Mulumba, Zambia and China’s Threat to Africa’s New Voices

China’s President Xi Jinping applauding as he attends the Forum On China-Africa Cooperation – Round Table Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on September 4, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Lintao Zhang

The deportation of Kenya’s Professor Patrick Mulumba by the Zambian government over subtle fears expressed by its trading partner, the Chinese, that a scheduled speaking event at Lusaka may affect their interests in the country and perception across the continent have got many observers rethinking Africa-China relations.

The incident is one of many concerns on the state of democratic practice in Africa when juxtaposed with China’s rising influence on African governments, especially knowing that some giant leaps had been recorded in the last decade with many countries witnessing a tolerable working relationship between governments and their opposition or independent voices.

That a Zambian government would kowtow to the demands of the Chinese to deport a fellow African like Lumumba from examining China’s foray into the country and continent smacks of intolerance to alternative opinions and confirm fears already expressed by its citizens and observers that Zambia is now an enclave of Beijing especially with the recent protests against its policy of employing Chinese nationals into the Zambian Police, a decision it grudgingly rescinded.

With the government’s attitude to alternative viewpoints on its relations with China, many have tagged Zambia a Chinese colony. After foot-dragging on debt repayments to the Asian tiger for constructing airports, roads, and factories; some critical infrastructure like the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport and ZESCO (state power utility) are now said to be on the verge of being taken over by China, despite government denial. It was at this same airport that Lumumba was stopped by immigration and deported back to his native Kenya “due to security considerations” in the words of Zambian information minister, Dora Siliya.

Beijing’s choking hold on Lusaka may have further influenced the decision to keep out people like Lumumba from exposing the underbelly of China’s strategy of eyeing control of national assets of resource-rich African countries that are unable to repay their loans, which continue to be dispensed happily to such gullible nations and leaders, who from all consideration may not have the immediate capacity to repay. The anti-corruption activist was scheduled to speak on the topic ‘Africa in the age of China influence and global geo-dynamics’ a topic targeted at the growing anger over China’s grip on the economy of especially southern African nations.

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Lumumba is a renowned law professor, good governance advocate and motivational speaker across Africa who has often held his audience spell-bound during his discourses on the best ways the continent could be self-sufficient rather than dependent on foreign loans, aid, natural resource exploitation which most times end in massive corruption due to foreign collaborators. He continues to deliver critical speeches touching on misgovernance in Africa, exploitation of Africa’s resources by the West and most recently, China.

If Africans are afraid to tell each other the truth or hear from independent voices on the continent, who else will do that? Countries and institutions must be prevailed upon to ensure that alternative voices are not buried in the hypocrisy of loans-for-infrastructure. It is time to allow more independent voices the opportunity to unlock the truth if we are to ensure that leaders do not stockpile debt for their countries with such behemoths as the Chinese waiting in the wings to take control of national assets in such a way that future generations are left stranded, enslaved.

Massive borrowing to a nation without the capacity for debt repayment can only mean two things: economic colonialism and generational enslavement.

This seems to be China’s latest strategy and the country would have none of Africa’s independent voices staining its canvas with unwanted painting.

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But African government’s who were previously yoked with the West, see brighter and not dim colours, in their relations with China, describing criticism against some excesses of the Chinese as too little to warrant despair. They have now found a new bride in Beijing as could be seen by the attendance of more than 40 heads of state at the recent meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in September.

China sees nothing wrong with its strategy. It also does little to sanction its resource-hungry companies accused of violating country-specific laws, human rights, or providing unsafe working conditions for employees. For those media castigating such practices in Africa, it unleashes state-sponsored private investors to buy stakes or takeover such entreprises subtly.

A recent report confirms indeed that China is buying African media’s silence. Apart from this, Chinese-state linked firms are also buying into shares in cash-strapped major national dailies or broadcast networks across the continent to project their views or protect their interests from public scrutiny by influential members of such societies. China already owns 60% shares of the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation.

Chinese company STARTIMES already owns a massive joint venture in a Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) platform with the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA) among others.

Writing last month on China’s soft diplomacy in protecting its investment foray into Africa through media ownership and influence, Azad Essa, in an article for Foreign Policy alleged the cancellation of his weekly column in a South African paper owned by Independent Media due to interference by their Chinese investors following a critical piece on the more than one million Uighur Muslims being persecuted in China’s Xinjiang province.

He unveiled China’s propaganda strategy for Africa as investing heavily in the spread of its state-owned media CGTN, ChinaDaily and Xinxua’s presence and bureaus across the continent; supporting privately owned Chinese media that set up offices on throughout Africa; conjuring up partnerships or organizing sponsored trips to China for cash-strapped African newsrooms.

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All these networks also act as surveillance tools for monitoring independent voices that are critical of China’s give-and-take strategy and investments across Africa.

In all, it is now evident that China wants a tight-lipped discussion on its “debt-trap diplomacy” hence the silencing of alternative voices like Professor Lumumba, using their powers surreptitiously through governments like that of Zambia to deport a renowned son of Africa. It is left to be seen if many citizens across Africa would stand up to such silencing or accept the Chinese model of censorship, deportation and even jailing of critics. No wonder the Chinese say little to their partner government’s in such countries as Rwanda where independent voices like Diane Rwigwara continues to be in illegal detention for daring to run against President Paul Kagame; or the life threatening harassment and detention of Bobi Wine, Uganda’s neo-opposition leader by the age-long Yoweri Museveni government.

Is China truly the silver bullet to Africa’s development? Time to unlock the truth.


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