Africa’s ‘Dome of Shame’
If African governments “allow their people to learn by doing”, Africans will build their “monuments of glory”.
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.
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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 not develop.
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 processes.
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 China.
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?
“African governments have failed
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 glory.
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 African Miracle.