Prior to the U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Zambia, renowned Zambian historian Dr. Sishuwa Sishuwa wrote a well reflected article published in the Mail and Guardian on March 28, 2023, entitled “As US vice-president Harris arrives in Zambia, here is what lies ahead.” As always, Sishuwa, a friend with whom I share many academic and research interests, made some thought-provoking reflections that advance the political and governance discourse in Zambia and on the African continent. Among the key issues he raised was the hope that Harris’s visit would nudge the Hichilema administration to speed up institutional and legislative reforms (e.g., pass the access to information law; encourage local discussions LGBTQ + issues as opposed to imperially-designed positions, etc.), and encourage Hakainde Hichilima to directly engage with China to expedite the debt restructuring process that is stifling the government’s ability to meet its key campaign promises.

The purpose of this article is to dwell on two of the issues Sishuwa raises and to give them an alternative, and perhaps more nuanced spin (i.e., Harris’ visit to individual countries and African collectivism; and the juxtaposition of the China-U.S. benefits to Zambia/Africa).

Africa’s lack of a unified strategy for dealing with major powers

Sishuwa rightly articulates that Harris’ visit to Africa sought to counter what the US considers the growing illiberal influences of China and Russia on the continent, and to secure America’s economic interests. The global geopolitical and economic power balancing is a continuous characteristic of global politics. In the current international order, the US remains the dominant hegemony that is constantly threatened by the emergence of Chinese economic and military prowess and political influence, especially in the developing countries in the Global South. Suggesting that Harris’ visit was a sign of American benevolence would signify one’s lack of understanding of international political economics.

Of interest are Sishuwa’s explanations for Africa’s lack of unified strategy in its engagement with the U.S., China, the EU, or Russia. The first, he argues, is the lack of continental agency, making African countries failing to reach common ground on key issues. The second is the lack of Pan-African leadership. The third is that individual African countries are heavily dependent on the US, China, the EU and even Russia in relation to aid, trade and external investment and that this is why they find it easier to compete rather than unite and present a shared position on these key issues.

In the spirit expanding intellectual discourse, I would like to provide reflections on Sishuwa’s observations, starting with the last reason for Africa’s failure to unite on key ideas. Indeed, economic support from Russia, China, the EU, or the US has connotations of power and political influence. However, economic support has always carried this inherent power and influence even when Africa had strong Pan-African leadership. Since independence, most African countries have been recipients of foreign aid from the US, China, and the EU. Starting in the 1970s,owing to fluctuating copper prices and the need to sustain domestic spending, Zambia accumulated massive debt from the Paris Club members that led to the HIPC initiative and eventual debt forgiveness in 2005/6. It is hard to explain if/how this variable independently weakens African leaders’ predisposition to geopolitical collectivism.

Regarding the lack of continental agency, Sishuwa argues that African countries are inward looking rather than seeking common positions. He further argues or implies that the three heads of state Harris was visiting could have consulted with other African leaders for common grounds on key issues. I should mention pre-emptively that I am a proponent of collectivism and regionalism in Africa’s engagement with the West and I agree with Sishuwa that Africa countries render themselves ready to western manipulation and exploitation when they don’t coalesce around common regional/continental agendas. Creation of critical masses of African countries and negotiating on common interests reduces the risk of exploitation by the giant economic and political powers in west and the east. However, I think Harris’ visit is not one that I would subject to strict collectivist interests. Indeed, President Samia Suluhu Hassan could raise issues of East African regional concern, like Hakainde Hichilima could of SADC, and Nana Akufo-Ado those of ECOWAS. I, however, do not think that the three African heads would be exhibiting isolationism and lack of Pan-Africanism to not have presented the needs of other countries in their bilateral meetings with Harris. There are several problems with this comparison, but I will dwell on two here. First, African countries already have regional and continental blocs for collective economic and political positioning such as ECOWAS, SADC, and AU. Understandably, these bodies are weak and inadequately represent Pan-African interests. But that’s a complicated discussion whose structural and philosophical faults cannot be redeemed by Harris’ 6-day visit to Africa. While African countries should certainly seek opportunities for collectivism, they remain individual sovereigns with national interests in bilateral engagements. It would be diplomatically odd for any of the three heads of state to pull out a predominantly African agenda during those short bilateral conversations with Harris given other available platforms for doing so.

