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China/Africa: ‘Somebody has to sacrifice’ – Sierra Leone minister

Cobus van Staden
By Cobus van Staden
Senior China-Africa researcher, South African Institute of International Affairs

Cobus is the head of research and analysis at the China Africa Project (www.chinaafricaproject.com), an independent non-partisan media platform dedicated to exploring every facet of China's engagement in Africa where he also co-hosts the weekly China in Africa Podcast and edits the China Africa Project's daily email newsletter.

Posted on Thursday, 20 May 2021 13:05

Sierra Leone Minister of Fisheries and Marine Resources Emma Kowa Jalloh.

The deal between the government of Sierra Leone and Chinese entities - to build an industrial fishing harbor on 100 hectares of beach and rainforest - reads like a textbook example of why China remains so unpopular among many African communities, even as its relationship with African governments goes from strength to strength.

Is the land relatively pristine? Of course. Does it support an intact local fishing economy? Why, yes.

Will the proposed development hurt the local community and ecosystem while only slightly inching Sierra Leone up a value chain already clogged with other Global South competitors? Yes.

None of this is new, and it follows a familiar narrative. Of course, the announcement is vague and the community has been kept out of the loop. It was announced as a fait accompli, which left civil society groups to fight an already done deal, instead of being involved in working out a more sustainable solution between all the stakeholders. Now we only have to wait for the Chinese embassy to label critics of the project as agents of Western media, and we’ll have a complete narrative.

This dynamic crystallises why African communities tend to assume that their own governments are plotting to sell national assets at fire-sale prices to ‘the Chinese.’ The lack of differentiation between different Chinese actors ends up being driven as much by a lack of direct engagement from whichever Chinese entity is involved, as it is by the secrecy and complicity of local officials.

There’s very little space to question the game when you’re doing your best just to keep up.

The result is that any Chinese deal, no matter how above-board, arouses suspicion as it is already pre-tainted by the massive trust gap between national governments and local communities. It’s no surprise that the ‘debt trap’ narrative has proven so durable in Africa. Even as its specifics have been debunked many times, the story fits so neatly into the continent’s lived experience that it’ll likely never die.

But the problem doesn’t end with the Chinese. The fundamental root lies in the global economic position of the Global South, a position made clear (somewhat chillingly) by Sierra Leone’s fisheries minister, Emma Kowa Jalloh, who said: “I would just appeal to people: be patient, we want to be developed, we want to grow, we want to be classified as an upcoming country. There must be development and somebody has to sacrifice.”

Now that China is a powerful country, it frequently pays lip service to global systemic reform. However, its own development trajectory wasn’t achieved by questioning a system that has previously colonised countries that are fighting each other up a development ladder, ultimately constructed by and favoring their former colonial masters. Rather, China succeeded by internalising the system’s rules and playing the game better than anyone else, often at the cost of its own ecosystems and local communities.

So China doesn’t necessarily come to the table with new ideas. No Chinese entity will question the fisheries minister’s adamant statement that ‘there must be development’. China’s suffering during its own development process hasn’t led to the questioning of development itself, nor to fundamentally new ideas of what profitable and sustainable development might look like. This is also true for Global South governments. There’s very little space to question the game when you’re doing your best just to keep up.

Add habitual secrecy and the very real possibility of corruption on both sides, and it’s easy to see why deals between Global South governments and China are often so reviled on the ground. That logic isn’t hard to grasp. Much tougher is how Global South countries can get themselves out of this bind.

Published in partnership with The China Africa Project

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