the Global Times, “one of Africa’s greatest curses has been the lack of an efficient internal transport infrastructure” and “it is difficult to overstate the importance of this development to Africa’s economic growth”. Yes, China is probably trying to use African countries for its own strategic benefit, but by investing in regional infrastructure (left untouched by Western investment) it is sending a clear message to locals; we want to empower you, China is saying. We want you to grow. We want you to join in on our rise.
With the global economy becoming increasingly interdependent, and with China and the US increasingly reliant on each other, and on mutual allies, for their own economic emergence, Africa becomes a key battleground to form fresh new economic partnerships. By investing in infrastructure to develop regional economies, China is both looking to form new alliances and beef up the economic strength of those allies. (Much like the US did successfully after World War Two and during the Cold War with countries like Japan and West Germany – and the rest of Europe generally.)
Whatever China’s intentions, its movements in Africa have begun to concern the US and other geopolitical stakeholders in the region, such as Japan. Last year, President Obama embarked on his own visit to the continent, promising to improve trade between the US and Africa, and even calling for a “partnership of equals“. This kind of rhetoric was a stark acknowledgement of the fact the US needs to change the impression it gives off across the continent; from one of being a condescending superior, to one of being a partner of equal standing. This tact, however, is far belated. China is already winning Africa over by projecting an image of being a fellow member, and champion, of the Global South. It therefore has a head-start over nations of the West (who have a history of political and economic dominance in the region) in the battle to win over African minds and hearts.
Waging war with Boko Haram, without trying to address the root causes of its emergence, doesn’t help improve Western nations’ image either.