ANALYSIS: China, the West & Democracy in Africa

Before daybreak on 14 May 2007, engineers at China’s Xichang Space Centre in south-western Sichuan Province launched a Chinese-made communications satellite into orbit on behalf of the West African state of Nigeria. The launch of the satellite, named NIGCOMSAT-1, marked a major milestone both in China and Africa and in the relations between the two.

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It was Nigeria’s first satellite and sub-Saharan Africa’s first major satellite outside South Africa. For China, it was the first foreign sale of Chinese-made satellite communications technology developed over half a century. And, lofted into orbit by a Long March 3B rocket, the technology bore the stamp of that long history that went back to the Maoist revolutionary era. ‘Long March’ commemorates the Red Army’s military skill in undertaking a circling retreat through difficult terrain in western China to the northern province of Shanxi. The massive military retreat saved the Communist Party of China (CPC) from defeat by the Western-backed Kuomintang Party and established the charismatic Mao Zedong as the indisputable leader of the CPC. Under Mao, China’s main export to Africa was revolutionary ideology, with training camps established in China, Ghana and Algeria to impart guerrilla warfare tactics to African freedom fighters and insurgents. This was in furtherance of Mao’s global revolution against the ‘imperialist’ West and Beijing’s attempt to undercut the rival government established by the defeated Kuomintang in the Chinese island of Taiwan.

Monitored from a ground control station in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, with backup stations in China, northern Nigeria, South Africa and Italy, NIGCOMSAT-1 marked China’s new predominantly commercial face in Africa. But it was a commercial venture that the Chinese believe was also to help Africa meet some of its development aspirations by leapfrogging its underdeveloped infrastructure and marginalisation into the global information society. With an expected lifespan of 15 years, the Chinese-made satellite would facilitate rural access to technology and boost phone and broadband internet services in Africa. Complementing the satellite technology were the terrestrial fibre optic cables that Chinese companies were laying in a number of African countries, including in Ghana, Kenya and landlocked Ethiopia to reduce costs and increase bandwidth capacity of internet services.

But only 18 months after the launch of the Chinese-made satellite, Africa’s dependence on Chinese technology received an embarrassing setback. The satellite cascaded down from energy failure after the solar panels that powered it malfunctioned. It was a huge embarrassment to the Chinese manufacturer, which promptly pledged to intercept and rebuild the satellite. In Nigeria, sections of the media, perhaps bitterly reminded of their own experience with spasmodic power failures on a daily basis, accused the Chinese manufacturer of using poor-quality materials, just as they are wont to rightly blame repeated power cuts in Nigeria on poor governance. Elsewhere, the satellite’s failure was viewed as a reminder of the inherent danger in Africa’s growing dependence on China as an alternative source of trade, investment and technology.

This latter view is not entirely wrong. Notwithstanding its recent success in a number of technical areas, including in global electronics manufacturing and renewable energy technologies, China is still playing technological catch-up with the advanced industrialised powers of the West, with which Africa has been engaged for centuries. Africa better stick with the West. But a curious mind would ask: why then did it take China, instead of the West, to launch such a major satellite communication facility in Africa? They will ask further, after being under Western tutelage for so long, should not Africa have acquired, and be transformed by, the technological capabilities that have caused major transformations in the West itself? Or, has Africa simply been a bad student, an unintelligent follower, eager to use what others produce but far less so in learning how, or attempting, to produce what it needs?

The answers to the above questions can range from the seemingly rational to the conspiratorial. One rational answer might be to point to the economics of the industry and suggest that Western technology has been too expensive for Africa to access. That China beat 21 other bidders in 2004 to win the $311 million contract to launch the satellite for Nigeria, perhaps, offers proof for this answer. And the answer would, perhaps, be sufficient had Western actors, such as the United States, not been known to make airplanes available for the personal use of African leaders like Mobutu in return for access to resources during the Cold War. Surely, if one man could be gifted with an airplane, a continent deserved subsidised telecommunications systems to facilitate development, that is, if one were to assume that African leaders wanted development and the Western powers were interested in facilitating this with generous transfer of technologies.

