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Does China Influence African Elections?

africa elections influence africans on china
Credit: csmonitor

Almost 15 years ago, allegations were beginning to emerge that China influences African elections. The case in point was Zambia. China became a hot campaign issue in Zambia’s 2005 elections. The opposition, led by Michael ‘King Cobra’ Sata, never missed an opportunity to lash out at then incumbent, Patrick Mwanawasa, over the country’s deep engagements with the Chinese. Sata visited Taipei during the election campaign, where he controversially promised to recognize Taiwan. This announcement infuriated Beijing, with China’s ambassador to Zambia at the time, threatening to cut diplomatic relations with Zambia if Sata emerges victorious from the election. Since then, the pronouncement of the ambassador has often been quoted as evidence of Chinese meddling in African elections. 

In 2019, more than ten African countries went to the polls. This year alone, many more African countries have concluded their elections with others, like Ghana and Ethiopia, yet to hold scheduled elections. If these allegations of interference are true, it will represent a sharp departure from Beijing’s long-held principle of non-interference. To determine whether or not China influences African elections, this article examines key factors that determine outcomes of African elections to investigate the extent to which China plays a role.  

What Key Issues Determine The Outcomes Of African Elections?

Africa’s experiment with multi-party democracy is nascent. It began in the last decade of the 20thcentury. Before, autocratic rulers, who ruled often with brute force, characterized the continent. Whether or not multi-party democracy has solved Africa’s problems is not the answer we seek today. We are analyzing the factors that influence the voting patterns of African electorates: political, economic, social, etc. However, for this article, we will stick to only the economic factors. The fact that Chinese engagement in Africa is predominantly economic is the reason for this restriction. 

Kjell Hausken and Mthuli Ncube in a research paper tested the influence of several economic factors on determining the outcomes of African elections. Drazen and Eslava argued that good economic performance boosts the popularity of the incumbent and increase their chances of winning an election in the US and Europe. Hausken and Ncube after their analysis found Drazen and Eslava’s argument also to be true in the African context. They also corroborated the finding that the probability that an incumbent loses an election is low if public investment increases the year before the election. 

In a monograph written for the Institute for Security Studies, Lauren Tracey explored the factors that influence the voting pattern of young South Africans. Part of her key findings were socio-economic challenges such as unemployment, poor infrastructure, i.e. housing, and poor education. The relevance of Tracey’s findings lies in demographics. Africa is a youthful continent with a mean age of 21. Therefore addressing challenges faced by young Africans across the continent may probably come in handy for politicians seeking to wrestle or retain power in Africa. 

Does China Influence These Economic Factors Determining African Elections?

In March this year, I argued in an op-ed that the coronavirus pandemic might cost some African leaders re-election. My reasoning was simple. Before the pandemic, the Chinese government had signed several agreements to undertake infrastructural projects in several African countries. For instance, in 2018, Ghana had signed a $2 billion infrastructure for bauxite deal with Chinese state-owned Sino-hydro Company. Under the deal, Sino-hydro will commence the construction of roads in 2020. On the back of the deal, the Ghanaian government enthusiastically declared 2020, a ‘Year of Roads.’ Little did they know the pandemic would not allow for that. Given the terrible nature of feeder roads of rural areas in Ghana, the issue of roads has always been contentious in every electoral cycle. 

The incumbent, President Akuffo Addo, would have had it easier winning the hearts of many farmers had the pandemic not stalled the progress of the projects. Despite the fact that works have commenced, the majority of the roads would not be complete by December, when Ghanaians go to the polls to vote for their next leader. Just as Akuffo Addo, Alpha Conde in Guinea faced the same dilemma, though he managed to win the election with a heavy cost. The opposition has rejected the results and more than ten lives lost in electoral violence.    

The coronavirus pandemic provides evidence that Africa’s economic development will suffer when China scales down its engagements with Africa. More than ever, China is increasingly financing Africa’s infrastructure. Infrastructure in transport, power generation, and the industry is intricately linked to the economic development of Africa countries. It is evident that since the last decade, China has become the bedrock of Africa’s economic transactions. Therefore if economic factors only were to decide the outcome of an election then the success of one political party or the other in Africa depends on China. 

