I recently came across an opinion piece by former Nigeria’s education minister Obiagel Ezekwesili arguing that China must pay reparations to African countries as a compensation for Coronavirus pandemic. She stated, among others, that “China should immediately announce a complete write-off of the more than $140 billion that its government, banks and contractors extended to countries in Africa between 2000 and 2017. This would provide partial compensation to African countries for the impact that the coronavirus is already having on their economies and people.” To say the least, the logic of this proposition is tenuous.
First, I think China does indeed have questions to answer, not only about the way it has handled the original outbreak of Covid-19, but also the way it appears to be withholding information that can help the world tackle the pandemic, going forward. However, I was unable to see any strong argument made in this piece as to how China should pay reparations to African countries specifically. As I kept reading along I was hoping to see the arguments. There was nothing, alas.
To be sure, I think there is a strong case to be made for debt cancellation for the poorest countries in the wake of this pandemic. That’s a matter for all “creditor” countries, not just China. I think the debt system is essentially an elaborate fraud where clueless and hopelessly corrupt African leaders play a co-leading role, along with international “creditors”. This process is driven by a certain power asymmetry.
There is a wider point to make here. Crises are disruptive and destructive, but they also open up windows of new opportunities. That is, for those who are prepared to take them. The United States maintained a policy of neutrality for much of the 1st World war, until the fourth and final year when the US under the Wilson administration entered the war in April 1918, tipping the balance and ending the war 7 months later, a year earlier than predicted. The US followed the same pattern in the Second World War, until it’s navy was attacked at Pearl Harbour. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik revolutionaries took advantage of the precarious situations of the 1st world war, among others, to put down the Tsarist regime. Both the US and USSR emerged from the Second World War as the two dominant world power. Meanwhile, colonised countries, beginning with India in 1948 and African countries a decade later, took advantage of the global crises to free themselves of colonialism.
The current pandemic is a crisis of a different kind, of course. It is not a war of countries. It is nevertheless a crisis of a similar dimension in terms of its disruptive force. It should be an auspicious opportunity for African countries to reposition themselves and kickstart their rise as an industrial and production powerhouse. That vision can include reparations, but has to be essentially driven by innovation and a sense of urgency. Slow motion gradualism must give way. You need an injection of pace and purpose.
Alas, how can you even begin to talk about this when your leaders are busy importing new cars for themselves in places where there is not a single ventilator, and while lamenting that oil prices has gone down? Is this also China’s fault?