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All roads lead to union

Updated: 2013-02-22 11:35
By Li Lianxing ( China Daily)

All roads lead to union

 All roads lead to union

China's help with building infrastructure in Africa, particularly roads, is seen as vital to integration. Zhong Nan / China Daily

 All roads lead to union

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the AU Commission. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

All roads lead to union

As African countries look for closer integration, building infrastructure is seen as pivotal, and China is playing a key role

When Tanzania and Zambia were connected by the Tazara Railway built by China 40 years ago, people found a smoother connection and naturally a bigger market to break the isolation from the south. Now many transborder networks are being built to fully unleash the market potential of the continent and help bring Africans closer together. Integration and unification are the buzzwords, and China is seen as having a big role to play as all that those words entail unfolds.

As the African Union began to mark its golden jubilee, its 20th governmental leaders assembly last month had as its theme "Pan-Africanism and Africa Renaissance".

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Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the AU Commission, said it was unity of purpose, sacrifice and solidarity by Africa that had led to decolonization and to apartheid being dismantled.

"The spirit of Pan-Africanism and ideals of the African Renaissance delivered us to where we are today and must propel us toward an integrated, people-centered, prosperous Africa at peace with itself," she said.

Many challenges face Africa, and China will play a role as a firm supporter of its renaissance and unification by making contributions where they are needed and wanted, said Zhai Jun, deputy foreign minister.

"We must support - strongly support - African integration and unification because only that will lead Africa to be stronger."

Africa has made progress in recent years, but the reality is that alongside economic improvements there has been conflict in some areas, Zhai said.

"Economic affairs have been the focal point in China-Africa cooperation, but we are also strengthening our ties in peace and security building. As the biggest developing country and a responsible power, we must play a vital role in ensuring peace and security in Africa."

Ngari Gituku, an editor with the monthly magazine Diplomat East Africa, says "the quest to secure both dignity and a respectable voice for Africans" has resulted in them "taking the white man head on".

"The same spirit has been called upon every time Africa has found herself in a crisis, especially relating to her relationship with significant others across the globe."

The world has begun to freshly engage with the continent as it enjoys fast economic growth and as the world recognizes its abundance of natural and human resources, he says.

"In the wake of these positive developments for the African continent and her people and given the condescending attitude the West has where Africa is concerned, the AU must be gravely aware of the need to re-equip Africans with a deep sense of dignity that will make her people occupy the center stage as the African moment inevitably rises."

He also says that to avoid colonial maneuvering once again reducing Africa to being a bystander, pro-Africanist sentiment needs to be bolstered.

China can contribute to the continent's growth as the biggest developing country, he says.

Li Beifen, a former Chinese ambassador to Benin and Tunisia, says that in international politics African countries need a unified voice if they are to be heard.

Africa's unification and growth accord with China's interests because both sides represent developing countries, she says.

"We have similar experiences on many issues, such as colonial history, development and challenges including climate change, so a more integrated Africa minus foreign intervention will help the voices of developing countries to be heard internationally."

According to AU, by the year 2030 Africa will be built as an "integrated infrastructure of transport, energy and communications that is safe, reliable, efficient and affordable, capable of promoting regional and continental integration and sustainable development of the continent".

China's aid and investment in Africa have largely focused on building infrastructure that has helped African countries develop, but some have criticized China, saying it has a quid pro quo for building roads: access to the continent's rich natural resources.

However, not all see China's role, particularly that of construction companies wanting to help build a transcontinental transport network, with a cynical eye.

Those who live in the Horn of Africa are eager to see a transborder road that connects the two most important cities in the region, Addis Ababa and Nairobi. Such a plan more than matches ambitions to link Alexandria in Egypt and Cape Town in South Africa. Chinese construction companies are doing the ground work.

"The A2 highway project is designed to connect the two most important cities in the horn region," says Liu Hui, chairman of China Wuyi Kenya Co Ltd, who has been building infrastructure in Africa for more than 10 years.

Elham Ibrahim, commissioner for infrastructure and energy of the African Union Commission, says that China, with its expertise in building large-scale infrastructure at home, can do the same in Africa. The finance needed to complete big road projects is a sticking point, and international support is required, she says.

That means China's aid and investment in building infrastructure, especially transport networks, will be vital to Africa integrating.

Ibrahim says to better improve infrastructure in Africa, countries are cooperating on a project called Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA), which is to promote socio-economic development and poverty reduction in Africa through improved access to integrated regional and continental infrastructure networks and services.

She believes a trans-continental transportation network including roads, railways, airlines and waterways will be established once China and Africa are partnered.

"We need Chinese companies to build roads for us and we also need Chinese to teach our people how to build them as local employees are the ones who would be maintaining the roads in the next few decades," she says.