Does China Influence African Elections

If you are seeking a clear-cut answer, you will get disappointed. Unlike the incidence in Australia, where Beijing is facing an allegation of bribing an Australian politician, there is no evidence that China funds the campaign of political parties in Africa. Neither does it subvert one party in favor of another. China’s principle of non-interference does not allow it to engage in such activities, at least. 

I have pointed out earlier that so many factors determine outcomes of elections in Africa, for China to land an outsized role. In some countries, typical of pseudo-one-party states, economic factors do not play a significant role in determining elections. For instance, countries such as Cameroon, Tanzania, Rwanda, Angola, South Africa, etc. have political parties that have consistently won elections regardless of their economic performance. They usually employ divisive methods such as ethnocentrism, suppression of opposition parties, vote-rigging, etc. to win elections. 

 In Africa’s fledgling multi-party democracies, such as Ghana, Botswana, Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, etc. however, economic factors could play a key role in elections. Yet in most of these democracies, Chinese investment in infrastructure is relatively smaller, compared to other sources of funding. According to loan data from the China Africa Research Centre, Ghana and Botswana’s share of Chinese debt as of 2018 stood at US$3.7 billion and US$931 million respectively. This means economic factors play out strongly during elections and China cannot influence outcomes due to the relatively small quantity of investment it has in these countries. 

Nevertheless, in all these, there are exceptions; Zambia and Kenya, both owe China US$9.7 billion and US$9 billion respectively. Judging from the amount of Chinese debt these two countries have accumulated relative to the size of their economies, China may play an outsized role in their election. In addition, Chinese investments in Cameroon, Angola, and Sudan (under Omar Al-Bashir) are enormous. Had these countries been true multi-party democracies, the correlation between Chinese investment and electoral success of governing political parties could have been stronger. 

However, the dynamics of African politics are too messy and complicated for generalization. It is inaccurate to point to one factor as having an overarching consequence on the outcome of elections. However, as part of the general scheme of things, it is not far-fetched to posit that China’s economic investment indirectly informs the voting patterns of some African electorates. 

China Could Exhibit A More Forceful Role In African Politics In The Future

Steve Hess and Richard Aidoo both argue in their joint paper titled “Beyond the Rhetoric: Non-interference in China’s Africa Policy,” that Beijing’s passive stance in Africa’s internal political affairs is changing as its investments on the continent increases. The duo further argues that China’s emphasis on non-interference is “shaped by its perceived strategic self-interests.” Keeping a blind eye to Africa’s domestic politics afforded Beijing the supply of energy and raw material sources while opening up markets for Chinese companies. Through non-interference, Beijing has achieved its diplomatic goal of winning over developing countries as allies. 

However, in recent years, China’s interest in Africa is evolving. Though it relies on Africa for other raw materials, it no longer depends on the continent for a third of its energy supplies. China desires the reputation as a responsible global power, so it is dropping the African leaders that present a challenge to the realization of this objective. For instance, after coming under intense pressure for allegedly condoning human rights abuses of pariah regimes like that of Sudan under Bashir, Beijing has changed its way. It is putting quiet pressure on its allies to curb human rights abuse. 

China’s rise has also brought itself into a head-on collision with other powers elsewhere. While this sort of collision is bound to happen in Africa, China is not the sort of country that will back down. It is foreseeable that China would act forcefully to protect its interest.  

In addition, we see China’s emerging role as a contributor of peacekeeping troops in the interest of maintaining regional stability. China also has a military outpost in Djibouti. These developments are part of a string of things that show that Beijing may soon take an active role in Africa’s internal politics, in pursuit of its interest. I warned of this occurrence in an op-ed where I argued that African countries might have to grant China more concession other than just votes in multilateral institutions. 

Finally, we have learned that it is premature to assert that China directly influences African elections now. Yet, there is the possibility that the influence is indirect, which often manifests from Beijing’s economic investment on the continent. However, in the end, we may see Beijing actually choosing sides in Africa’s internal political matters.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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