By Allawi Ssemanda and Ndawula Shemei.
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep on repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it,” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels once noted. If you have been following current international affairs, you would have noticed that most of Western international commentators are arguably obsessed with China-Africa relations, especially when commenting on the thousands of China-funded or supported development projects in Africa. Despite clear and countless opportunities, born out from China-Africa relations, and backed by international scholars, experts and organizations, politicians and some commentators from the West continue to frame Sino-Africa relations, with many branding China’s development assistance as a “debt trap” and others calling it “debt diplomacy.”
Interestingly, despite many developed countries, such as the U.S, UK and almost all members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), having arrangements where they support development projects in African countries through loans, only development assistance from China to African countries is branded as a “debt trap.” Perhaps it is high time someone questioned those promoting the debt trap and debt diplomacy idea and called it what it is – Western propaganda tact whenever reporting about China-funded projects in Uganda and Africa in general.
It is not surprising that many international relations scholars and analysts branded as “bad journalism”, reflecting “poor understanding” of international contractual law, a report which suggested Uganda was set lose its international airport to China. While this was a spot-on characterization of such reporting, one can still argue that it fell short of addressing the purpose of such reporting fact such reporting, which, in my view, is to undermine great achievements African countries, Uganda inclusive, have realized as a result of mutually beneficial relations with China.
As Indira Gandhi taught us, questioning is the basis of all knowing; and those who don’t question are condemned to bondage. Possibly, African countries should ask: what are the motives of “debt trap” propaganda? Is it because its proponents love African countries so much that they are concerned that African countries will fall into these so-called traps? Why is it that infrastructure funding from Western countries, coming with conditions, is called development assistance while China’s condition-free assistance is branded a “debt trap”?
In my view, those promoting the so-called Chinese debt trap are hypocrites who have been grossly unfair not just to Africa but to the entire global south, for decades now. Despite knowing the importance of improved infrastructure in social and economic development, the West, unlike China, has for long been giving developing countries very limited support for the improvement of infrastructure, transport, and electricity, which are key for sustainable development. Moreover, even infrastructure support from the Paris Club and individual Western countries has been declining steadily for some time now. While on the surface the decline in funding to African countries is just a manifestation of budget constraints facing Western countries, a deeper analysis reveals that this decline is also due to the so-called liberal market ideology practiced by the West.
In addition, a critical analysis of the modus operandi of colonialists and imperialists reveals that they have never wished to see Africa liberated. That is why, for the West, it is a disaster when China offers mutually beneficial assistance to African countries, because such assistance will eventually make African countries more self-reliant, which is directly against the hegemonic aspirations of some western countries. This largely explains why Western commentators have coined frightening phrases, such as “debt trap” and “debt diplomacy” to scare African countries into abandoning their relations with Beijing.
Actually, western countries are worried that, as a result of win-win Sino-African cooperation, China is wining the hearts of African countries, essentially because Beijing respects African countries, and is happy when they all prosper. On the other hand, Washington’s relationships with African countries are premised on Washington’s desire to dictate how her African partners should run their affairs. In other words, in its foreign policy, the U.S seeks to outrightly exert its hegemony over African countries.
In his Opinion entitled Why America Must Lead Again, President Biden is very categorical. The guiding principle of his foreign policy is to place the USA at the head of the table, and selfishly govern the world. Indeed, as argued by Walter A. McDougall, a professor of History and International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania, in his article, “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy?”, USA foreign policy has always been guided by imperialistic and selfish interests; “The real motive for USA foreign policy during all eras of history was not security or liberty, but the capitalist appetite for new markets, resources, and customers, at home and increasingly abroad. So, the American Dream was real, but therein lay tragedy because in order to meet the growing expectations of a growing population, the United States was ineluctably drawn to imperialism that belied its liberationist rhetoric.”
It is, therefore, clear that the USA has never sought to establish a partnership with another country if that partnership undermines the total hold of the USA on that country. To the west, seeing China building the capacity of African countries to end their dependency is a night mare. It is what John Mearsheimer calls the tragedy of great power politics. Therefore, as the USA and her allies brand China-Africa partnership a debt trap or debt diplomacy, African countries should know that, in context of sustainable development, the USA is not, and will never be, the best partner.
Actually, unlike Sino-Africa relations, the partnership between the Global North and the Global South has always represented the true meaning of a debt trap! The West’s development assistance and aid to the Global South, especially in Africa, has always been characterized by confidentialities, which are often incompatible with African countries. Whereas some scholars argue that partnership should involve a degree of equality among players, the West’s cooperation and is premised on Western hegemony; and the sstructural adjustment programs (SAPs) were a perfect illustration of this.
For decades, the Global North extended development assistance through the World Bank and IMF and their conditional assistance sometimes included telling African countries which sector to prioritize, the number of workers to retrench, and basically how governments should run, at times pouring funds into historical black holes, like political administration, which are riddled with corruption and bureaucracy. Broadly, one can argue that such forced priorities are tantamount to a debt trap as many of African countries stopped investing in domestic priorities in favour of what the World Bank and IMF agents dictated regardless of what African countries needed to take off economically.
With such facts known but ignored, and the continuous framing of China-Arica relations, one cannot help but conclude that branding China’s development assistance to African countries debt trap or debt diplomacy is propaganda based on selfish political interests of the west.
Allawi Ssemanda is Executive Director Development Watch Centre Think Tank, and Ndawula Shemei is a research fellow at the Centre.