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Will Africa benefit from China’s Obor Initiative?

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There is a serious debate all over the world on One Belt One Road (Obor) Initiative. This initiative is a brainchild of the People’s Republic of China. Many countries across the world, including USA and the United Kingdom, are giving their inputs on the initiative.

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But what is Obor Initiative?

Obor Initiative refers to the Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road development strategy launched by the Chinese government. Obor was first unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013, with the aim of connecting 65 countries across three continents to China. The initiative seeks to promote economic cooperation among countries along the land and sea routes.

Obor is a flow of people, goods, trade, capital and ideas. This flow can only come about when the countries, people and economies are highly connected by roads, rail, aviation, trade, investment, banking and finance.

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The Obor initiative aims to connect Asia, Africa and Europe over land through Europe-Asia continental roads and sea routes through South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The ambitious plan aims to connect an estimated 4.4 billion people across these regions through building infrastructure and boosting financial and trade ties for the countries that lie along the routes. Connectivity is core to the Obor initiative, which promises benefits for many countries.

In Southeast Asia, China wants to develop infrastructure along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to improve connectivity with China. According to China Daily, “there is more convergence of interests than many might have noticed between development strategies of ASEAN countries and China-proposed initiatives such as the Belt and Road”. China sees Obor as a new era of cooperation that will bring benefits to all participating countries.

Throughout the last five centuries, Africa has existed in the Western imagination between two polarised extremes. One is the Africa that exists as a treasure trove of spoils, a source of slaves to take as free labour and a vast land full of natural riches for the taking. The other extreme is the Africa that is in need of saving, a place of needy and helpless souls where Westerners can live out their fantasies of missionary heroism.

However, at the dawn of the 21st century, a different African story has emerged, which is, and should be, challenging the way that the West imagines Africa. From Nigeria to Kenya, Angola to Ethiopia, Africa is one of the engines of global economic growth, clocking in over four percent annually. Instead of a continent in need of saving, Africa is becoming the next great frontier for development and economic opportunity. For the West to take part in this new African story, it is crucial to build a new relationship with Africa.

‘Helpless’ Africa

Ever since the first Portuguese ships began to ply the shores of sub-Saharan Africa, the “Dark Continent” has existed in the Western mind as a passive, helpless entity. The first several centuries of widespread contact coincided with the European age of discovery and industrialisation, both events spelling great suffering for the peoples of Africa.

As Europeans colonised the New World, the need for a vast and compliant labour force drew them to West Africa, an easy source for slaves as the region had been practising the institution of slavery for hundreds of years. From the 16th century to the 19th century, tens of millions of Africans would eventually be brought to the New World to get dehumanised by a racialised institution of slavery, creating a major modern diaspora that is culturally disconnected from its origins.

As competition flared between great European powers, Africa became a boundless source of colonies. The Scramble for Africa culminated in the Berlin Conference of 1884, where Africa was divided as bounty and the institutions for wholesale European colonisation for Africa were formalised.

In 1870, only 10 percent of Africa was colonised. By 1914, over 90 percent of the continent’s landmass, with the exception of Ethiopia, Somalia’s Dervish state and Liberia, was under European control.

With colonisation came religious missionaries, who saw themselves as generous and enlightened saviours doing God’s work by saving the heaving masses of heathen souls. This well-meaning but ultimately misguided and self-righteous attitude was captured in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, describing the West’s attitude towards its colonies.

In postcolonial Africa, Western imagination and intervention through humanitarian aid and the presence of Western non-governmental organisations have continued this legacy of missionary zeal and the attitude that the West, without input from Africans themselves, understands what is best for Africa.

As Western nations matured through centuries of social upheaval and evolution to become more humane and comfortable societies, the image of Africa evolved from a place to be looted to a place of misery where the Western man could live out his saviour fantasies.

With the political instability and ensuing chaos and mismanagement that followed decolonisation, the image of famines, genocide and helpless Africans became ingrained in the Western imagination. Though the image of Africa transitioned from bounty to be seized to that of an eternal victim, one thing remained constant: the passive nature of Africa’s place for the West to make its mark and bestow civilisation.

Enter the Dragon

In 2000, The Economist ran a cover story, “The Hopeless Continent”, which argued that Africa was beyond help and doomed to a future of barbarism and underdevelopment because of its poor social institutions and corrupt governance. A few years later, this story line would face a complete rebuttal as the continent became central to the strategic interest of a rising superpower from the east: China.

Although China had established diplomatic ties with a wide number of African nations, and even participated in aiding anticolonial struggles in the continent since the 1950s, its presence on the continent had largely been minimal.

However, at the onset of the 21st century, China, experiencing the throes of the most massive industrialisation in human history, began to identify Africa, a continent full of natural resources, commodities and a vast untapped market, as a place of great long-term strategic value.

Using a diverse arsenal of tools, from increasing trade, investment, loans to infrastructure aid, China has emerged as the dominant foreign power in Africa, and as a favoured partner of African countries looking to emulate its rapid development.

From a negligible trickle in 2000, China’s trade with Africa topped $160 billion in 2015, ranking as by far the largest trade partner with the continent. In 2014, China signed more than $70 billion in infrastructure contracts in the continent, and Chinese banks now provide more loans to African nations than does the World Bank.

In the West, China’s investment into Africa has often been painted in the light of neo-colonialism or of exploitation. China’s involvement in Africa is also clearly defined by its own interests, not altruism. However, what this criticism fails to address is how China has become so successful in Africa.

But how will Africa benefit from this initiative? Such a question has been posed in many countries across the world. Recently, China hosted 2017 Young Sinologist programme in Beijing. During the programme, the government of China had to explain how Africa would benefit from the programme.

According to research and available information, Africa has started benefiting from Obor Initiative through road and rail infrastructure.

China has already financed and built a $4 billion railway between Djibouti and Addis Ababa, the continent’s first transnational electric railway. In Kenya, a Chinese firm has built a new railway connecting Nairobi to the country’s port city of Mombasa. Eventually, it will reach Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Obor is also an initiative that is fighting against corruption. As the project rolls, the question is: Will Africa comply with action in the fight against corruption to fully benefit from the project?

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