By Rafiq Raji, PhD
The 6th Tokyo International Conference on African Development Summit (TICADVI), held on 27-28 August in Nairobi, Kenya, has come and gone. But what did it achieve? Some US$30 billion in aid and investments over the next three years were promised, half of what China pledged late last year at its similarly themed get-together, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC); also its sixth meeting then. Some 73 memoranda of understanding were also signed, a lot of which were related to infrastructure, power generation especially. Others were in the health, education and expectedly, oil and gas sectors. A friend who attended the summit was particularly excited about some of the products on display at the exhibition along the sidelines of the event, like pay-as-you-go solar power, supplements for maize porridge, and so on.
Like China, Japan is involved in quite a few infrastructure projects in various African countries, albeit to a lesser degree. And Japanese companies already do quite a great deal of business in most of these. Chinese companies increasingly so as well. In sum though, China’s engagement with the continent is more intense and widespread. The Japanese make up for this in other ways. Japanese brands evoke feelings of quality, brilliance and efficiency. From electronics to cars, they are quite ubiquitous across the continent. Despite China’s growing closeness, similar sentiments are barely associated with its brands, if at all. Chinese goods are still considered inferior. Surprisingly, their cheapness barely appeals commensurately. Even so, China’s experience and relatively ample resources may be more germane to African needs. No matter. Both are willing. Sand in the wheels? Both are staunch rivals, albeit they feign some level of maturity in front of their African ‘friends’ – an official Chinese delegation attended TICADVI.
They all want the same thing
When there are numerous suitors for a potential bride, it is often ironic that blessings do not always follow. The one being sought after might overestimate her value, dither, or hope for better opportunities that may never come. Africa is one of many frontiers of interest to these world powers. So for Japan and China, longstanding rivals, whose volatile relationship is writ large by a territorial dispute over eight islands in the East China Sea, Africa provides a vast field for them to spar. Even so, they both really want the same thing: influence. Like China, Japan is also interested in the continent’s mineral resources. Resource-poor Japan seeks fuel for its energy needs, as its nuclear-dominated system have been mostly shut down since the 2011 Fukushima mishap. Both are also counting on African countries to pursue varied agendas at the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Like the Europeans and Americans before them, Japan and China are also building military bases on the continent. Simply put, they are pursuing their own interests. Knowing this could be a blessing for African countries, whose negotiating positions are enhanced as a result. The temptation to pitch one against the other should be resisted, however. Instead, African countries should articulate what their development needs are and then go with the partner that best ensures their fulfilment. Japan is not offering as much money as China is. But it has one advantage over the latter. It is more technologically advanced. Its projects are executed with the highest standards and are delivered on time. And they last. China, on the other hand, knows only too well how steep the road to development can be. It is likely a better teacher on how to traverse that road than Japan could ever be at the moment. There need not be a dilemma in any case. Both can help.
Accept only the help that liberates you
As the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was engaged in his charm offensive – the TICAD conference was being held on African soil for the first time – Chinese officials were quick to deride his efforts. It was almost the same way the Americans were all too quick to point out how the Chinese then newfound interest in Africa was going to be similarly or more exploitative. Truth is, these supposed development partners go into these relationships often because they already see more advantages for themselves. Or at least, they see the costs and benefits as evenly balanced – not in the African case: whether the partner is China, Japan, America or Europe, the advantages are tilted towards the other side. And the toast is always the same: we want to help. That is all very well. What African countries need the most, in addition to infrastructure, is technology and skills transfer. In doing this though, the situation can no longer be as it is currently, whereby these so-called partners set up businesses on the continent, bring their own staff, integrate little and barely mask their disdain. The scorecards cannot continue to be about how many billions of dollars our partners’ supposed benevolence allowed for each time. Thankfully, more energy at these summits is now being devoted towards changing this lopsided paradigm.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/en/what-is-japans-african-game/