Second, while collectivism should always be encouraged, it is important to understand it is inherently a strategic tool for common and individual country benefits. Individual countries do not cede individual interests in collective efforts. The problem of collective action is one that has plagued organisational politics since time immemorial and is not unique to Africa. The rationale of the Non-Aligned Movement, for example, beyond counterbalancing the rivaling superpowers, was also to retain productive relationships with both superpowers. International relations scholars (and Sishuwa makes this point) have long argued that foreign policy is ultimately a tool for domestic gains. It is important that individual countries strategically pursue individual interests to meet the needs of their electorate much as they seek alliancing in key thematic negotiations. Making that distinction is key in international relations and yet a very difficult balance to achieve.

Would Harris’s visit benefit Zambia and its relationship with the US?

Sishuwa juxtaposes Chinese economic relations to those of the US, based on what an ordinary Zambian could point at. Sishuwa assets:

“If you asked an average Zambian what the US has done for the country, they would struggle to point to anything. But the same person will quickly note that China has in recent years built a top-class international conference centre, a major public hospital and a national stadium — all constructed at no financial cost to Zambia.

“….America’s attempt to win back friends on the continent may fail in the absence of tangible benefits such as visible project financing. African countries have woken up to the reality that they can no longer be courted through mere political rhetoric or symbolism. When African leaders attended the last US-Africa Summit, US President Joe Biden announced that there was $55 billion available for immediate investment in Africa. Many are now asking, “Where is the money?” If Harris comes empty handed, Zambia may not be swayed by her childhood ties to the country.”

Acknowledging Sishuwa’s accurate argument that African countries’ relationships with any country should not be seen as colluding against another, I find the above arguments interesting. Africa-Sino and Africa-US relationships are so important that analysing their pros and cons must be more thorough. Both relationships are crucial to Africa’s development. Of course, African countries must be very strategic in these relations and guard against exploitation to maximise benefits for their electorate, especially in natural resource extractions. Let us, for now examine Sishuwa’s juxtaposition of these relations as relates to Zambian benefits. Indeed, China has built stadia, roads, and other infrastructure that people can point at. In reference to Sishuwa’s conclusion regarding the benefits of Chinese relations and the “symbolism” or “rhetoric” of American support, my commentary is fourfold. First, Africans must determine what constitutes valuable outcomes of a bilateral relationship and align their actions accordingly. Political science literature has overwhelming evidence that no country has an altruistic foreign policy. Countries seek foreign policies that advance domestic advantages. For democracies, those advantages also increase electoral prospects at home.

Second, it is inaccurate that the US government does not do infrastructure financing in Zambia. In 2012, the Millennium Challenge Compact partnered with the Government of Zambia to implement a $332 million compact that saw the rolling out of large-scale investment focused on intensive water infrastructure investment and institutional strengthening. The compact, which concluded in 2018, aimed to build the government of Zambia’s capacity to effectively manage the water sector while fundamentally transforming this sector.

Third, US financing through PEPFAR, USAID, CDC, Peace corps, EducationUSA, Ambassador’s small grants projects, and many other mechanisms, is beyond “symbolic” or “rhetoric”. American financing keeps millions of Zambians alive through free antiretrovirals (ARVS). ARVs cost up to $4,500 per month per person. That’s what it costs American taxpayers to sustain the lives of millions of Zambians every month, for over two decades now. The question to an ordinary Zambian, perhaps, should not only be that one points to the result of Chinese aid and/or American aid, but to also ask if they know a relative or friend whose life depends on ARVs and if they would afford the monthly cost without US aid. Ask any Zambian older than 30 years if they still miss a dead relative who could have been alive today but for humiliating death to AIDS in the 1990s when ARVs were not available to them. In addition to saving lives, the millions of dollars poured into the Zambian economy by PEPFAR, USAID, Peace Corps, and CDC employ thousands of Zambians though large projects, sustaining livelihoods (healthcare workers, drivers, project staff, cleaners, accountants, etc.).

Further, Millions of Zambians have received free education opportunities in the US for decades now, long before China came on board for educational support. While many of these remain in the US after studies, their contribution to the Zambian economy through remittances and knowledge transfer is far beyond symbolic and rhetorical.

Should Zambia prefer one over the other in bilateral relations?

