Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Africa's New “King Cobra”

Ok, I have to admit that I didn't pay a lot of attention to the recent elections in Zambia, I'm guessing neither did you. I saw that presidential elections were held and that there were protests when the vote counting was taking a suspiciously long time; I was surprised then to read that the challenger won, since long vote counts usually mean that it's just taking the ruling side more time than expected to fill out thousands of bogus ballots. After that, I just filed the Zambia story away and moved on.

That was too bad, since, thanks to this story from The Australian, it turns out the situation in Zambia is far more interesting than a few headlines would make you believe. The elections were indeed won by the challenger, the populist candidate, 74-year old Catholic Michael Sata, who is also known as the “King Cobra” for his sharp tongue, The Australian explains (and just to make the situation a little more interesting, Sata ran on a ticket with Guy Scott, a white Zambian, as his running mate). The main issue in the election turned out to be China.

Zambia is rich in minerals, minerals that China covets to keep their industrial machine rolling. China has had a relationship with Zambia that dates back to the 1970s, but Chinese efforts in the country have exploded in recent years as China's economy continues to grow – more growth means more and more need for the minerals that Zambia has in abundance. This need, combined with some heavy-handed Chinese business practices, has led to a growing wave of anti-China sentiment in Zambia, a sentiment that Sata was able to tap into to draw a line between himself and now-former President Rupiah Banda who is staunchly pro-Chinese. Sata used terms like “infesters” and “bogus” in describing Chinese businessmen in Zambia and played up on ill feelings left by the Banda regime's failure to prosecute Chinese managers who shot Zambian coal miners during a strike.

The situation in Zambia is a big example of a growing unease in Africa about just how deeply China is penetrating into the continent. While many African regimes have welcomed Chinese investment – especially regimes under international pressure like Sudan and Zimbabwe, since Chinese investment typically comes with no strings attached – there are also fears that the Chinese are acting like a new wave of colonists. Chinese projects typically extract raw materials – gold, coal, oil, etc. - either using African unskilled labor under Chinese management, or sometimes with imported Chinese labor. The result is a system that builds little value for the African nations beyond fees paid for the minerals themselves, which reminds some Africans too much of the old colonial days.

For his part, Sata seems unafraid of the mighty Chinese; unlike, perhaps, the South Africans, who canceled a scheduled visit by the Dalai Lama thanks to Chinese pressure. In addition to his sharp words directed at Chinese business interests, he also recently referred to Taiwan as a “country”, a reference that greatly upset Beijing. It will be interesting to see if other African leaders start to follow Sata's lead and look at China a little more skeptically.
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