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Ulterior Motives? Chinese Infrastructure Investments in Africa

 3 min read / 

The $150m African Union Conference Center in Ethiopia, the $150m Victoria Falls International Airport in Zimbabwe and the $12bn Coastal Railway in Nigeria are just a few examples of large infrastructure projects that China has funded and built around the developing African continent. While some have applauded China’s involvement in ‘building Africa,’ others suggested a ‘quick profit’ agenda behind these investments, with an unclear sustainability strategy and a lack of long-term social impact.


China has been facing a rapid depletion of its natural resources in recent years, causing many to view its interest in building Africa as a ‘scramble for natural resources’. The Governance of Africa’s Resource Programme is just one of the bodies that have expressed concern regarding the Chinese financing of African infrastructure projects in exchange for mining rights, diamonds, oil and other resources. Notably, most of the top recipients of China’s infrastructure projects are countries that are rich in natural resources including Nigeria, Tanzania and Ghana.

In 2015, China imported a record 6.7 million barrels of oil a day. Earlier, in 2008, the China Railway Group acquired mining rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Angola, Guinea and Gabon, China has struck similar deals in the past to give loans and build infrastructure in exchange for oil, copper, cobalt and other resources. It is no surprise that as a result, there has been much speculation around the projects, especially with little information publicly available.

Ways to Move Forward

There are a few ways African governments and the Chinese can collaborate to increase public confidence regarding the true reasons behind these infrastructure projects:

  • African leaders need to seek out appropriate advisors when entering the partnerships to ensure they are getting the best possible deal, especially considering there is now increased pressure for the West to join the competition for projects. Africa has the resources and the negotiation power.
  • The Chinese need to increase visibility, local engagement and social initiatives in host countries to fight suspicion and distrust. There is already a strained relationship between African citizens and their ruling party governments around the continent. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Nigeria are just some of the countries where controversial ruling parties enjoy fruitful relationships with China, working closely with them on infrastructure projects and loan deals. By China taking steps to increase social and environmental initiatives in the countries, it may be seen as a force for good by the general public and not exclusively as an ally for the government and elite beneficiaries. Health and education are two sectors the Chinese have generally allocated less aid to in Africa, committing resources to energy, oil, agriculture and transport. Engaging in these ‘forgotten’ sectors could increase public confidence.
  • The Chinese need to increase transparency and public accountability before and during engaging in infrastructure projects to combat accusations of corruption and environmental abuse. Furthermore, more conclusive research needs to be done about how Chinese aid contributes to economic development and poverty alleviation in Africa after these infrastructure projects are completed. This will assure the public that these projects are not short-term strategies with a hidden agenda, but are mutually beneficial ways of rebuilding Africa for the future.

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