Uganda, China is Here; Let Economic Revolution Begin!

By Shemei Ndawula.

Recently, at my weekly book club meeting at FEMRITE Bukoto, I met a white foreign policy enthusiast, Tobias. Introducing myself as a fellow of Ugandan and Regional think tank Development Watch Center, he excitedly invited me to share coffee with him at a popular restaurant along Acacia Avenue popular with foreign tourists and Ugandan elites. “They now have ChinaToday” he gleefully revealed. I stared back at him with an unmistakably perplexed expression on my face. A little confused, he asked “you know China Today, right?” And I fumbled with words for the next few seconds as I tried to explain to him how surprised I was that someone with a hazy Australian/ British accent would walk up to me to discuss China Today. With every passing month of the past decade, it’s becoming more and more clear that China is finally here.

The phenomenon that is China’s rising cooperation in the African continent is often treated with suspicion and mistrust especially because China in many ways has revolutionised the way world powers associate with Africa. Previously, Africa was postured as a perpetual backland of underdeveloped, under privileged, uneducated and uncivilised communities. This is why most of the previous foreign interventions have been geared towards crisis mitigation and not capacity building. It is said that at the turn of the past century, the erstwhile great Ottoman Empire was described as the “Sick man of Europe”, one can argue that by the end of the previous century Africa was successfully postured as “the sick man of the world”. Indeed, on 13th May 2000, United Kingdom’s The Economist branded Africa “The Hopeless Continent.” Yes, UK’s major New Paper baptised entire African continent “Hopeless.”

And that is why, over the last decade Africa has seen its partnership with China deepen significantly. This is because the People’s Republic of China does not necessarily always come in as a crisis mitigation crusader (although they were valuable allies in the recent COVID-19 pandemic and similar) but as a partner in capacity building. Having made so much progress with its own economy and social welfare over the past three decades, China is perhaps the most qualified among the biggest world economic powers to advance to Africa experience-based insight because these are changes that have happened within our lifetime and prove that any nation, through sheer social cohesion and visionary leadership can transform its fortune and rise on the global stage. In many ways we are following in their footsteps, China walked so that Africa can run.

A brilliant example of this is the green nuclear power plant that is in advanced planning stages to be set up in Buyende (about 150 kilometers North of Kampala Capital City).  The plant which is projected to commence operations by 2031 will add a whopping 2000 megawatts to the national electricity grid which currently stands at 1500 megawatts. This will spur the further industrialisation of Uganda attracting more Foreign Direct Investment within the country as well as valuable jobs for the local population. Additionally, this green renewable energy will cut down on the carbon footprint of many industries and manufacturing plants who can then export their products all over the world without need to pay for the carbon credits for environmental pollution, nuclear energy is practically carbon free making it one of the most environmentally friendly means of power generation.

Previously, prior attempts to invest in and set up nuclear energy facilities in Uganda and elsewhere on the continent have been subject to harsh criticism especially by western powers who view Africans either as harbouring undisclosed desire to produce nuclear weapons or simply too ignorant to run the facilities effectively. Not only are these assumptions baseless but they are also quite ironic considering where they’re coming from. As the world positions itself in the march from fossil fuels, the only way African countries can ever hope for a chance at energy self reliance is by exploring all the best available options instead of the previous energy apartheid where only the most powerful and privileged countries were allowed access to nuclear technology. Given China’s stellar track record especially in nuclear research and its willingness to train the natives and share its technology, Uganda can get worthwhile value from its rich Uranium natural deposits instead of simply peddling the mineral for sale on the world market. This development is a major step in the right direction of Uganda becoming a continental manufacturing hub within the next decades.

What makes the Chinese multilateral development and diplomatic strategy an astounding success when it comes to Africa relations is the ability of China to develop broad based development and capacity building initiatives. In Uganda, right on the heels of the declaration of the intention to build the Buyende Nuclear power plant is the reveal of a proposed Uganda-China industrial park to be setup in Tororo and projected to create over 100,000 jobs. To connect all these the Chinese Exim bank as well as the government of China will be funding the Construction of the Standard Gauge Railway from Mombasa to Kampala. This broad-based strategy if implemented well can spark an economic revolution that places Uganda and the greater East African region in the vanguard of the economic and technological rising of Africa.

Shemei Ndawula, is a Senior Research Fellow, Development Watch Centre


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