China the master stadium builder

By Emmanuel Barranguet

Posted on Friday, 2 July 2010 08:04

With poor infrastructure posing an obstacle to continental sport, many African countries have turned to China for help in the last few decades. This co-operation is not without its pitfalls.

Tamale Stadium, Northern Ghana, January 2008: In the midst of the African Cup of Nations (ACN), in a press room bustling with post-match conferences after the ?Tunisia-Senegal game (2-2), three Chinese employees responsible for the stadium’s upkeep and apparently indifferent to the surrounding brouhaha, clean the floor, windows and even the microphone stands. Despite deep cultural divisions, Asians and Africans are gradually learning to get along, and sport is no exception.?

From Algiers to Maputo, Dar es Salaam to Conakry, stadiums built by the Chinese, or with their help, are on the increase. According to Xinhua, the official news agency, China has already constructed 52 stadiums. It is a way for China to win over football-lovers but also gives Africa the opportunity to set itself up with the infrastructure it is so desperately lacking, in sport and in other areas.?

“With its ideal approach and its generous chequebook policy, Beijing has made a lightning breakthrough on the African continent,” explains Philomène Robin, a researcher in China-African relations for France’s Terra Nova association.?

After the construction of “friendship” stadiums, as they were often called in the 70s and 80s (many have since changed their name), when China was cautiously finding its way on to the continent, another wave of construction took place in the 2000s. Many of the recent ACN tournaments have been battled out in Chinese stadiums: six for the ACN 2002 in Mali, two new and two renovated for the ACN 2008 in Ghana, and four for the ACN 2010 in Angola.

“The CAF (Confederation of African Football) doesn’t pay attention to who is building,” explains president, Issa Hayatou. “What is important is that the stadiums keep to our specifications. It is the government of each country that chooses who builds the stadiums.”?

The Ghana Twins ?

The Ghanaian ACN stadiums, symbolic of the ‘made in China’ enclosures, are perfect twins. One is in Sekondi-Takoradi on the Atlantic Coast, the other 500km north, in the Tamale Savannah, but they are exactly the same – a matter of rationalism and economies of scale. The 20,000-capacity Essipong (Sekondi-Takoradi) and Tamale Stadiums cost $38.5m each and were built in less than two years by Shanghai Construction Co. Ltd. They include an athletics track, fully covered stands, 40 hotel rooms and VIP boxes.?

In 2008, not everything was perfect. Nothing had been planned to accommodate TV equipment and the signs were in Mandarin. What is more, a power cut delayed the kick-off of Mali-Benin in Sekondi-Takoradi by a quarter of an hour. This was a minor incident, but an unfortunate one for relations between local electricians and Chinese builders.?

People are generally surprised by Chinese work methods. “They work 24 hours a day,” says an incredulous Celso Mabjaia, director of the construction project for the new stadium in Maputo, Mozambique. On site, 500 Chinese workers and 1,000 Mozambicans have been working to finish before the World Cup kicks-off in neighbouring South Africa, and for the stadium to become the support base for Brazil during the competition. On the site of the Luanda stadium, 700 Chinese and 250 Angolans have been working together, according to a BBC report. When asked whether the stadiums would be ready for the ACN, one of the local workers replied: “I’m sure of it, since it’s the Chinese that are building it.”?

Sport infrastructure does not represent a huge market, but it has “a strong symbolic dimension, in the context of deteriorating relations with China”, explains professor William Leday, a specialist in West African geopolitics.?

China is extending its influence in Africa, but is still far from competing with historical partners France, Britain and the European Union in terms of absolute value. An Africa-Asia partnership is based on a very different principle, a new ‘win-win’ cooperation, as the Chinese emphasised at a Forum on Sino-African cooperation in Beijing in 2006, where, for example, they concluded an agreement on Ghanaian bauxite.?

Critical methods

From Angola to Zambia

A to Z of the principal stadiums constructed by China on the African continent since 2000, including projects in progress (capacity and year of completion in brackets)


Angola: 4 stadiums for the ACN 2010 (2009), Luanda (40,000), Benguela, ?Cabinda and Lubango (all three 25,000)

C.A.R: Barthélémy Boganda sports complex, Bangui (20,000/2006)?

Congo-Brazzaville: Marien Ngouabi Stadium, Owando (13,000/2009), Municipal Stadium, Pointe-Noire (13,000/2007), Denis Sassou-Nguesso Stadium, Dolisie (6,000/2008)?

