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Senegal builds national data centre in partnership with Huwaei

Eric Olander
By Eric Olander

Managing Editor, The China Africa Project

Posted on Friday, 25 June 2021 17:56, updated on Monday, 28 June 2021 07:00

President Macky Sall
Senegal's President Macky Sall arrives at the Grand Palais Ephemere for the Financing of African Economies Summit, in Paris, Tuesday 18 May 2021. (Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP)

US and French media were surprisingly quiet about yesterday’s inauguration of a new national data centre that was built with Chinese financing and equipped by Huawei.

The new facility, located in Diamniadio outside of the capital Dakar, marks an important milestone in Africa. This is the first time that a country is fully replicating the Chinese data governance model that requires all servers to be located within a country’s borders, providing the state with full access to the information.

The online outrage that is typically triggered in the US by China, Huawei, and anything related to Beijing’s steadily expanding influence in the Global South was noticeably quiet. In fact, not a single US news outlet even carried the story, not even republishing the lone piece of international coverage from Reuters.

It was the same in France, where other than two short radio pieces for state-run broadcasters RFI and its domestic sister channel Radio France, no other major reported the story. This is even more surprising given the near-obsessive emphasis that French media place on pretty much anything that happens in its former colonial territories in West Africa.

Given the US government’s dogged dedication to confronting Huawei, one might have expected the US embassy in Dakar to say something. But, they too, were silent on the issue.

But in the end, it may be that President Macky Sall shut down all avenues for foreign criticism with his full, unconditional embrace of not only the Chinese digital governance model, but Xi Jinping himself, who the Senegalese President singled out for praise at Tuesday’s event.

“Chinese President Xi Jinping, my sincere thanks and my gratitude,” he told the audience. “Since I was elected as president, China has never hesitated with any request that I’ve made. Everything, all of the projects that I’ve submitted to China have been supported and funded,” he continued.

In this context, any criticism of Huawei or China about this deal from Paris or Washington would automatically be construed as a direct attack on the Senegalese president.

What this new data centre means to different stakeholders around the world

Senegal

Tuesday’s event is the latest evidence of Macky Sall’s longstanding desire to reduce his country’s dependence on external partners including China. Senegal, in many ways, represents the next phase in China-Africa relations. Whereas the relationship used to be dominated by trade, loans and large-scale infrastructure projects, it’s now becoming more politically driven.

We saw this trend this week, when Senegal joined other African (and majority Muslim) countries in abstaining from a Canadian-led joint statement on human rights in Xinjiang. Smaller-scale tech and health projects like this data centre will no doubt feature prominently at this year’s upcoming FOCAC leadership summit that will be held in, yes, Dakar.

France

China is still a relative newcomer to francophone West Africa, having largely avoided the region during the initial phase of its engagement in Africa. French stakeholders’ deep roots in the region, as well as language and cultural barriers, made it difficult for the Chinese to compete. That’s now rapidly changing thanks to two forces that are converging simultaneously:

  1. French foreign policy in Africa has been adrift for decades, even as Emmanuel Macron has worked hard to broaden Paris’ interests beyond francophone regions and despite his mea culpas along the way for France’s brutal colonial past. France just isn’t as relevant today in Africa and leaders like Macky Sall clearly know this, as evidenced by the pivot away from Paris.
  2. As French attention drifts, the Chinese are increasingly interested in francophone West Africa. Especially companies like Huawei and Transsion are moving aggressively into those markets.

The US

The launch of this new data centre is a significant setback for the US in its efforts to confront China around the world. There’s just no way to sugarcoat it. With this new facility, Macky Sall embraced everything that the US government opposes about China:

  1. the role of Huawei,
  2. Chinese lending, and
  3. a democracy aligning itself with Beijing’s governance model, at least in terms of data management.

What this also shows is that the causes promoted by the US (free markets, open internet, reduced role of the state) are just not resonating in certain African countries the way they used to. Muhammadu Buhari’s recent Twitter ban in Nigeria demonstrates that Macky Sall isn’t alone in this worldview, and it’s likely that more African leaders will follow their example in the future.

China

It’s been a good week for Chinese diplomacy in the Global South, as evidenced by both the Canadian-led statement on Xinjiang, where China’s coalition held tight, the launch of the new data centre in Senegal, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s full-throated defence of his relationship with China on US national television.

While most developing countries state repeatedly that they don’t want to take sides in any new great power competition between the US and China, the reality is that many of these countries are doing exactly that. Macky Sall did. Imran Khan did and so too did Muhammadu Buhari.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting here that today’s US-China struggle is as binary as the last Cold War. But Chinese governance and development models are gaining traction among a growing number of developing countries, and with that comes closer alignment with China’s worldview.

This article was first published in the China Africa Project. 

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