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AS CHINA OPENS DJIBOUTI BASE: HAS AFRICA LEARNED NOTHING FROM HISTORY?


14 July 2017: Almost every part of Africa is still struggling with the bitter legacy of colonial rule but the region seems to have forgotten every lesson of that experience.

How else to explain the lack of any murmur of protest from the African Union as Djibouti’s corrupt maximum leader Ismaïl Omar Guelleh lets China build a military base in the tiny territory? (Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa,  is the former French Somaliland; it has less than 870,000 population in its 8958 square miles.)

The colonial period in Africa began when Portuguese traders, following the example of Arab slavers, made the population of West Africa a commodity, but were not satisfied with periodic raids: they and then other Europeans, established permanent settlements. That was the foundation of the enormous wealth-creating enterprise of the transatlantic slave trade, which made colonialism profitable in the Americas. The 19th Century European “scramble for Africa” subsequently deprived the entire continent of its freedom.

The first lesson to be remembered from that experience, surely, is:

DON’T LET FOREIGNERS WHO COME TO TRADE ESTABLISH STRATEGIC POSITIONS OF POWER IN AFRICA.

But isn’t a Chinese base in Djibouti going to be just the same as the American base already there?

NO IT IS NOT.

America is a conscientious democracy that ties itself up in knots about the human rights practices of its own military. It is loudly self-critical. It has multiple checks and balances in the operations of its power. It is difficult to see the United States using its base in Djibouti for any anti-African purpose. On the contrary, it is being used to support the training of African peacekeepers.

None of that is true of China. It is a repellant tyranny that oppresses its own people and commits genocide in Tibet against a gentle and pacific population. Its leaders are so completely unaccountable, even to the demands of common human decency, that they think nothing of letting Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo die of cancer in prison for no other crime than nonviolently demanding democratic rights for the Chinese people.

Unlike the United States, China is hungry for African land and its great wealth of raw materials. Instead of “balancing” the American base in Djibouti, the main effect of a Chinese base on African soil will be to unbalance African sovereignty.

Looking to the Future

Once China’s Djibouti base is established and the People’s Liberation Army can project its power at will with its rapidly growing blue-water navy, it is likely that Beijing’s relations with African nations will undergo a shift. Djibouti initially, and then other economic partners in Africa are likely to find that they do not enjoy the same respect from China for equitable “South-South Cooperation.”

If the experience of China’s Asian neighbors is any guide, Beijing will soon appear as Big Brother and bully. With a nuclear armed aircraft carrier standing by their shores, demands for “equal treatment” for Chinese nationals in African countries are likely to be made much more insistently. Negotiations over commodity trade and investments are likely to have an altogether different dynamic. 

African States will have to take seriously  – as they do in Asia – the prospect that China will interfere in their internal affairs. Chinese armed and funded opposition groups  will undoubtedly become a new reality.

If push comes to shove amidst a global economic crisis, there is nothing at all to prevent Beijing from completely disregarding African sovereignty. We can probably look forward to Chinese-majority populations emerging in resource-rich areas; unlike Europeans, who now control those areas with covertly funded conflicts, Beijing has the manpower and lack of scruple to exercise direct control. It has provided ample proof in Asia that no civilizational values, no rule of law, no code of human decency will stand in the way of its power. Neither African public opinion nor Western threats can change that reality.