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The AU-EU Partnership must deliver a Green New Deal if it wants to counter China’s massive drive into Africa


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

China invested massive sums of money in Africa in the 2000s. It was only in the mid-2010s that African leaders realised China had been practising realpolitik like many other colonial powers. They started complaining that Chinese roads were rubbish and that China was threatening to take over defaulting companies like Zambia’s Zesco and the port of Mombasa.

The 2022 edition of the Africa-EU summit — currently underway in Brussels — comes at a very difficult time when the world is still contending with the Covid-19 pandemic. However, we must remain optimistic that there is life after Covid, and out of the ashes of this tough context must be born the foundation of a new beginning. Let’s be clear: what Africa wants, more than anything right now is a Green New Deal (GND).

Africa and Europe share very close ties — some say a common destiny even, and the two continents have had close relations for decades. The ACP-EEC and ACP-EU trade deals (Lomé, Cotonou, etc) for example have existed for most of the European Union’s lifespan.

Many in Africa also believe that the ACP-EECs deals and subsequent iterations of similar initiatives have been too colonial in their approach until now. The South African Institute of International Affairs has even posited that the AU-EU relationship is not yet a true partnership. This is certainly true if one looks at the asymmetric nature of the balance of power or even the volumes and flow of goods and services between the two continents. One side (i.e. Africa) is predominantly a consumer and receiver of lectures while the other side (Europe of course) is making nice money from exports and then giving Africa lessons on how to build solid economies and state institutions.

This empire-periphery mentality is what recently pushed many African countries to start looking to the Far East for help.

Foundation for a new partnership

If it wants to improve its relations with the African continent, i.e. its image, goods, services and culture, then the EU needs to build its Africa partnership on win-win deals.

The EU has chosen five priority areas for partnerships with Africa over the next five years, viz: the just transition and access to energy; the digital transformation; growth and sustainable jobs; peace and governance; and migration and mobility. Within this dynamic, the EU has already announced a massive €150-billion Global Gateway aid package to deliver “strategic infrastructure, industrial infrastructure, health infrastructure, and the infrastructure of youth and education”. This is a very large sum of money. It delivers in a very short space of time the amount of aid that China for example has delivered to Africa in two decades.

Significant efforts must be made to ensure that this money goes into serious climate change mitigation and adaptation projects as well as GND initiatives.

Africa’s biggest challenge right now is the climate change factor. We have seen an unprecedented number of coups in the early 2020s, fuelled in part by the collapse of state institutions in the Sahel but also because of environmental collapse. Shrinking green spaces cause fatal farmer-herder skirmishes every year and the fatalities are going up all the time. Such fights over resources have claimed 1,800 lives in Nigeria since 2018 and in Cameroon, farmer-herder conflict claimed 22 lives and emptied the town of Kousseri of its 90,000 inhabitants in December 2021.  

Multi-year droughts, salinisation and rising heat levels are making it impossible to farm in some communities. In East Africa, coffee and other crops have produced low yields for three years in a row. This is pushing an ever-growing number of people to migrate to urban areas and other countries in search of better opportunities. On the east coast of Africa, cyclones Ana and Batsirai have claimed 190 lives and caused over $1-billion worth of damage.

The AU-EU partnership should help end infrastructure poverty in Africa. It should help countries in the Sahel improve their agriculture and expand on the Great Green Wall.

The AU-EU partnership should help end energy poverty in Africa.

The AU-EU partnership must deliver shovel-ready projects. Such projects must hit the ground running. Thousands of young people can be hired, for example, to plant trees, restore mangroves, build rural irrigation projects and work on cooperative farms and so on. The money should not stop in capital cities where it will only be used for Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and tickets for Beyoncé concerts. 

Africa’s youth are growing impatient with their leaders, and they no longer want to wait in abject poverty for services. If they do not get roads, electricity, food, education, water and culture now, more and more of them will join armed groups or seek better lives elsewhere.

A continent emptied of its youth cannot stand!

Africa has realised that China is just like everybody else

China invested massive sums of money in the 2000s. Every year, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (Focac) delivered massive amounts of money for infrastructure projects in Africa: roads in Congo-Brazzaville, football stadia in Mali, rail networks in Kenya, oil projects in South Sudan, mines in the DRC, etc. If you had commodities and acknowledged that Taiwan was part of China, you got money for projects quickly. To sweeten the deal, the Chinese would often say that your internal politics was none of their business. That was music to many leaders’ ears.

It was only later in the mid-2010s that these same leaders woke up to the fact that China had been practising realpolitik like many other colonial powers. They started complaining that Chinese roads were rubbish, that they collapsed within months of project completion and that the Chinese government has started threatening to take over defaulting companies in Africa, like Zambia’s Zesco and the port of Mombasa.

Be that as it may, Focac has delivered in spades, especially for China. Between 2000 and 2019, China gave loans to Africa worth an estimated $153-billion. However, for the same period, trade flows amount to over $2-trillion. In 2019, Chinese aid to Africa was only $2.7-billion; it rose slightly to $4.2-billion in 2020. Trade amounted to $176-billion over the same period, most of the profits flowing to China.

Chinese industries are powered mainly by coal-fired power plants at a time when we should be working to cap warming below 1.5°C relative to preindustrial times in order to prevent overshoot in global temperatures.

Looking out for our own interests

It has come as a shock to many that China practices realpolitik and that it always puts itself first. For some strange reason, African leaders thought that China was just out to distribute free money if they blasted the West. The Zambia and Kenya situations have put the fear of God in them.

Now that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a reality, African leaders, more than ever, need to put their continent first. They need to look at the continent’s youth bulge and realise that they must deliver on the promise of a better continent. This starts with building universal basic infrastructure everywhere on the continent. A good way to achieve that is by making partnerships such as the AU-EU relationship work for Africans.

At the same time, when they take money from others, African leaders must also be ready to be called out when they do not treat their citizens fairly. That is how we develop a better world for all. DM


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