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President Kenyatta and Chinese leader Xi Jinping during the 2019 BRI forum in Beijing.

Fifth Estate

Will China be Africa’s trusted partner in post pandemic world?

Many of the apocalyptic projections of the novel coronavirus impacts on Africa are yet to materialize. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control, the continent had by May 30, registered only 3922 Covid-19 deaths and 135,292 cases. This is in stark reality of other regions of the world where the virus has so far decimated over 360, 000 lives and sickened six million. 

Africa’s young population, ecological dynamics, experience dealing with epidemics and mitigation measures employed by different governments, are seen by experts as reasons behind its better showing in terms of managing the spread of the disease. But this could just be end of the good news.

With no vaccine in sight and World Health Organization indicating that the virus is here to stay, the pandemic continues to be an existential threat for the whole of humanity. Yet, even in the face of such grim realities, the global consensus to wrestle the virus down remains elusive. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States, from the WHO, is only the latest indication that an international bipartisan approach to contain the epidemic will be hard to realize.

Although Africa has performed reasonably well in saving lives so far; the same cannot be said of livelihoods. Many countries in the continent are reeling under the yolk of economic difficulties. Firms are closing down. Millions are losing jobs every week with no sighting of a better future. Here in Kenya, the National Bureau of Statistics has released a survey indicating that nearly a third of the population could not meet their house rent obligations in the month of April. Women constitute 51% of Kenya’s most afflicted. 

As the US abandons its seat at the WHO high table, China is emphasizing functional multilateralism; an idea that overwhelming majority of the countries also subscribe to. In his address the 73rd World Health Assembly, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping pledged US$ 2 billion to the WHO and called for international solidarity to build a healthy global community.

Should China succeed in developing a Covid-19 vaccine, President Xi added, they will make it both accessible and affordable; as a global public good, to confront the global pandemic. This view contrasts with that of Washington, where President Trump stated that the US will develop a vaccine only for the American people. 

On Africa, President Xi has committed to pair 30 leading African hospitals with Chinese counterparts while expediting the construction of Africa CDC headquarters. All these are primed to foster the continent’s capacity to pull through the pandemic rubble in a safe and sustainable manner. 

The work of post Covid-19 economic reconstruction will be a steep climb, for emerging economies, especially those reliant on commodity exports. Many of the traditional partners of Africa in Europe are yet to climb out of the pandemic affliction; leaving them little room to extend a helping hand to African countries. With US continued indifference towards Africa, it appears only Beijing provides some dependable basis of long term and pragmatic relations with the continent.

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Drawing from nearly two decades of sustained economic cooperation between China and Africa; surveys conducted in the last five years indicate increased acceptability of Beijing as strong development partner. 

A 2016 Afrobarometer survey for example, revealed that 76% of Kenyans welcomed China’s economic cooperation with Nairobi. Two years later, an Ipsos poll in Kenya, placed China ahead of the United States, for the first time, as a development partner. The trend continued in 2019 where a Pew Research revealed that 68% of Kenyans believe a stronger Chinese economy is good for Nairobi. 

Translating these welcoming views of China into productive economic cooperative arrangements that can be a force to pull Africa out of the Covid-19 conundrum, will however take serious efforts. To promote industrialization that can create the much needed jobs and wealth, African countries, should implement investor friendly policies to tap from the burgeoning Chinese private sector players keen on the continent. 

Secondly, official development assistance from Beijing should be invested in productive sectors that creates value for the majority; and not a tiny elite.

Thirdly, according to Statistics from the General Administration of Customs of China, the volume of trade between China and Africa was US$ 204.19 billion in 2018. Africa’s exports to China was valued at US$ 99.28 billion; representing a 70% drop in surplus compared to 2017. Interestingly, 96% of all African exports to China are oil, minerals and timber. 

Although the surplus looks good continentally, at country level, the prospects are totally different. Trade volume between Nairobi and Beijing in 2017 was valued at US$ 4 billion. Yet, Kenya only exported goods worth US$ 500 million to Beijing during the same period.

China should therefore open its 1.5 billion people market to more African products. Recent sanitary and phytosanitary agreements signed between Kenya and China is a good example of efforts to promote entry of African agricultural produce into the Chinese market.

The Writer is a PhD student of International Relations with focus on China-Africa cooperation. Twitter: @Cavinceworld. Email: [email protected]   

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