The Washington Post
REMADE BY FOREIGN POWERS
The designs of foreign powers have molded African cities for centuries, especially along the continent’s coasts. From narrow-alleyed old towns to gleaming new container-shipping terminals, port cities like this one are layered with evidence of how budding empires, in the Arab world, Europe and now China, sought to remake them.
It was dusk in the plaza and histories were blending together in the dimming light. Dozens of men had gathered under the chinaberry trees to talk politics and chew khat, a mild stimulant beloved in the communities that skirt the western Indian Ocean. The call to prayer emanated from a nearby mosque built by Omani tradesmen more than 450 years ago.
A crumbling fort built by the Portuguese, who wrested this port city from the Omanis in the 1600s, loomed behind the trees, which also enshrouded a monument to a British regimental commander killed in World War II.
An auto rickshaw raced by, briefly interlacing the Islamic recitation and the murmur of gossip with a nostalgic music choice: the 2012 Bollywood hit song “Hookah Bar.”
Like many port cities, Mombasa is infused with distant cultures. From its centuries-old core, its expansion has been spurred by sultanates, seafaring mercantilists and great world powers, which all saw economic opportunity in its protected inlets.
Each has left an indelible mark on the Kenyan city. In the past decade, the biggest ones have been made by Chinese government-backed loans.
Beijing’s burgeoning economic might has contributed to an infrastructure boom across the continent, in cities such as Djibouti; Luanda, Angola; and Lubumbashi, Congo.
Chinese institutions invested more than $200 billion in the transportation and power sectors across Africa between 2000 and 2017, according to the Aiddata initiative at William & Mary, the Virginia college.
At least 46 ports and 34 airports in Africa received direct investment from China, according to Aiddata and a separate data set from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
At least 13,000 miles of railroads, highways and bridges have been built or renovated with investments from two Chinese state-owned banks, according to a third data set, from Boston University’s China’s Overseas Development Finance Database.
China’s growing role in shaping African cities is driven by unfulfilled local needs for trade and transport infrastructure. But expansion also serves China’s need to export labor and goods, and its desire to gain diplomatic clout in dozens of nations.
The implications for Africa’s urban future are highly visible and tangible — a stark difference from the subtler effects of aid money, which represents Western countries’ largest unilateral investments on the continent.
Since the colonial era ended in the 1960s, African countries have struggled to collect tax revenue, stem corruption and accumulate savings, driving reliance on grants, loans and aid. Simple yet vital infrastructure, especially in transportation, is lacking even in some of Africa’s biggest cities.
Chinese loans have enabled African cities to refurbish their infrastructure, making transportation easier and cheaper for people and goods.
China’s state-owned lending institutions have put more money into African governments over the past decade than all Western aid combined, and China has become the largest trading partner for most African countries. Many of the loan repayments are resource-backed, meaning the borrower commits future earnings on bauxite, oil or some other resource as collateral.
The shifting dynamics have been a source of concern in Western capitals, which have seen their cachet on the continent decline. And the changes have spawned warnings from those same capitals to African governments that they are being tricked into debt traps that leave strategic resources and infrastructure vulnerable to Chinese takeover.
That view has been increasingly discounted by scholars, in part because Chinese lenders have not requisitioned any major infrastructure projects even as debts continue to mount. Chinese loans to Africa also have declined after a high in 2013, the year China launched its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to link its markets with the rest of the world.
“There’s an interest particularly in Washington to portray Chinese actions in as malign a light as possible,” said W. Gyude Moore, Liberia’s former public works minister, who is now a fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. “The U.S. struggles to outline a positive vision of what the world should be. The easiest way they’ve found is through comparison to enemies: ‘We are free, China is not; we are helping, China is extorting.’ ”
Spice-route waypoint becomes global hub
After independence movements swept Africa in the 1950s and ’60s, birthing dozens of countries into a world riven by the Cold War, Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of Ghana, proclaimed, “We face neither East nor West, we face forward.”
In reality, African governments have faced both East and West, and those relationships have been deeply troubled.
Now, instead of states wielding power through force, it is corporations, banks and the world’s largest lending institutions wielding loans laden with confidentiality clauses.
Their relationship with African governments remains an unequal one, and in some cases, the outcomes resemble Africa’s years emerging from the colonial era. Opaque loans and closer ties with Beijing have strengthened African governments that have little regard for democracy, human rights or economic equality.
In Mombasa, the Chinese have supplanted colonial-era infrastructure with their own: a huge container terminal, a gleaming new rail line to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, and new highways linking a smattering of special economic zones. The boom has left the country billions of dollars in debt but also with some of the tools it might need to get itself out.
On a humid monsoon-season morning, Sylvan Mghanga, a spokesman for Kenya’s port authority, barely had a minute to spare before jetting off from Mombasa to Lamu, another thousand-year-old port town on Kenya’s coast, where the Chinese have financed an additional port that will serve northern Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
“In our coastal cities, it used to be wooden dhows,” he said, referencing the sail-propelled
vessels that ply the Indian Ocean. “Now we load 10 100-container trains on a good day, and they end up as far away as Congo.”
