Autocracy and Democracy in Africa: China’s Influence

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This article first appeared in my weekly column in the Business Daily on December 10, 2017

I’ve been thinking about China’s growing influence in Africa, and whether it is linked to growing autocracy on the continent, especially the East Africa region. However, it is not China alone that seems to be informing a move towards authoritarianism in the region. When Africa is given examples of countries that managed to catch up economically, the Asian bloc is often presented as the case study. Look at Singapore, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, we’re told, they all managed to pull millions of out poverty and substantially improve the quality of life of their citizens in a relatively short period of time. What is not mentioned is that, for the most part, these countries were developed or are still developing under an autocratic state-led capitalism model where government drives and leads the articulation of capitalism and, to a greater or lesser extent, monitors and guides its evolution.

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Africa is also not told that even Europe and North America made significant economic gains using models that were not democratic. The USA relied on the slave trade and slave labour to build wealth that was then used to drive industrialisation. Much of Europe relied not only on financial involvement in the slave trade to amass wealth, but also colonialism which played an important role in providing colonial powers with land and labour that generated immense profits that were then repatriated to European metropoles.  So some are asking: Why is Africa being told that the continent must develop under a democracy when so many others haven’t? And is this the most efficient path towards economic development?

In East Africa, we can see a move towards autocracy; indeed it can be argued that Kenya is the only viable democracy left. Ethiopia and Rwanda have made no secret of the fact that they are essentially autocratic states. Uganda has been under the hand of Museveni for well over 30 years and in Burundi President Nkurunziza seems bent on retaining control and extending his autocratic rule beyond constitutional provisions. In Tanzania, signs of autocracy are emerging given that the chief whip of the opposition party was shot, and President Magafuli shut down several newspapers.

China has been making aggressive inroads in Africa with mega project deals. FILE PHOTO | NMG


Beyond philosophical questions as to why there seems to be growing autocracy in the region, international dynamics are also playing a role, specifically growing insularity in Europe and North America. The Trump Administration hasn’t even bothered to table a strategy for Africa and Europe seems preoccupied with Brexit, anti-immigration sentiment, and calls to use European money on Europe rather than on ‘others’. As a result, the voice from the global north that lectures Africa on the merits of democracy is receding and the power vacuum is intensifying the influence of autocratic China in Africa. Indeed, the autocracy that is emerging in Africa seems to be modelled more against the technocratic autocracies of Asia rather than the old African autocratic model exemplified by leaders such as Idi Amin, Mobutu, Mengistu and more recently, Mugabe.

It seems it is time for Africa to ask itself some tough questions: Should growing autocracy be encouraged? And if so, what will it cost Africans in terms of freedom of expression, human rights and political freedom? Or is democracy, despite all its problems, still the best way forward for the continent?

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


The expense of the SGR and related implications

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on November 29, 2015.

It is now well known that the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) is being developed under the leadership of the Kenyan government and will connect Mombasa to Malaba (with a branch line to Kisumu) onward to Kampala, Kigali (with a branch line to Kasese) and Juba (with a branch line to Pakwach). What is also well known is that Ethiopia is developing Ethiopia Rail (ER) which will link Addis Ababa to Djibouti. The importance of the SGR to Kenya is, yes, the potential dividend that will arise from bolstering infrastructure in the country; indeed the government expects the project to reduce freight costs from $0.20 per tn/km to $0.08 per tn/km. But importance also lies in the fact that the SGR is expensive. Indeed, last week Treasury made the point that the SGR has caused an upwards revision of the fiscal deficit from the initial 7.4% of GDP to 12.2%.


So is the approach towards the construction of the SGR the most cost effective possible? A comparison with the ER would be useful. As early as 2013, experts raised questions about the costing of Kenya’s SGR; Kenya is being charged $6.6 million per kilometer compared to $4.9 million per kilometre for Ethiopia’s ER. This is particularly a concern because, as experts have pointed out, there are no major rivers or lakes or big hills to justify the high cost of the SGR. In addition, parts of the ER will be a double track, not a single track as the SGR will be in its entirety. The SGR freight will have an average speed of 80KPH while the ER will go up to 120KPH; experts state that it is doubtful those speeds will be reached by the SGR because it is a single track and stoppages will be needed to allow other trains to pass. The SGR passenger train will have an average speed of 120 KPH while the ER will have an average speed of 160 KPH with future provision for 225KPH. Questions also arise because Kenya is spending more to buy its trains and rolling stock than Ethiopia. Why?

Ethiopia has also been smarter with regards to reaping human development dividends from rail construction, specifically the Light Rail Transit System (LRT). Ethiopia has been using the development of the LRT to build domestic technical capacity. Reports indicate that foreign contractors conduct training for local staff at the Institute of Technology in Addis Ababa University. Further, the Ethiopian government is sending promising undergraduates to Russia, India and China to continue their education. Indeed, the Ethiopian government is doing all it can to ensure that the all other rail network projects including ER will be carried out by Ethiopian enterprises. Are there such plans and activities going on with regards to Kenya’s SGR?


The basic sense one gets when comparing Kenya and Ethiopia is that the latter has been able to get a better deal overall and is leveraging all experience to build domestic capacity and reduce future dependence on external contractors for rail construction. Kenya on the other hand has agreed to a plan that appears to not be the most cost effective and there have been no plans announced indicating intentions by the Kenyan government to use SGR construction to build domestic capacity. I have long argued that if Kenya does not leverage all infrastructure development projects to build domestic technical capacity, Kenya will be relegated to eternal dependence on others to do the basics of building infrastructure of the country. The prudence of such a strategy is questionable. Kenya is in a position to learn from Ethiopia; pressure ought to be applied to ensure such learning happens.

Anzetse Were is a development economist; email: