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Africa should negotiate collectively with China at FOCAC, but that’s not going to happen

Cliff Mboya
By Cliff Mboya

Africa editor at The China Africa Project

Posted on Friday, 17 September 2021 12:10

(190628) -- OSAKA, June 28, 2019 (Xinhua) -- Chinese President Xi Jinping chairs a China-Africa leaders' meeting in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. The meeting was also attended by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, also former African co-chair of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, also rotating chair of the African Union; Senegalese President Macky Sall, current African co-chair of the FOCAC; and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. (Xinhua/Pang Xinglei) - Pang Xinglei

The next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) is coming up, but Africa is still too divided to go in with a collective agenda.

As the next Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) draws closer, the same sentiments and concerns over Africa’s relative position in the 20-year-old arrangement keep coming up.

It is widely acknowledged that the continent generally gets the short end of the stick in its relationship with China. For as many years, experts, scholars and commentators have called on African leaders to assert greater African agency through taking a common African position on China and using collective bargaining to influence the summit’s outcomes to their advantage.

The latest calls came in an op-ed by Gyude Moore, a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development and a recent report by Development Reimagined, an African-led international development consultancy in Beijing.

However, is it realistic to hope for a collective African agenda on China, particularly at the upcoming FOCAC meeting? I don’t think so.

First, I fear that African governments have not developed the capacity to coordinate and administer national, regional, and continental interests. Our leaders are too invested in national politics and personal interests to care much about continental priorities. While FOCAC is touted as a collective multilateral forum between China and African countries, the fact is that most African leaders attend in their individual capacities with national priorities and sometimes personal objectives. It is no wonder then that discussions are held multilaterally but implemented bilaterally, which of course suits China.

The AU, which is supposed to promote Africa’s collective agenda, also remains very weak because it cannot impose directives on sovereign states. This severely constrains its ability to integrate competing interests and spearhead a common front.

Second, there is no unity of purpose due to the fact that many African states are sharply divided along political, geographical, religious, and ethnic lines and owe allegiance to far too many regional and international groupings with varying policies and priorities.

We have sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa under the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and several regional economic communities (RECs) often with overlapping memberships and allegiances complicating Africa’s collective bargaining. For example, Sudan, Algeria, and Libya are members of the AU and the Arab League at the same time. The South African Customs Union (SACU) shares twelve members with SADC.  The DRC belongs to five RECs while Burundi and Kenya belong to four.

While regional organizations and economic communities are touted as foundations of African unity, they have been counterproductive due to divergent trade norms and practices, differing roles and structures, and a general lack of capacity to rein in members who play each organization depending on where their individual economic interests lie. They have been unable to eliminate trade and tariff barriers and harmonize economic policies.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is a positive step towards harmonizing Africa’s policies and interests. Yet Nigeria’s reluctance to sign up at the beginning suggests that there are still issues to be addressed in terms of how to turn competition into cooperation at the continental level. Kenya’s plans to sign a  bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States doesn’t augur well for the East African community’s collective bargaining strategy. Mauritius’ FTA with China is a similar vote of no confidence.

These glaring challenges suggest that Africa may not yet be ready to act as a single unit executing a common agenda. We must therefore put our house in order before we can even think about a collective agenda towards China.

Only a commitment towards African unity and proper coordination of competing interests at the continental level will signal the capacity to forge a common front towards China. AfCFTA is an important step towards that goal and its prominence on this year’s FOCAC agenda will hopefully set the stage for a more assertive, unified, African voice at the next FOCAC summit.

This article was first published in The China-Africa Project. 

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