Africa was supposed to be China’s new stomping grounds. Instead, the novel coronavirus has spawned a growing backlash that threatens to unwind the ties Beijing has carefully cultivated over decades.
The trigger for the burgeoning diplomatic crisis: Anger over the treatment of African citizens living in China and frustration at Beijing’s position on granting debt relief to fight against the outbreak.
China has spent untold billions in Africa since its emergence as a global power, investing in its natural resources, underwriting massive infrastructure projects and wooing its leaders. The campaign has bought China friends and allies in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, undermining the West’s once-reliable lock on the postwar world order while fueling its economy back home.
But that decadeslong quest for influence in Africa was gravely challenged last week when a group of disgruntled African ambassadors in Beijing wrote to Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi to complain that citizens from Togo, Nigeria and Benin living in Guangzhou, southern China, were evicted from their homes and made to undergo obligatory testing for Covid-19.
“In some cases, the men were pulled out of their families and quarantined in hotels alone,” the note, seen by POLITICO, said.
The incident, which caused widespread discontent both within Africa and among the diaspora after videos posted on social media showed people of African descent being evicted from their homes, resulting in a rare diplomatic showdown between Chinese and African officials.
It also broke a long-standing tradition of Africa voicing its problems with China — the continent’s biggest trade partner — behind closed doors.
In one incident, Nigeria’s speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, posted a video of himself summoning Chinese Ambassador Zhou Pingjian to his office where he expressed his displeasure about a Nigerian man being evicted from his home.
While nobody expects China to lose its place as Africa’s biggest bilateral lender and trade partner, analysts and African diplomats say there is a distinct possibility of lasting damage. Reluctance from China to endorse a G-20 decision to suspend Africa’s debt payments until the end of the year has exacerbated the sense of frustration, they said.
“There is a lot of tension within the relationship. I think both of these issues are the newest manifestations of long-term problems,” said Cobus van Staden, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs. “Africa’s official response [to its citizens in China] took into account popular sentiment a lot more than it usually would have.”
Some scholars have documented how politicians in Africa have boosted their electoral base by mobilizing anti-Chinese sentiment, while many ordinary people perceive China’s success in the region as a threat to their own well-being.
Although China’s government and the billionaire founder of the Alibaba Group, Jack Ma, have been among the most generous and eager members of the international community to assist Africa in fighting Covid-19, Beijing’s overtaking of the World Bank as the biggest single lender to Africa has made it less inclined to write off the money it is owed. The Chinese government and the China Development Bank lent more than $150 billion to Africa between 2000 and 2018, according to the China Africa Research Initiative at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
U.S. officials, including Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of African Affairs, have strongly condemned the treatment of Africans in China, resulting in China snapping back at Washington by accusing it of sowing unnecessary discord between the pair.
Chinese officials have moved quickly to seal the emerging rift. Ambassador Liu Yuxi, Beijing’s head of mission to the African Union, released a photo of himself giving a socially distanced elbow bump to his African counterpart — while distancing the Beijing government from the authorities in Guangzhou.
At the same time, Zhang Minjing, political counselor at the mission, downplayed the controversy in comments to POLITICO. Beijing had “championed” a debt initiative agreed upon by the G-20, he said, and is “committed to taking all possible steps to support the poor.” As for the recent tumult in Guangzhou, he said, “the rock-solid China-Africa Friendship will not be affected by isolated incidents.”
“China is against any differential treatment targeting any specific group of people. China and Africa are good brothers and comrades-in-arms. We are always there for each other come rain or shine,” he added.
But there are also growing concerns in Beijing that its multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects in places such as Zimbabwe have now ground to a halt because of the coronavirus. Not only are engineering personnel unable to travel to the continent, but construction materials are running low as supply chains dry up.
Africans are going to need all the help they can get. After years of rapid growth, the International Monetary Fund on Wednesday said sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product would shrink this year by 1.6 percent due to the effects of the coronavirus, low oil prices and poor commodity prices. In Ethiopia alone, the government has estimated that 1.4 million jobs will be lost over the next three months, according to a document seen by POLITICO, roughly 3 percent of the workforce. Africa has recorded 17,701 coronavirus cases and 915 deaths — a toll that will likely climb rapidly, and likely underestimates the scale of the continent's predicament.
