The Belt and Road Initiative at Ten and Why Africa Should Opt for a Multipolar World

Published on 25th September 2023

Africa, home to over 1.4 billion people with an infrastructure deficit of over USD$ 360 billion, has an opportunity to take strategic advantage of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  Originally focused on Asia and Europe, the BRI celebrates its 10th anniversary having expanded to Africa, Oceania, and Latin America.

President Xi Jinping launched an ambitious USD $1 trillion vision in 2013 over a ten-year period, to promote connectivity on both land and sea, inspired by the ancient Chinese Silk Road of the Han Dynasty era. African countries that embraced this initiative intend to use it as a tool to spur their development and prosperity. The roll-out of the initiative has been marred by controversy on matters procurement corruption, debt, and environmental concerns. In Kenya for example, the 472-kilometer Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) built at a cost of USD$ 3.8 billion is alleged to have been overpriced.

The BRI has facilitated efficient connectivity in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Its focus is an answer to the global infrastructures gap through constructing modern highways, airports, railways, bridges, power generation plants and industrial parks. Initially known as the One Belt and One Road (OBOR), its key activities include infrastructure development (highways, ports, airports, railways, and digital connectivity); trade and investment (establishment of businesses, trade agreements and foreign direct investments); economic growth (job creation and poverty reduction); people to people exchanges (cultural, academic, think tank and research exchanges); and environmental sustainability (renewable energy; carbon emissions and natural resource conservation).

The African Union’s Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) has 51 priority infrastructure back-bone projects in energy, water, transport and Information and Communication Technology which can be pitched to the BRI. Addressing the infrastructure deficit in Africa will reduce the cost of doing business and facilitate intra-Africa and international trade.

China’s own scorecard on the 10th anniversary of the BRIC indicates over 3,000 cooperation projects; increase of trade in goods among countries along the BRI from USD$ 1.04 trillion in 2013, to USD$ 2.07 trillion; USD$ 270 billion investments; creation of 421,000 jobs; and establishment of 84 China – Europe freight train routes connecting 211 cities in 25 European countries and 20 countries with Renminbi (RMB) currency swap arrangements. China – Africa trade volumes increased from USD$ 210 billion in 2013 to USD$ 282 billion in 2022. Chinese infrastructure projects peaked at USD$ 78.4 billion in 2018 and direct investment in 2021 at USD$ 3.74 billion. The China financing largesse may not last forever. How else can Africa situate its interests and evolve a win-win?

The BRI is a major actor in offering an alternate development model and a multipolar World.  Africa’s framing of the world should be based on its own unique history and circumstances; be adaptable, flexible, and champion cultural pluralism. Under the current rigid and inflexible West- led world order characterized by unquestioned democracies and autocracies mindset, Africa finds itself unable to grow its own monetary system, address its huge infrastructure gaps and optimize its vast natural resources.

Africa can create new global institutions on finance, and trade that favor the continent’s vast natural resource endowment by taking strategic advantage of the BRI. With a purposeful, well-thought-out sense of agency, the continent can take advantage of the dynamic, complex, and diverse unfolding multipolar phenomenon to cure its colonial hangover and rethink current public policy models that hold back possibilities for the continent to fully tap its potential.  The BRI, the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, and the BRICS – New Development Bank, offer Africa opportunities to strategize beyond the confines of the traditional Bretton Woods Institutions – the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

The BRI is a wake-up call for African agency to consider both the short- and long-term aspirations of the continent in its deals. The continent through nation-states, regional economic blocs and the African Union should develop a guiding matrix that includes Africans’ core interests; transparency; labor standards; debt management and environment standards as it aspires for a bright future along the Belt and Road Initiative.

By James Shikwati,

Founder, IREN Kenya @shikwatijames

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