Ghana: 2 stadiums for the ACN 2008 in Sekondi-Takoradi and Tamale (20,000)

Mali: 6 stadiums for the ACN 2002, Bamako (55,000), Gao, Kayes, Mopti, Ségou, and Sissako (all 15,000)?

Mozambique: Maputo Stadium (42,000/2010)?

Uganda: Mandela National Stadium (Namboole), Kampala (42,000/1997)?

Tanzania: Benjamin Mkapa National Stadium, Dar es Salaam (60,000/2009) ?

Togo: Kégué Stadium, Lomé (30,000/2000)?

Under construction or in planning??

Algeria: Alger-Baraki (40,000/2010), Oran (40,000/2010)

Cameroon: Limbé (15,000/2013), Bafoussam (15,000/2013),Yaoundé (60,000), Douala (30,000)?

Gabon: Friendship Stadium, Libreville (45,000/2011)

Guinea: Nongo Stadium, Conakry (50,000/2010)

Malawi: Civo Stadium, Lilongwe (40,000)?

Zambia: Ndola Stadium, Ndola (40,000/2011)

One of the founding principles of Chinese cooperation is not to meddle in Africa’s (internal or home) affairs. Some African autocrats are content to have a partner that does not ask questions.

“Many intellectuals who praise China’s ascension critically judge its way of operating,” notes a report by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung Foundation, which promotes projects for political and social development.?

The example of Cameroon illustrates the hazards of cooperation à la Chinoise. For a long time, its capital Yaoundé, one of the jewels in the crown of African football, has not had a stadium worthy of the name.

Yaoundé Canon, three times African champion (1971, 1978 and 1981), has neither an enclosure adapted for spectators nor its own stadium, not even a training ground. Instead the team plays in the immense and dilapidated general-purpose Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, which is only filled four or five times a year by the national team, the ?Indomitable Lions, and for the final of the Cameroon Cup.?

To remedy this, Cameroon launched the PNDIS (Programme National de Développement des Infrastructures – a national programme for the development of infrastructure) in 2006. “It’s about linking infrastructure to performance,” according to the Cameroonian government’s working document. It continues: “How can the country of Roger Milla, Thomas Nkono, Théophile Abega and Samuel Eto’o be lagging so far behind?”?

This programme planned for the construction of two large stadiums in Yaoundé-Olembé (60,000-capacity) and in Douala (30,000-capacity), and two 20,000-capacity stadiums in Boufassam and Limbé. A general-purpose sports centre in Warda (5,000-capacity), was also inaugurated in June 2009. The ambitious project of around $600m was made possible by a loan negotiated with China Exim Bank, the state bank and China’s ‘financial arm’ in Africa, as financial services firm Terra Nova puts it. But the discussions with its partner have been dragging on and at the end of 2009, the Cameroonian government seemed to have decided to limit the project to the construction of reduced-capacity (15,000) stadiums in Boufassam and Limbé, to be ready for the beginning of 2013.?

China has signed economic agreements with Cameroon, particularly concerning the exploitation of oil deposits in Zina and Makary, for $80m.

In the pipeline?

Things are not simple in Sino-African cooperation. Some constructions from the first wave of development have lasted, like the Yoff Friendship Stadium near Dakar, inaugurated in 1985 and renamed the Léopold Senghor Stadium. But others are dilapidated, like the ?Cotonou Friendship Stadium built in Benin in 1982.

In Algeria, the Chinese model has faded. In Oran, work on a 40,000-capacity stadium being carried out by MCC China has fallen behind. The construction of Tizi-Ouzou’s Stadium (50,000-capacity) was not captured by Chinese businesses, much to their annoyance, after they lost a tender to an Hispano-Algerian consortium in July 2009.?

But China still has a foot in ?Algeria, which it is interested in for the country’s reserves of oil and gas. The China Railway Construction Engineering Group is building a 40,000-capacity stadium in the Algiers commune of Baraki for more than $143m. The deal was made at the end of 2007 for the job to be completed in 29 months.?

China also has plenty of other sport-infrastructure projects up its sleeve. In Libreville it is erecting one of the stadiums for the ACN 2012, co-organised by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. “The Shanghai construction group has sent their engineers and technicians,” says Ren Yaqiu, local correspondent for the Xinhua agency, “but they have employed Gabonese workers. It is important for China to provide work for the locals.” Jobs, football – anything to win Africa over.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s World Cup 2010 edition in May.

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