So far, the rest of the world has done little to help. On Monday, the IMF granted $215 million in initial debt relief to 25 African countries — a relative pittance compared with the vast sums those countries owe. On Wednesday, G-20 nations, which include China, the U.S., India and others, did offer to suspend debt payments until the end of 2020 despite calls from French President Emmanuel Macron to help African countries by “massively canceling their debt.”
But Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, one of four special envoys to the African Union to solicit G-20 support in dealing with the coronavirus, said Africa was still “pushing for more.” In an interview, Okonjo-Iweala said she believed “China is coming along” to provide Africa with debt relief across the board and not simply on a case-by-case basis. “I don’t believe it’s against supporting African countries on this. I’ve heard actually to the contrary,” she said. “What we need from China is not a case-by-case examination, but an across-the-board agreement.”
Stephen Karingi, director of the trade division at the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa, said support from the international community should be “weighed against the damage Covid-19 will cause” in Africa. “We think that 2020 and 2021 will be difficult and support should have that in mind or such a horizon,” Karingi said.
How damaging the latest events will be to the political and commercial ties that have made China Africa’s largest trading partner are unclear.
On the official level, there are signs that all will soon be forgotten. A senior African diplomat to the African Union, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, said, “When it comes to China, I doubt we will see long-term problems.”
“They’ve got a lot invested on the continent, in the AU, in this city,” the official added.
“They’re everywhere. Realistically, I think it’s important both sides understand why this is happening and try and resolve this mutually.”
Still, a host of African officials have made sure China does not get away lightly with its treatment of Africans living in China. Over the weekend, Moussa Faki, chairman of the African Union Commission, said he had “invited” the Chinese ambassador to the AU to express his “extreme concern” for the situation, while Chinese ambassadors in Nigeria and Ghana were summoned to give an explanation.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa said the ill treatment of African nationals in China was “inconsistent with the excellent relations that exist between China and Africa, dating back to China’s support during the decolonization struggle in Africa.”
A senior AU official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said Chinese officials were particularly alarmed by the public dimension of the incident that exploded on social media. But, the official said, many African nations were pleased by remarks delivered by Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Sunday in which he underlined “the African side’s reasonable concerns and legitimate appeals.”
Whether the people living on the continent forget so easily is another matter altogether.
“It’s going to be contentious among those communities for a lot longer,” said van Staden of the South African Institute of International Affairs.
South Africa will allow mines to operate at 50% capacity during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, according to amended government regulations published on Thursday.
The government had ordered most underground mines and furnaces to be put on care and maintenance during the lockdown, which started on March 27 and has been extended until the end of April, apart from coal mines supplying state power utility Eskom.
Miners have been lobbying the government to allow them to resume production with controls in place to detect and contain COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
South Africa is the world’s biggest producer of chrome ore, accounts for around 70% of global mined platinum supply and is a major producer of other minerals and metals.
The lockdown has affected global commodities markets since several local miners have cut their production plans or declared force majeure.
Mines minister Gwede Mantashe told a news conference that the government knew there were risks if some deep-level mines were closed for an extended period.
“In the amendment we are identifying a risk, particularly in deep mining, (that) if they are left alone for a long time the stability of the ground gets tampered with,” he said.
South Africa is home to some of the world’s deepest mines, some of which are nearly 4 kilometres deep.
The amended regulations say mines will be allowed to restart and ramp up capacity depending on conditions including the screening of employees for COVID-19 symptoms, the availability of quarantine facilities and transport arrangements for workers.
Cooperative affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said the government planned to ease other lockdown restrictions in an “orderly, incremental manner”.
“We are going to be probably every week announcing which areas are being opened and the conditions of those openings,” she said. “Industries will have to slowly come on stream.”
As of Thursday South Africa had reported 2,506 people infected with the coronavirus and 34 deaths.
More than half of all African countries have now imposed lockdown measures aimed at flattening the curve of new COVID-19 infections.
The reason for taking such drastic measures while infection rates are still relatively low, compared to the rest of the world, is that they could help Africa prevent the pandemic from making an even greater impact.
People operating in the informal economy, who make a living based on daily transactions, are the hardest hit. Unlike many developed countries, Africa is largely urbanising without commensurate industrialisation. Formal job growth lags far behind. The urban informal economy is the main generator of income. It accounts for almost 72% of non-agricultural employment across the continent.
