By multiplying the heavy infrastructure projects in Africa, China, and Russia aim to establish their influence in the countries of the continent, which risk their part to find themselves “trapped”, warn experts.
Railway lines, and civil infrastructure: China is multiplying gigantic projects in cooperation with African states, of which it is becoming one of the main donors.
“One in three major infrastructure projects in Africa is built by Chinese state-owned companies, one in five is financed by a Chinese institutional bank,” says Paul Nantulya, of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, who report of the US Department of Defense.
Beijing is taking advantage of the void left by the withdrawal of Western countries, which are more hesitant to finance these projects. “The Chinese saw this void and decided to invest in infrastructure,” remarks Mr. Nantulya.
But at what cost? Anna Borshchevskaya , of the Washington Institute, think tank, points to a “debt trap” for African countries. “China offers loans for expensive infrastructure projects” and “when a country cannot repay its loan, China takes control of its strategic assets,” she says.
During her visit to Senegal in January, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called on African countries to _”be careful about tempting deals.”_These can “be opaque and ultimately fail to help the people they were meant to help,” she said, referring to deals China has made in Africa.
Many of the poorest states are heading towards over-indebtedness, or even default, UN agencies said at the conference of least developed countries organized by the United Nations in Qatar in early March.
“China should be the last to be accused (of using) the debt trap,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang retorted on March 7 at a press conference. “China has worked hard to help troubled countries and is the main contributor to the G20 debt service suspension initiative,” he added.
In Kenya, one of the gigantic projects carried out by China is the railway line linking the city of Mombasa to the Rift Valley, at a cost of five billion dollars, 90% financed by Beijing. China is Kenya’s second-largest donor, after the World Bank.
Tanzania has signed a $2.2 billion contract with a Chinese company for a rail line linking the country’s main port to its neighbors.
While some projects turn out to be profitable, the real benefit so far lies with Beijing, with maintenance contracts that can last up to 99 years, according to Mr Nantulya, who adds that the local impact is low because the employees are overwhelmingly Chinese.
The expert also recalls that the debt crisis of the 1990s in Africa was caused by the West and not by China or Russia.
The main country exporting arms to Africa, Russia, for its part, is strengthening its presence on the continent thanks in particular to mining projects granted to the private paramilitary group Wagner, suspected of abuses in Moscow’s war against Ukraine.
In January, the United States accused Wagner of “widespread human rights violations and natural resource extortion” in Africa. Accusations reiterated by the European Union, which took sanctions against the group in February.
Mr Nantulya notes that the group operates in Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, but not “in democratic environments”, citing Ghana, Namibia, and Senegal. Experts have also denounced the environmental impact of Chinese and Russian projects on the continent.
Both countries are “notorious for greater negligence when carrying out their projects, compared to their Western counterparts” , underlines Ms. Borshchevskaya. “China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases” and finances “coal power plants abroad”, she adds.
And “Russia’s mining projects … have reportedly resulted in high levels of toxic metal compounds, pollution of groundwater resources, soils and vegetation.”
In Liberia, these impacts are “serious”, points out Davestus James, of the Liberia Center for Peacebuilding and Democracy. “Citizens are victims of their own resources,” he says. “The erosion caused by the mines pollutes drinking water (…), the resources are also monopolized and exported to the detriment of the citizens.”