Mombasa’s old port — heavily used for centuries until colonial-era British warships necessitated a new one in deeper waters — still gets about one dhow a week. This closing window on the past was still open in May, when laborers lugged sacks of rice and spices up wooden planks onto an India-bound dhow named Noor-e-mustafa, which was decorated with intricately painted latticework. A Gujarati foreman barked out orders at sweaty Kenyan deckhands.
“We have deep water, we’re on the equator, we’re on the way from everywhere to everywhere else,” said Kalandar Khan, a historian of Kenya’s coast whose ancestors were brought from Baluchistan, in what is now Pakistan, to Mombasa four centuries ago by Omani sultans who employed them as mercenaries.
The Chinese are not new to Mombasa. Zheng He, the great sea voyager of China’s exploration age, traveled along the coast here in the early 1400s. A statue of him greets passengers at the new Chinesebuilt-and-financed railway between Mombasa and Nairobi.
China’s current influence in Africa, however, is difficult to scrutinize. In the post-2013 Belt and Road era, nearly all Chinese loan contracts have included extensive confidentiality clauses that prevent citizens of both China and the African countries receiving the loans from being able to investigate the terms on which their governments are interacting.
The Mombasa-nairobi railway is a case in point. Its $4 billion-plus price tag has raised questions, given that some estimates put the cost of refurbishing the old British-built line at a quarter of that.
Mombasa, Kenya’s second-biggest city, is expected to grow rapidly as it accelerates its shift from being an outdated spice-route waypoint to a major global city that funnels goods to all of East Africa, a region with one of the world’s fastest-growing populations.
“The Chinese are in effect building yet another layer — the farthest one away from Mombasa’s Old Town,” Khan said. “What will it mean? I think [the city] will become less eclectic of a mix. Yes, Baluchis, Somalis, Arabs, Indians, locals, but now more and more of Kenya will want to live here. We will start to look more like the rest of Kenya.”
Chinese projects outcompete Western aid
Most of China’s loans in Africa haven’t yet yielded huge financial returns, and the bulk of African governments’ debt to Chinese banks remains unpaid. In many cases, experts say, getting paid back isn’t the creditors’ top priority.
“The loans create work for Chinese firms and employment for Chinese managers,” Moore said. “The debts keep African governments invested in having close ties with Beijing. They don’t need to get literal returns on investment to win.”
A vast global web of loans has allowed China to stretch its muscles as a global superpower, said Howard French, who has written two books on
China’s ambitions, including one on Africa specifically.
“When China wanted to kick-start its own process of getting out of poverty, its leaders took a very studied look around the world to see where there might be opportunities for them” and settled on Africa, among other less-developed parts of the world such as Pakistan and Venezuela, he said.
Competition was low in Africa, but the population was growing and urbanizing at a quick pace — and Chinese leaders have always taken demography seriously, French said. They knew that the same kind of material they needed for their own urbanization — tin sheeting, tiles, cement, household electronics — would find ready markets in Africa. And they could create brand loyalty in places where people were still buying their first cars and mobile phones.
Conversely, Western countries have stuck with a model that is arguably just as susceptible to the problems they cite in criticizing China: billions of dollars in aid going to often-unaccountable public institutions, and private investment in extractive industries like mining and oil.
The United States in particular has sought to counter China’s ascent in Africa with questions about respect for human rights and the environment in Chinese-linked projects. The approach has not prevented any of those projects from pushing forward.
“China has given the money and said, ‘We want to help you integrate into the global economy, of which we are now at the forefront,’ ” Moore said.
African governments can be understood to be following Nkrumah’s exhortation of looking neither West nor East but forward, Moore said, even if both relationships have created new forms of dependency.
Africans themselves, in surveys, express mostly positive attitudes toward Chinese investment.
“The stories of collateral are well known at this point, but they will forgive our debt,” said Khan, reflecting a common viewpoint in Kenya. “As ever, Mombasa is a strategic gem. It is a door to a large region. But the Chinese are not disrespectful. They won’t say, ‘Now this door is all mine.’ ”
That kind of reasoning is often contrasted with the West’s exploitative past in Africa, which built up cities like Mombasa primarily for the conquerors’ gain, with little incidental benefit for the common citizen.
Responding to skepticism about Chinese intentions, many Africans simply ask: What is the problem with getting help to attain the same level of development others have? And who are Western governments to raise questions about human rights and accountability in Africa when their own record is atrocious?
“I can’t believe the way to win hearts and minds is to have a discourse about Africans being duped, but you hear this over and over again,” French said. “China hasn’t done everything right, but China has had a positive vision of where Africa might fit into its own story of economic growth and ascension. Of course they’ve stumbled. But it was a training ground for their broader ambitions in the world.”