Urban dwellers use a major portion of their daily income on food. This is because they are less likely than rural people to be able to grow their own food. The poorest urban dwellers can spend up to 60% of their income on food.
The Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen famously observed that hunger is usually not a result of an insufficient supply of food, but rather a result of political constructs that result in those most vulnerable not being able to access the right foods. For the poorest urban dwellers this vulnerability is aggravated when their incomes fall at the same time as food prices rise – a situation already happening in developing country cities facing lockdowns.
Governments must therefore focus on keeping food supply chains working. This will require a combination of interventions. The first is to ensure that sufficient food reaches urban markets and that it remains affordable. They will also need to ensure that food can be accessed by those who need it most and in such a way that continues to ensure the health and safety of everyone.
Keeping food supply chains going
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, food in African cities was already expensive. Urban populations pay about 35% more for food than people pay elsewhere. One of the drivers is the sprawling and fragmented form of many African cities, due to poor planning. This increases the costs of land, rent and transport. It translates into higher costs throughout supply chains, including those for food.
During the COVID-19 crisis, food supply chains were initially disrupted by the closure of borders. This is a worry for low-income countries, which are much more dependent on food imports.
Next came bans on public and private transportation inside countries, threatening the supply of food to cities. The bans also threaten supply chains of imported food via cities to rural areas.
Many countries, like Kenya, are exempting official food supply shipments from these bans. But food that supplies markets in African cities is often transported informally and in small quantities. More importantly, it is transported through the same public system that has now been temporarily shut down in many places.
In some countries, prices for some food products rose by more than 100% at the start of national lockdowns, driven by panic and uncertainty. India’s case shows that disruptions in the food supply chain will result in higher food prices, hitting the urban poor the hardest.
Food aid is only a temporary stop gap
Some African countries are distributing food aid as a stopgap. Rwanda was one of the first. Uganda has followed, undertaking food distributions for 1.5 million vulnerable residents of Greater Kampala.
Distributing food aid may be complicated by the fact that it is not always clear who should be targeted. In many developing countries, vulnerability, poverty and hunger exist across the entire population. But during a crisis like COVID-19, people who rely on the market rather than growing their own food will be the most heavily affected. This is why both Rwanda and Uganda decided initially to target urban populations.
Even within cities, understanding who to target is difficult.
In more developed countries, comprehensive tax and employment registers make it easier to identify vulnerable populations. Without comprehensive registers, it may be logistically easier to get people to come to a central area to receive food if they need it. But not only does this undermine social distancing, having large numbers of desperate people in one place can bring about chaos.
Food aid may prove unsustainable. It’s not yet clear how long lockdowns will need to last to flatten the curve sufficiently. And an effective vaccine is at least 18 months away. Yet the longer the lockdowns last, the more people may be pushed into poverty. More people will need food aid and for longer. Many African governments are already cash strapped and so free food distribution cannot be a long term strategy.
That’s why ensuring stable access to affordable food is key.
Managing informal markets
Many African cities are sprawling due to their largely unplanned growth. As people flock to cities, they tend to live first on the outskirts where it is more affordable. Markets and individual vendors set up there to serve the informal settlements. These are important sources of food security for urban households. Because they are close to where people live, they enable daily purchases, particularly of fresh produce. Informal sector operators survive from income earned daily.
This decentralised food vending is often less tolerated by governments. But it may actually prove to be an advantage. It means people don’t need to go far from home for food. It also may be easier to prevent crowds of people forming and more feasible than enforcing strict distancing measures in market spaces. What’s more, these informal vendors, many of whom are women, are often the most economically vulnerable, so they need to be able to continue to sell.
Where there are larger markets, measures that allow them to operate safely will be key. This is for non-food items too, to allow people to generate income to purchase food. Measures will need to include effective sanitation and hand-washing stations. Targeting individual behaviour may also be highly effective.
Many of these markets already tend to be more organised, so it may be easier to work with them to implement measures. For example, vendors could work in rotation to decongest markets on any one day. This has already been done with some success in some places in India.
To avoid a hunger crisis, governments must think of sustainable solutions to keep food supply chains working. The COVID-19 crisis may last for many more months.