China and Russia are bolstering their presence in Africa to tap its rich natural resources, analysts say, amid grave warnings from UN agencies that the world’s poorest countries face crippling debts.
“One out of every three major infrastructure projects in Africa is built by Chinese state-owned enterprises, and one out of every five is financed by a Chinese policy bank,” said Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the US Department of Defense.
Russia, a key arms exporter to Africa, is also making forays into the continent, including through mining projects granted to the Wagner private paramilitary group, he said.
At a UN-sponsored Conference on Least Developed Countries this month, leaders condemned the treatment of their nations.
After Western countries reduced their infrastructure financing, it created a void that China and Russia stepped in to fill.
“The Chinese saw the gap, and decided to put their money in infrastructure,” Nantulya said.
However, it mostly amounts to a “debt trap,” said Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute think tank.
“China offers loans for expensive infrastructure projects, but they typically fail,” she said. “When the countries can’t pay the loans, China then takes control over strategic assets of a country.”
China, the world’s No. 2 economy, rejects practicing “debt-trap diplomacy” as an unfair criticism from Western rivals who have themselves burdened nations with huge debts.
“Partnerships are built with friendship and good faith,” Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Qin Gang (秦剛) said this month.
Projects led by China in Africa include the Standard Gauge Railway linking the Kenyan port city of Mombasa to the Rift Valley, which cost US$5 billion and was financed 90 percent by Beijing.
It is Kenya’s biggest infrastructure project since independence and was opened in 2017. China is Kenya’s second-largest lender after the World Bank.
In December last year, Tanzania signed a US$2.2 billion contract with a Chinese company to build the final section of a railway line aimed at linking the country’s main port with its western neighbors.
Some China-funded projects have been profitable and sustainable, but the real benefit is to Beijing, with maintenance contracts that can run up to 99 years, Nantulya said.
Chinese-funded projects are “designed to absorb Chinese labor,” he said, which means they do not do much to reduce unemployment in Africa — although some governments insist on a quota for their own citizens.
Debt is not restricted to China and Russia alone, said Tetteh Hormeku of the Ghana-based African Trade Network.
Huge sums are owed to Western nations — including the former colonial powers who once controlled much of the continent, he said at the Doha summit.
“About 50 percent of our debt is owed to Western commercial bond markets and multilateral agencies,” he said.
The 1990s debt crisis in Africa was caused by Western countries, not by China or Russia, Nantulya said.
However, Chinese investments lack transparency compared with those from the West, which face greater scrutiny at home, he added.
Russia, too, has been expanding its involvement in Africa through mining projects won by Wagner, which is also fighting in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In January, the US accused Wagner of “committing widespread human rights abuses and extorting natural resources” in African countries.
The EU last month announced new sanctions on the group for “human rights abuses” in the Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan and Ukraine.
Experts also decried the environmental impact of Chinese and Russian projects on African countries.
In Liberia, these impacts are “grave,” said Davestus James, head of Liberia’s Center for Peace Building and Democracy, on the sidelines of the Doha summit.
Liberians have become “victims of their own resources,” he added.
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