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THE STANDARD RAIL GAUGE IN EAST AFRICA COULD BE A BLESSING OR A CURSE



China retraces its interaction with Africa to the slave era when the Kunlun (or dark skinned people) were brought into the Chinese Peninsula by Arab traders during the Tang Dynasty era and also from tales based on Zheng He’s travels to coastal East Africa.

A few centuries later, the Opium Wars seared a certain mental caricature about western hegemony, which was further exasperated by the military dominance of the Japanese Empire who aped Western methods in their control of Chinese Machurian territory.

It is imperative to note that the China we know today is not the China of the 1940’s -1950’s when the mind set then was of a common enemy i.e. poverty and a Western colonial influence. In retrospect, this “common” past has aided China in forging an impressive relationship with Africa.

While the West and Bretton Woods institutions have taken a big brother approach of giving stringent political and economic conditions in order to turn on the aid taps in Africa. Beijing has taken an approach steeped in neutrality adhering to its five principles of peaceful coexistence, “it respects African countries’ choices in political systems and development path suited to their own national conditions and does not interfere in internal affairs of African countries…”

Many will question the advent and advancement of the Sino-Africa relationship, especially due to the astronomical increase in trade over the decade. It stood at 10$ billion in 2000 and 198.49 billion in 2012 of which 113.171 billion of this was contributed by China’s imports from Africa.

China has an insatiable appetite for energy to drive its growing economy, and China National Petroleum Corp Economics and Technology Research Institute estimates that China's oil demand in 2014 will reach 518 million metric tons. Of this estimate close to 60% is imported and 20% of that import comes from Africa.

China’s energy security is a phenomenal concern to the country given that it surpassed the United States as the world’s largest consumer of foreign oil, importing 6.3 million barrels per day compared to the United States’ 6.24 million in late 2013.

Given this it seems that energy security overrides other concerns, even the “one China principle”.  But then again the reunification of Taiwan and China is foreseeable given that more than 2.2 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2013 and the two-way trade has passed the 100$ billion per year.  What this trend depicts is that the ideological and political can and will be trampled in pursuit of the economical gain.

The neo-colonial perception of Africa as a source of raw material replenishes itself as China turns to Africa to sustain its energy needs away from the unstable Middle East. The “New Energy Frontier” of East Africa shows sizable natural gas and oil reserves that could potentially compete with West Africa in the near future.

The viewpoint that East African countries need to have is one drawn away from corrupt practices. One gauged from the observation of lost billions that have lined the pockets of despot leaders in countries like Angola, Nigeria, South Sudan and Equitorial Guinea while millions of their citizens languish in abject poverty.

While it is very clear that China will continue to stick to a policy of neutrality even to the detriment of a nation’s populace. Like in the case of Sudan where it sold small arms to the government, which allowed the Janjaweed to commit atrocities against innocent civilians in Darfur. It is also true that they will oppose those who view them negatively like Michal Sata, the incumbent president in Zambia, before he came into power. Nowadays Sata sings along to a Chinese tune of cooperation.

East Africans have to take a long-term view of their regulatory framework and ensure that they earn more from oil, gas and mining, which can collectively benefit their countries. They also need to ensure that their economies don’t end up being dependent on these resources.

Every dollar earned from natural resources can never be retracted, if used badly, thus it is imperative that wisdom reigns to make East African states middle-income countries in the next 20 years. With proper planning and zero tolerance to corruption, the vision can be achieved.

There is also the need to realize that China will make certain investments with long-term goals, for example the TAZARA railway although considered an oddity when constructed in the 1970’s potentially opened up Tanzania to Chinese investment.
  
Having said this the citizenry also needs to voice their concerns when they feel they are not benefactors of the resources mined from their land. This oversight can be regulatory or a knee jack reaction to Chinese exploitation likes what is observed in Zambia and Congo.

In the final analysis more African countries are beginning to comprehend the short-term availability of natural resources and the subsequent long-term destruction that resource exploitation brings to their land, thus they are collectively demanding more transparency and accrued benefits from their governments and the foreign companies investing in their land. This trend has recently been witnessed in Mtwara, Tanzania and in Turkana, Kenya.

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