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China Integrates the African Continent

Robert I. Rotberg

Declaring it "the most substantive project the AU has ever signed with a partner," Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, chairperson of the African Union Commission, praised China late last month for agreeing to help the African continent knit its disparate infrastructure together.

A memorandum of understanding signed by Zuma and China's Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming in Addis Ababa commits China to accelerating the integration of the African continent, with its 1 billion people, 54 nations, and abysmal transport links between and among nearly all of the countries concerned. It is often harder and more costly to travel the length of the continent, than it is to fly to Europe or Asia along established links. Equally, even train or road travel between neighboring nations is difficult, sometimes impossible. And inflated freight rates are much less expensive from an African port to Europe or China than they are from one African country to another.

All of these transport realities reflect the continent's colonial legacies and persisting ties to former mother countries. Those colonial linkages severely hinder the development of Africa and the fostering of intra-African trade and well as Pan-African identities. It is much easier to fly from Chad to South Africa via Paris, with regular air services, than to try to negotiate and manage several switches of plane and many delays within much less organized and available African corridors.

Likewise, as intrepid travelers and writers have noted, going overland from north to south or east to west across Africa is only for the brave and hardy. Cecil Rhodes' much vaunted Cape to Cairo railway never materialized. Nor do rail systems in some neighboring countries even jibe, since the gauges – the width between the rails – differs between and among French and British provided systems, and sometimes from one post-colonial independent country to the next.

Roads that seamlessly tie country to country are also scarce, as are trans-continental bus services. Sea transport and the movement of freight are mostly from Africa outward rather than from one coastal polity to the next.

One excuse for this lack of intra-African trade and transport is understandable: that it is more profitable to move goods (and tourists) to and from the rest of the world than within Africa. But that conclusion begs the question: African integration and transport coordination would open up markets that do not yet exist, and conceivably could make it profitable to ship grains, meat, natural resources, and many more items easily to new African markets than to Europe or Asia.

Continental Africa is woefully short of electrical generating capacity. New investors and growing numbers of urban and rural consumers live with less power than they need and with regular power outages, even in South Africa and Nigeria. Yet Africa has abundant hydro-electrical potential and enjoys 360-days of sunshine (on average) annually, making solar power a possible new reality. Ethiopia is today completing a massive 6,000 megawatt Grand Renaissance Dam and electrical generating facility on the Blue Nile. This project and others, many constructed by China in Africa, could supply Africans everywhere with abundant power. But there is as yet no continental grid, as there is in North America and Europe.

Africans have dreamed of greater Pan-African integration for years. The new AU-China initiative should make it possible, after a few concerted decades, to extend the roads and rails that China is already constructing or upgrading in many African countries into a joint, trans-continental endeavor. It would not take much to link electrical transmission towers and thus to create a reliable all-African facility.

The AU-China agreement was in principle, pledging cooperation to make the many improvements that Africa needs. But the document spelled out nothing in detail. It is not clear, therefore, exactly what China –with its vast construction experience in Africa – is prepared to do, and according to what timetable. Zuma has established committees within the AU commission to provide answers and plans, but again without specifics.

Even so, since China knows how to build massive projects, and is committed to Africa, the recent AU-Chinese agreement could well prove revolutionary and transformational. Africa needs all of the infrastructural assistance that China offers.

This article was originally posted in China-US Focus.

Robert I. Rotberg is a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Founding Director of Harvard Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict and President Emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

Photo courtesy of pjah73 via Flickr Commons 

About the Author

Robert I. Rotberg

Robert I. Rotberg

Former Fellow;
Founding Director of the Intrastate Conflict Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
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Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more