Sishuwa’s article opens an opportunity for all of us to broadly discuss China’s contribution to Africa’s development. In his response to a journalist’s question during the press briefing at State House in Lusaka, President Hichilema attempted to answer a very difficult question which, in my view, he should have been better prepared to handle by those that write his speaking notes. Sishuwa too made a similar point that Zambia’s relations with one country do not imply competition with or enmity for the other. Without entangling myself in that territory, I want to simply underscore that both Chinese and American relationships (economic and political) are important for Zambia’s development, and none is symbolic or rhetorical. Zambia and Africa need these partnerships badly for their economic and political development. I want to highlight, however, that the relationships with these two players have different implications for African countries’ development and political governance and African leaders must be aware of them as they engage.

China Vs US/Western Economic Relations

Chinese FDI in Africa has great potential to spur economic growth in Africa. China has made very important investments that have helped raise GDP growth across Africa. From $3 billion in 1995, trade between China and African countries ballooned to over $281 billion in 2022. For the first time in history, in 2005 China became the third largest individual country exporter to Africa, specifically to Sub-Saharan Africa. Similarly, China is currently Africa’s third largest export destination after the EU and the US. China invests billions of dollars in Africa’s infrastructural development in form of loans (the power sector, transport, telecom, water, etc.).

The first challenge with Africa’s relationship with China is what former Ghanaian President John Kufuor aptly observed in a 2008 speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London. In that speech, Kufuor praised the Chinese for their development assistance to Africa but expressed concern about Chinese labour deployment in Africa, which limits opportunities for the transfer of skills and technology. The question about how much technological residual-effect Chinese investments have on the African people so that Africans will be able to compete for these high-skilled jobs in the future and to grow their own high-tech productive capacities is crucial. Unfortunately, the influx of Chinese nationals in Africa is no longer in high-tech sectors. The numbers of Chinese workers in African countries are growing fast and they are flooding even the non-technical sectors, including gardening, backyard poultry growing, retailing, block-making, etc.

The second issue is that, because of its state-to-state nature, some scholars have argued that Chinese infrastructure financing often misses key priorities of development. As a result, China funds what are largely referred to as vanity projects such as cultural centers, state houses, and stadia without direct economic growth impact. In Malawi, whose most important infrastructural needs are roads to boast agricultural production, and hospitals and water systems, the Chinese opted to build a $100 million Parliament, a luxury hotel, and a soccer stadium. In Zambia, they have gifted us with expensive stadia (Ndola and Lusaka), a conference hall, and poor quality over-priced roads. As much as infrastructure development is a key ingredient to economic development, it must be strategically prioritised and targeted; it must also be packaged in such a way that it makes use of available local resources to leave significant traces of technology benefits to the recipient populations.          

Thirdly, some observers have argued it is characteristic for Chinese financing to sometimes not actually hit local accounts of receiving countries. On the contrary, US and EU financing actually hits Zambian accounts and contributes to kwacha stability, value chain activity, job creation, and also technology transfer. Often, Chinese financing is issued by state-owned banks such as the Chinese Exim Bank and is spent within China to procure goods and services needed for construction purposes in destination countries.

Fourthly, much of Chinese loans are characteristically shrouded in non-disclosure clauses, creating huge challenges with public accountability with already corrupt-ridden African leaders. In some cases, the lack of transparency around Chinese financing has led to increasing and unsustainable levels of debt and the danger of losing collateral. The current Zambian debt overhang is particularly exacerbated by these non-disclosure elements. At the end of the Patriotic Front’s administration, it was hard to determine exactly how much money was owed to China. This does not help to build confidence, transparency, and accountability in African institutions. It also does not build the needed capacity to be self-reliant. I will not dwell on the quality if Chinese infrastructure because I think African governments are to blame for settling for less than ideal and for not equitably negotiating their deals, need for local supervision, etc.

Why the bother?

The intent of this write up is to advance public discourse on Zambia and Africa’s engagement with the west and the east. What I wanted to demonstrate is that both US and Chinese support, in their current forms, are needed for Zambia and Africa and that they each have underlying characteristics scholars and commentators should be interrogating for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Also, I hoped to demonstrate that US support to Zambia, whether it is in the form of trade or financing, is beyond symbolic and that it is not limited to non-infrastructure sectors. Most importantly, I wanted to further the conversation about the nuances of Sino-Africa relations that analysts should be careful about and not gloss over, especially that this relationship is used by less informed political commentators to sway public opinions about Africa’s relationships with the west.

Dr. Priva Hang’andu is a political science scholar and a senior policy advisor with the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) in Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed in this article are his and do not represent those of the CIHR.