There is no doubt that China has plans to be the number one influencer in Africa. The United States does not find that prospect funny at all. Neither do many independent-minded Africans who are not interested in exchanging one colonialist with another but would rather encourage a win-win partnership where African countries are not reduced to tenants in their fatherland.

Nigeria’s minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, stirred the hornet’s nest the other day at a public hearing held by the House of Representatives Committee on Treaties, Protocols and Agreements when he argued that a probe into Nigeria’s resort to Chinese loans to finance railway projects could make the lender withdraw the loan offer of $500 million.

Many people thought the statement was over the bar. What was so sacrosanct about seeking the raw details of a loan which could mortgage the future of unborn generations of Nigerians? Was Nigeria in desperate search for a slave master? If the lender did not want the terms of the loan scrutinised by the borrower’s parliament, especially with allegations of the insertion of ‘loss of sovereignty clauses’, was the whole deal not suspicious?

The minister has since done some kind of walk-back on his statement. But the public hearing has ignited strident debates on what is being perceived as China’s strategic scheme to take over Africa, one country at a time. Critics of China’s increased inroad into Africa point to Zambia as the poster boy of China’s vision of capturing Africa through the debt trap. China is the main investor in Zambia, whose debt stock was  $8.7 billion at the end of 2017, out of which the country had borrowed at least $6.4 billion from Chinese lenders. China’s influence on Zambia is so pronounced that 22 months ago, Zambia deported the influential pan-Africanist Professor PLO Lumumba before he could deliver his anti-China lecture titled, “Africa in the age of China’s Global Influence and Global Geodynamics.”

As at 2017, Zambia had logged the following loans under its already tight belt:

Copperbelt C400 Roads                       – $418 million (2015)

Chipata – Serenje Railway line              – $2,3 billion (2017)

Mongu – Kalabo Road                            – $287 million (2011)

2,000 Military Houses                            – $157 million (2017)

Mansa – Luwingu Road                          – $242 million (2012)

Mbala – Nakonde Road                          – $180 million (2011)

Lusaka Sanitation Project                      – $130 million (2015)

Kafubu water project                              – $104 million (2014)

National Heroes Stadium                       – $94 million (2011)

Levi Mwanawasa project                        – $90 million (2015)

Kafulafuta Dam water project                – $449 million (2017)

Housing project Security                        – $275 million (2015)

Kenneth Kaunda International Airport   – $360 million (2015)

Kafu Gorge Lower Powerplant                – $1.7 billion (2015)

Kariba North Bank Powerplant                – $430 million (2015)

Lusaka L400 Rods                                    – $300 million (2013)

Copperbelt International Airport             – $400 million (2017)

Lusaka de-congestion                              – $286 million (2017)

Communication Towers TopStar              – $280 million (2017)

The current African infatuation with China is a direct result of the decision of the U.S. to take its foot off the pedal of close economic relationship with the continent. Considering that all indices point to Africa being the next frontier of prosperity, it is inconceivable that the U.S. will sit idly by while the Chinese take the cake.

Reacting to public apprehension over Chinese loans, Nigeria’s Debt Management Office (DMO) disclosed that, as of March 31, total borrowing by Nigeria from China was $3.121 billion (at an interest rate of 2.5 per cent, with a tenure of 20 years and a grace period of seven years) representing 3.94 per cent of the country’s total public debt of $79.303 billion. That is 11.28 per cent of Nigeria’s external debt stock of $27.67 billion.

There is no doubt that China has plans to be the number one influencer in Africa. The United States does not find that prospect funny at all. Neither do many independent-minded Africans who are not interested in exchanging one colonialist with another but would rather encourage a win-win partnership where African countries are not reduced to tenants in their fatherland. However, former Nigerian foreign minister, Professor Bolaji Akinyemi, has advocated that what should guide Africa’s choice is national interest rather than ideological affiliation.

The current African infatuation with China is a direct result of the decision of the U.S. to take its foot off the pedal of close economic relationship with the continent. Considering that all indices point to Africa being the next frontier of prosperity, it is inconceivable that the U.S. will sit idly by while the Chinese take the cake.

Given a choice, many African countries will prefer to do business with the devil they know — the U.S. But America’s penchant to dictate where the shoe is pinching the owner of the foot, stands in the way.

On the other hand, America has its own problems. It’s share of global debt is 31 per cent, in comparison to China’s 9.8 per cent. The U.S. debt per capita is $80,000 or 149 per cent of GDP, while China’s is $1,326 or 15 per cent of GDP. While the U.S. maintains many military bases all over the world at great cost in furtherance of its gunboat diplomacy and its self-appointed role as a global policeman, China concentrates on its sphere of influence and avoids unnecessary wars. In the last 40 years, China has not fought any major war, apart from skirmishes and shows of force, while the U.S. military escapades and interventions in many parts of the world are well known. According to a report published in CNBC, America has spent $6.4 trillion on wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001.

Happily, there is a newfound self-confidence and nationalist consciousness among African leaders. In Naijaspeak, they will ‘look well-well’ before jumping either Eastwards or Westwards. Given its inventiveness, perhaps the United States will quickly come to terms with the fact that it is no longer the only buffalo in the pasture…

So, China, the former communist country, which is now attempting to out-capitalise the world’s number one capitalist, has more disposable income. That, coupled with the fact that its loan arrangements are allegedly tweaked to accommodate underhand dealings, especially bribery of decision makers in recipient third world countries — a practice the Western lenders cannot afford because of their strict governance protocols and anti-graft policies — make the battle for the soul of Africa an unequal one indeed.

In total, the Chinese state and its subsidiaries have lent about $1.5 trillion in direct loans and trade credits to more than 150 countries around the world, making China the world’s largest official lender — surpassing traditional, official creditors such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), or all OECD creditor governments combined.

According to the Harvard Business Review, developing country loans are just one element of China’s overseas lending activities: “When adding portfolio debts (including the $1 trillion of US Treasury debt purchased by China’s central bank) and trade credits (to buy goods and services), the Chinese government’s aggregate claims to the rest of the world exceed $5 trillion in total. In other words, countries worldwide owed more than 6% of world GDP in debt to China as of 2017.”

It is easy to see why the United States is worried — and it should be. But should Africa be bothered by all these? I think we ought to be very careful when dealing with an intrinsically secretive lender, even when his terms appear more favourable in the short run. One of the features of China’s entry into Africa is the incidence of Chinese nationals swamping the continent’s cities and villages, either as artisans working for state-owned Chinese companies or illegal miners and environmental bandits, as have been found in parts of Zambia and Nigeria’s Zamfara State. The Chinese export shiploads of their nationals wherever their loans have softened the ground.

Happily, there is a newfound self-confidence and nationalist consciousness among African leaders. In Naijaspeak, they will ‘look well-well’ before jumping either Eastwards or Westwards. Given its inventiveness, perhaps the United States will quickly come to terms with the fact that it is no longer the only buffalo in the pasture; maybe America will now buy into African dreams and aspirations in order to remain in the driver’s seat, as Africa marches into its destined era of plenty. The era of just one medic diagnosing the disease, carrying out surgery, dispensing medication and providing post-op nursing care, is over. Wanna influence Africa? Sit down with Africans to discuss how the American dream and the African aspiration can have a handshake. He who walks alone is both in front and behind. A herbalist who refuses to ask the layman what leaves he looks for in the wilderness has a lot of wandering to do.

Wole Olaoye can be reached through wole.olaoye@gmail.com.