At the other extreme, the more banal and conspiratorial answer might be to suggest that the West has been too concerned to orchestrate its own self-propagation and perpetual dominance as to care about diffusing the technologies and capabilities crucial for Africa’s economic and social transformation. If African countries grew wealthier, why would they follow Western tutelage rather than take matters into their own hands? This answer should have been deemed too much of a conspiracy had the West not also been known to spend, after the Cold War, millions in aid money trying to help impoverished African countries conduct expensive elections that would be brought to homes in Western cities and townships via satellite as a sign of the growing success of the Western Enlightenment project. Indeed, when the telegram was invented in the nineteenth century, the United States hoped it would serve exactly this purpose: a means to spread Western values around the world.

In response to a congratulatory telegram from Queen Victoria of Great Britain on the launch of the first transatlantic cable in 1858, President Buchannan of the United States stated, in part: ‘This telegraph is a fantastic instrument to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty and law throughout the world.’

But by the turn of twentieth century revolutions in transport and communication technologies had spawned a second industrial revolution in which the United States would become the leader, and it would be the rapid dispersion of manufacturing activity, aided by further technological advances and increased capital mobility, that would become the defining feature of the ensuing decades. The United States itself led in the internationalisation of industrial production, soon to be followed by Europe and Japan. The material improvements resulting from these structural changes led to demands for democratic government in many parts of the world. That is, the proselytisation of the non-Western world, as envisioned by President Buchannan in 1858, took place largely through the spread of wealth through industrial production. In turn, growing wealth in industrialising societies threw up a growing middle class eager to demand political recognition and civil liberties from authoritarian regimes.

In recent times, a number of articles have appeared here asking why Africa has such crude democracies. May this be the reason: that Africa has been hastened to Western-style electoral democracy, without undergoing the economic, social and institutional transformations needed to consolidate a well-functioning democracy? Further, considering that Chinese competition is forcing the West to recalibrate their steps- for example forcing French companies to join in the business of launching satellites and the World Bank in backing special economic zones to promote growth in Africa- would it be too provocative to suggest that by focusing on economic and social development in its engagement with Africa, authoritarian China may in fact be helping Africa build the foundation for more stable democracies in the future? (Forget not that China, in pursuit of the principle of non-interference, does not ask African countries to become authoritarian before benefiting from its development assistance.)

Further still, has the liberal West been too impatient to give true democracy, that is, bottom-up democracy, a chance in Africa? If Western actors are truly concerned about consolidating democracy, rather than what Joseph Schumpeter called ‘objectless self-propagation,’ should Africa’s economic transformation not become the foremost priority? To put it differently, aren’t we putting the cart before the horse, racing ahead with democracy with our tails stuck deep in poverty?

Even further still, should poverty reduction come through the promotion of industrial development that brings structural change, creates jobs and raises incomes? Or should it come through the distribution of aid money ala lively empowerment programme? Can we really share wealth we haven’t created, unless we want to put ourselves on a life support? And if we do put ourselves on a life support, would we not put ourselves under the tutelage of Western donors, a vicious cycle of lack of poverty and national policy autonomy?

If this Upstart were to be permitted some right to ‘pontificate,’ he would suggest that this is the real secret of any aid programme that continues forever without helping the recipients quit aid: perpetual dominance for the giver, perpetual dependence and poverty for the recipient. And if he were permitted to sound a little ‘arrogant’ or ‘like a big man,’ he would suggest further that, perhaps, the time has come to reject such aid, bite the bullet, and cut this vicious cycle of poverty! Further still, he would humbly ask to be indulged to suggest even further: We don’t need money for poverty reduction; we need money for growth and wealth creation. It is only then can poverty reduce and true democracy consolidate.

By Kobina Idun-Arkhurst


The opinions expressed here are the author`s and do not necessarily reflects the views or have the endorsement of the Editorial Board of AfricaNewsAnalysis