The re-emergence of China as a world power has led to controversy surrounding its increasing influence in many regions of the world. The actions of China as part of this growing dominance have become in many cases a source of internal political conflict and argumentation among the different political groupings within polities. This effect is even more marked in cases of impending elections, as illustrated by the prominent part China played in the third US presidential debate this year.
China, which has in a little over a decade become the largest investing and trading partner in Africa, is increasingly featuring in African election discourses, a notable example being Zambia’s President Michael Sata. Although his explicit anti-Chinese rhetoric was toned down in his successful 2011 election campaign, Sata’s previous campaigns were dominated by threats to throw Chinese “infestors” out of the country. While such threats have never been acted upon, perhaps because of the dominant part that China plays in Zambia’s economy, they do illustrate the prominence of China in Zambia’s politics.
In Ghana, arguably Africa's most democratic nation, presidential elections often end in nail-biting finishes, sometimes requiring even a third round of voting. With the country now undergoing another hotly-contested presidential election campaign, with voting scheduled for December 7, China has become an important talking point.
While unlikely to cause as much political heat as in Zambia, China is a divisive topic between the two main presidential candidates: incumbent John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and Nana Akufo-Addo of the main opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP).
One main issue in this debate regards how Ghana can best benefit from its links with China.
In the first half of this year, for example, Ghana negotiated a $3 billion loan from China to invest in its nascent oil industry. The main parties disagree, however, over how to make optimal use of the facility without too much Chinese interference. Before the loan was granted, it had to be approved by Ghana’s parliament and already there were opposition charges that the sitting NDC government is auctioning Ghanaian resources to China through unfavourable loan terms.
The pro-NPP Alliance for Accountable Government (AFAG) also alleged that Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, is consorting with the NDC government to give them political advantage. AFAG claims Huawei managed to secure $43 million in tax exemption in return for the contributions it made to the NDC government.
The most heated issue involving China, however, is illegal mining, with opposition politicians continually interrogating the sitting NDC government on the issue. Ghanaians, especially those whose farmlands are destroyed in this process, which is most acute in Obuasi and environs within the Ashanti region, are unhappy with what they see as corrupt law enforcement authorities and chiefs who are not doing enough to contain illicit activities. There is a perception that those who are supposed to be protecting the wellbeing of local Ghanaians cannot resist bribes from the Chinese, thus allowing illegal companies to practice surface mining at the expense of powerless villagers.
Opposition pressure seems to have pushed the government to take more stringent actions. In October 2012, the Ghanaian military police arrested over 100 small-scale miners in a raid in which one Chinese boy was reportedly killed. And the month before that, 40 illegal Chinese miners were deported back to China, leading to diplomatic friction between Accra and Beijing.
China, with its increasingly deep footprint in Africa and the rest of the world, will continue to be the subject of much electioneering discourse. How this plays out in Ghana and in subsequent elections across the continent remains to be seen. Opposition parties could try to exploit anti-Chinese sentiment to ride into power on anti-Chinese platforms; or – as we saw in Zambia – more pragmatic calls for greater accountability and scrutiny of how populations can get the most from their relationship with China could turn out to be the way to go.
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