The Reason For China’s Great Success In Africa? Profound Corruption.

Adebayo Adeniran
Jun 10 · 6 min read

In a very short space of time, the Chinese have proven quite adept at the corruption game in Africa.

Joshua J. Cotton image via Unsplash

In late 2011, the death of Neil Heywood, a Brit, resident in China was widely reported on the BBC. As time wore on, the original story given by the police of Mr. Heywood dying by alcohol poisoning began to unravel, when the police officer charged to handle the investigation fled to the American consulate for refuge.

Neil Heywood, who worked as a liaison between senior members of the ruling elite and those seeking to business in the people’s republic, was murdered by Gu Kaillai, wife of Bo Xillai, a prominent member of the politburo, when he (Heywood) threatened to spill what he knew of their (Mr& Mrs Xillai) corrupt dealings over the years.

The Heywood episode led to a tidal wave of revelation on the corruption, killings and blackmail by Bo Xillai, during his time as mayor of Chongqing, and for a minute or two, the scandal threatened to engulf the entire politburo, itself. Given the unfavorable coverage that the Heywood killing has had in the western press, it was no surprise that the big wigs under the leadership of Xi Jingpin have been keen to conduct their business affairs differently, since then.

But the one place where they have chosen not to do things differently, is well, you have guessed it — Africa.


And guess what?

In Nigeria, Ethiopia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and South Sudan, the People’s Republic of China has exploited the commercial opportunities, with reckless abandon and in the process, woven its own brand of corruption into the national fabric of these countries.

Back When I travelled around China, several years ago, It was still the clothes manufacturing hub alongside Bangladesh and Vietnam in the far east. But since then, things have changed a great deal and it’s become quite expensive for places like Yiwu to make clothes and sell to the rest of the world.

So what steps did they take in dealing with the rising costs in China?

Set up shop in a remote region of an African country, where there’s semblance of political stability and no accountability whatsoever.

This was what I found when I went to Hawassa, situated 170 miles to the south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Beside the Hawassa university, there is a huge clothes factory set up by the Chinese in June 2017, known formally as the Hawassa Industrial park.

Hawassa Manufacturing Industry shot by the Author’s Guide

When I went to the factory, prior to the 2020 pandemic on a rainy day in November 2019, I found girls as young as ages 12–13, working in every one of the clothes factories, earning between 997–1200 Birrs (23–35 dollars) a month, working 12 hours a day and 6 days a week, to produce millions of articles of clothing, which are shipped to the United States of America, to be sold in the marquee department shops.

Chances are very high that if you shop at JC Penny, Tommy Hilfiger or any of the famous American department stores, you are wearing clothing made by vastly underpaid children, who are being exploited far beyond their comprehension, by people, they are highly unlikely ever to meet.

I moved to Nigeria from Britain in September 2013 to work for a Nigerian owned multi-national, which had offices in Africa, Asia and Europe. Prior to my relocation, this organization had acquired the largest electricity companies in Nigeria from the government.

It was around this time that Chinese firms like Huawei became very active on the Nigerian Landscape, meeting with middle men, who demanded huge sums before introducing them to the decision makers, who also made sure that they, themselves were properly rewarded when fat contracts were awarded to their new Asian partners.

But it was during my time as the COO of the property division of the local Multi national that I got to see Chinese corruption, first hand.

I was instructed by the Chairman of my organization to undertake a major infrastructural project, which entailed getting the approval of the state government in late 2019.

On my visits to the office of the state government, where I had to wait for hours on end, like everyone else to see the senior official in charge of granting approvals for road construction, I encountered a number of Chinese gentlemen, who were employees of CCECC (Chinese construction company), who had paid millions of Naira for access to the senior players, to lobby hard for the major infrastructural projects, being undertaken by the state.

Lobbying for multi billion Naira projects often entails greasing the palms of relevant government players and in a very short time, CCECC have overtaken the more established players such as Julius Berger, Arab Contractors, Cappa and D’alberto in the construction business.

In South Sudan, China has had quite a bit of a head start, as lots of deals were made back in the early 1990s (Back when the country was still part of Sudan), thus making it harder for new entrants to penetrate. This is evinced by the difficulties of my old employers in getting the South Sudanese government to sign a multi billion dollar deal, which would have seen them sell Sudanese oil globally in exchange for a massive infrastructural loan.

In Zambia, It is a tragic state of affairs as they have taken Chinese money with very little scrutiny. A good number of disused copper mines were taken over by the Chinese, winning concessions over their British rivals by not only out bidding them, but also by appealing to the wallets of the gentlemen in charge.

What’s happened in Zambia, is essentially the case in the nation formerly known as Zaire, the democratic republic of Congo with the PRC acting in concert with unscrupulous commodity traders, to funnel commodities out of remote areas in these countries, only for the finished article to emerge in Europe, Latin America and Africa itself.

Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium, for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries were the preeminent powers in Africa. During this period they traded humans and all sorts of commodities. It was during this time that corruption really took hold, as local chiefs were rewarded in exchange for access to what their lands had to offer.

During the cold war, when America was at odds with the Russians, Africa was the scene of the proxy battles, which had the likes of Nkrumah overthrown by the CIA and Mobutu Sese Seko working with the Yanks to depose Patrice Lumumba. Nixon’s government was more than happy to ignore Sese Seko’s corruption, if it meant not siding with the Russians.

Readers who are old enough will remember the Angolan civil war in the 1980s and how it came to an end when Fidel Castro’s forces routed the American and South African backed players. Africa’s resources and its weak political institutions bequeathed by the old powers, have helped create this never ending template, in which corruption thrives.

The Chinese, in the 21st century, are not only tapping into the profoundly corrupt template left behind by the former colonizing powers in Africa, but they are doing so with an aggression, that they (the Europeans) think is quite astonishing.

My view is that it is only a matter of time, before China starts meddling in the internal affairs of these African countries, if it finds the terms of engagement unfavourable for its strategic interests.

Thanks very much for reading.

– — -


Below the surface

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store