The China-Africa relationship has been largely defined by trade and economic ties, and China has become the biggest trading partner of many African countries, including South Africa. As a result, China has a lot to gain in seeing the continent's markets integrate.

"Africa has so many countries, but intra-continental trade is still very low and the market is small," says Yao Guimei, a researcher at the Research Institution of West Asian and North African Affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"But that does not mean there is no need for more communication; on the contrary, it points to the great potential."

However, because of poor cross-border and regional infrastructure networks, much still needs to be done to unleash that potential, she says.

"For instance, South Africa has the food to sell to its neighbors, but in times of heavy rain, poor transport can be a terrible hindrance."

Yao says Africa's integration is at a primary stage where countries are focused on free-trade or tariff policies, and the uncertainties have made some Chinese companies wary about establishing a large presence in the continent.

"But the Chinese government is encouraging companies and financial institutions to join in, to take part in bilateral or multilateral projects. Some companies have chosen pivotal African cities as bases to radiate to other places."

Rene Guettia Kouassi, director of economic affairs with the AU Commission, says integration is a critical issue for Africa in terms of sustainable and speedy economic growth.

"Despite the world financial crisis, the African economy is in a good position. A lot has been done but a lot remains to be done to achieve the goal, which is to build a united Africa.

"Now the economic vision of AU is based on the Abuja Treaty, which was divided into five steps. The last step is from 2028 to 2034, to reach an African Economic Community. It will be the United States of Africa."

He says that under that state, Africa will have a common currency, financial institutions such as a central bank, a monetary fund, a stock exchange and an elected parliament.

Ten years ago Europe, a more sophisticated union, started using a common currency bringing tighter economic integration among countries. Now the deteriorating European debt crisis has pushed several countries to the edge of bankruptcy and the crisis is still going on. In some quarters, the asymmetry of political and economic institutions among member countries has been blamed for playing a large role in the crisis.

"For Africa, we definitely will learn a lesson from the EU and everyone else to make our integration safer and more efficient," Rene Guettia Kouassi says.

Africa is undergoing economic and political integration simultaneously, he says, and the continent has to unite its strengths, through bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States, the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community.

"They are now implementing a single custom union, which means free movement of goods among countries, and one external tax for importation, which is convenient and attractive to foreign investment."

The AU is spearheading a push to set up the continental common market and custom union by 2019, he says.

"An integrated Africa is good for the outside world, including China The market will be there for any investment by any investors, and more convenient."

But greater African integration means countries must be willing to compromise in some key areas on the issue of sovereignty, which could be transferred to either a regional or continental body, Kouassi says.

China has a big role to play in the process, he says, but needs to understand Africa's needs. The benefits of development are not being evenly shared and are failing to reach the poor, and China must pay more attention in this regard, he says.

However, Liu Hongwu, dean of the Center of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University, says Africa's integration is predicated on successful nation building by African states, and that does not conflict with individual sovereignty being strengthened, something that has worked elsewhere.

"Only if mature, sovereign entities can work with one another of their own free will can regional problems be solved by integration, because integration is no panacea for domestic problems. An example of that is Somalia, a country without a solid sovereign and efficient government. How could it possibly partner in and be a beneficiary of regional integration?"

Once a country has reached a limit to its own powers it is then ready to push for integration, he says.

"At an international level China and Africa propose solutions that are similar, so China will support the continent's efforts at state building and unification with all the means at its disposal."

As China's investments and interests in Africa rise, it is being forced to take full heed of security concerns. Tough lessons have been learned in Libya and Mali cases, its business and other interests having been harmed in those countries' conflicts.

As political unrest continues to grip certain regions, for example the two Sudans, Mali, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia, China is seen as having a role in partnering local forces to ensure security.

Those efforts will take place mainly in conjunction with the AU, says Deng Yanting, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"African security forces need to continue to draw closer together, and in all of that the AU would be the leading power," Deng says. "China will also contribute. The AU has established a relatively complete military institution and has proved its capability and efficiency in the Sudans and in Somalia, which is a good beginning."

Security integration in Africa remains at a primary stage and is focused more on economics, he says.

"Its security integration institutions and system was copied from Europe and have not worked the way they were supposed to. Africa is different to Europe. There are periodic conflicts, and its resources and ethnicities do not fit neatly within national borders. That means any conflict has a transnational nature and cannot simply be solved by a single country.

"So conflicts must be solved by the AU or sub-regional organizations within the AU. In the security agreement between the AU and the UN when it was founded, regional organizations were to take the priority in solving conflicts."

China could have a role here, not only in help smooth the way to African integration but also in ensuring its own interests," Deng says. "Otherwise we risk seeing another Libya, with all the interests and investment being wiped out overnight."

He also says Africa's efforts in searching for its own ways of building peace and security must continue to differ from the way that Europeans handle that matter.


(China Daily 02/22/2013 page1)

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