Robert Mugabe, a dragon on the prowl

Mugabe, a freedom fighter rose to prominence with his revolutionary credentials
Robert Mugabe, a dragon on the prowl
Robert Mugabe, a dragon on the prowl

ITDC INDIA EPRESS/ ITDC NEWS After clinging to his post against the wishes of his people, Robert Mugabe finally quit on November 21 as president of Zimbabwe. His removal from party posts, the beginning of impeachment proceedings and intense pressure from his peers seem to have influenced his decision to step down.

Mugabe, a freedom fighter who rose to prominence with his revolutionary credentials, gradually allowed himself to become hostage to the ambitions of his wife, family and sycophants. It completely devastated the political and economic system of Zimbabwe, which was once called the breadbasket of Africa. Mugabe’s exit is also an example of what happens to ageing leaders when they antagonise their longstanding allies.

Mugabe’s wife, Grace, played a major role in his downfall. She first connived with defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime comrade of Mugabe, and got him appointed first vice president, replacing another Mugabe loyalist, Joyce Mujuru. Later, she got Mugabe to dismiss Mnangagwa to clear her path to presidency. The move, however, backfired as the military threw its weight behind Mnangagwa. After a brief standoff, Mugabe relented and Mnangagwa, who is nicknamed crocodile for his shrewdness, returned as the new president.

Zimbabwe, which was among the richest nations in Africa at the time of its independence in 1980, has become one of the poorest on the continent under Mugabe. A country with abundant mineral resources and a literacy rate of 90 per cent now has an unemployment rate of 95 per cent. And, inflation rate once even touched a trillion per cent. Corruption, greed, dependence on foreign aid and stopgap measures to address economic problems have brought Zimbabwe to such state. After the Mugabe government forcibly took over farms owned by white settlers, western countries imposed economic sanctions. Zimbabwe’s colonial-era infrastructure crumbled in no time and there were no funds for repairs. It was a tailor-made opportunity for China to step in.

Chinese companies initially made investments in the mineral sector, as Zimbabwe is blessed with considerable deposits of diamond, gold, iron, nickel, tantalum and platinum. They subsequently diversified into power and water projects. Soon, China became Zimbabwe’s biggest creditor, powerful enough to alter its economic landscape. All projects run by Chinese companies in Zimbabwe, like elsewhere in Africa, are required to have their equipment, machinery and sometimes even the manpower coming from China. Local people are left with only negligible benefits. For instance, in diamond mines operated by Chinese companies, smaller pieces of rocks are treated locally to extract diamonds, but big chunks of rocks are airlifted to China for further treatment.

With corruption being rampant, Chinese companies never hesitate to bribe officials. And, when power changes hands, they are quick to side with the winner. Following Mugabe’s ouster, Chinese companies immediately switched their support to Mnangagwa. The Chinese are quite familiar with Mnangagwa as he had received training in guerilla warfare from China as a young freedom fighter.

In Africa, Zimbabwe is not the only country in which China is expanding its economic imperialism through infrastructure projects. In 2004, China entered Angola by promising to develop its roads in exchange for shares in the newly discovered oil reserves. By 2009, China became Angola’s largest trading partner. Under its “oil for infrastructure” policy, China constructed a large city near Luanda, the Angolan capital. But it remains a ghost town with no inhabitants, and has turned out to be a wasteful expenditure for the Angolan economy. Chad, Niger, Guinea and Sierra Leone, too, are trapped in the vicious cycle of Chinese debt.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which has the largest copper deposits in Africa at 10.6 million tons, China signed a deal to invest $9 billion ($6 billion for road construction and $3 billion for copper mining). China owns 68 per cent shares in the copper project, which has reserves worth $54 billion at current prices. The International Monetary Fund has pointed out that the deal would negatively affect the DRC’s ability to sustain the loan. The governor of Katanga, the region where the mines are located, said nearly 90 per cent of the mines were owned by Chinese companies.

China has always maintained that the loans it offered are not soft loans. The interest rates are much higher than LIBOR (London Interbank Offered Rates), the benchmark rate charged by the world’s leading banks. Yet, it has always been able to spread its influence in Africa faster than other countries. While others, including India, go in for due diligence and insist on a number of prerequisites, China usually announces a kitty from which Chinese companies can draw, which guarantees African countries desperately needed funding.

Once a deal is inked, the Chinese start arm-twisting. They will make further demands, amend terms of the deal and raise questions about the business environment. As long as the borrowing government yields to Chinese pressure, it is happily tolerated. But once differences arise, China does not mind, and sometimes encourages, the change of regime to a more favourable one.

China counters charges of economic expansionism in Africa by pointing out that its investments still remain small compared with traditional investors like the US, France and the UK. But while western investment is going down, Chinese investments grew from $13 billion in 2010 to $35 billion in 2015. It shows China’s intention and determination to capture the minerals and raw materials in Africa. Though China has not directly worked for or consented to the regime change in Zimbabwe, there is a possibility of it happening in other countries like the DRC and Uganda, with their rulers in power for a very long time and public resentment rising against them. In any case, China will not come out openly, but will manoeuvre from backstage, if it finds the current regime uncooperative or useless for Chinese business interests.

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