African countries are not among those calling on China to deal with the predominantly Muslim Uyghur population in the northwestern Xinjiang region.
In fact, some African diplomats recently attended an event in Beijing and praised China’s policy in the region.
At least a million Uyghurs have reportedly been detained in Xinjiang in a vast network of camps. China faces charges of forced labor, forced sterilization, torture and genocide – allegations it denies.
The Chinese government has defended the detention camps, claiming they are “re-education centers” to fight terrorism and religious extremism.
“Some Western forces who denounce the so-called Xinjiang-related issues are in fact launching unprovoked attacks against China to serve their own ulterior motives,” Burkina Faso’s Ambassador Adama Compaoré said at the March event. baptized Xinjiang in the Eyes. African ambassadors in China.
The event was also followed by Sudan and Congo-Brazzaville, whose envoy Daniel Owassa reportedly said he supported what China called a series of counterterrorism measures in the region, saying he appreciated “the major development achievements of Xinjiang in various fields in recent years “. .
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the meeting was an example of Africa’s silence on a key global concern.
“[It] may be routine diplomacy, but the willingness of African governments to remain silent about Beijing’s removal of rights has real-world consequences, ”said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, Africa Advocacy Director at HRW, in a press release.
“[Africans] have often rightly denounced the indifference of other countries to their plight and sought global solidarity with human suffering, ”she added.
But Ejeviome Otobo, a non-resident researcher at the Global Governance Institute in Brussels, says African leaders and China have a common understanding, based on three main areas: human rights, economic interests and non-interference in internal affairs.
Africa’s largely pro-Chinese stance increasingly pits the continent against the West on human rights issues.
In a June 2020 vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Hong Kong’s controversial national security law, which imposed severe penalties on political dissent and effectively ended to the autonomy of the territory, 25 African countries – the largest grouping of all the continents – have supported China.
Months later, in October, no African country signed a scathing rebuke of China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet, which was backed by Western nations.
HRW accuses African leaders of prioritizing China’s economic benefits over other global concerns.
Yet Eric Olander, co-founder of the China Africa Project, believes that for African policymakers, not opposing Beijing “is a much higher foreign policy priority.”
“What these critics don’t seem to understand is that as poor developing countries – many of which are also heavily indebted to Beijing and depend on China for the bulk of their trade – they are not in a position to to resist the immediate return which results in upsetting China, ”he told the BBC.
Another important factor is a decades-old relationship that was cemented in 1970 when African countries played a pivotal role in helping China join the United Nations amid protests from the United States.
“Since then, the relationship has only grown stronger,” Cliff Mboya, a China-Africa analyst based in Kenya, told the BBC.
“For 30 years now, China has made a tradition that its foreign minister visits Africa first every new year – this is not only symbolic but it indicates that they are invested in a long-term relationship. and that makes a big impression on Africans. “
Young Africans may not be so impressed – they have an overwhelmingly positive view of the United States and its development model, according to a recent Afrobarometer study.
But the older generation and government leaders feel different – and their decision to look to China for infrastructure funding, especially over the past 20 years – has transformed the continent’s landscape with expansive roads, bridges, railways, ports and an Internet infrastructure that has secured the continent. is not an outcast in the digital economy.
Some of these projects are part of the multibillion-dollar China Belt and Road Initiative that 46 African countries have signed, Otobo said.
“Where is the western equivalent?” he asks, adding that it would be difficult to match the scale of China’s funding.
The lack of transparency in the agreements signed to fund these massive projects has fueled suspicion of an insidious plot to trap the continent with loans it cannot pay, Mr. Orlander says, although this “trap theory” the debt ”has been debunked.
And debt relief and access to Covid-19 vaccines will likely be key themes of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC), the high-profile triennial event, to be held in Senegal later this year. .
Since the pandemic struck, Chinese flags have been a common sight at airports on the mainland, signaling the arrival of vital donations such as personal protective equipment and lately Chinese-made vaccines.
China’s so-called vaccine diplomacy has so far reached 13 African countries, which have either purchased them or received donations.
By comparison, there has been no direct support from the UK or the US except through the global Covax initiative – which is also backed by China. Covax has administered 18 million doses so far in 41 African countries.
Using access to Covid-19 vaccines as a tool of influence in the world is an ongoing race between world powers.
In March, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab urged developing countries to wait for “benchmark” vaccines rather than those from China and Russia.
New US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sees the situation as less racial, recently telling African students: “We are not asking anyone to choose between the United States or China, but I encourage you to ask these tough questions, to dig below the surface, to demand transparency and make informed choices. “
Western powers know they cannot compete with China on loans and infrastructure – there has been no retaliation for those who receive Chinese aid or are too partisan of Beijing. Instead, they fall back on mantras like the call for democracy and corruption-free investment.
For this reason, it is inconceivable that in the near future an African country would seek to take a Chinese leader to The Hague for treating Uyghurs – as happened to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2019 when she was the head of the Myanmar and The Gambia. the former justice minister lodged a complaint against her country’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority.
Abubacarr Tamado was supported by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, a group of 57 predominantly Muslim countries, including 27 African. This decision, applauded in the West, has so far led the International Court of Justice to order Myanmar to take measures to prevent the genocide.