Setting the agenda

Few things are as gratifying for a journalist as the feeling you are helping to set the spotlight on the topics that matter in  the world. This year, I’ve had exactly that feeling, when writing on China’s role in Africa.

Having been selected as media participant to the World Economic Forum, I attended a January CNN debate on Emerging Markets. Present, amongst others, were Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola, and Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Renault-Nissan.

People present at the debate all had a different idea of what was the “key take-away” – not surprising given the topic, “Emerging Markets at Crossroads”, which wasn’t exactly pushing the debate in one specific direction. Nomen est Omen.

But for me, there was a very important message arising from the debate, albeit a subtle one, visible only to those people aware the Chinese-African trade relationship.

Lamido Sanusi,  the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, said he wanted to move up the value chain and be  less of a raw materials producer, and more one finished goods.

That could not be anything else than a criticism towards China, which since years has had a “raw goods for infrastructure” agreement with many African countries. In return for building infrastructure in Africa, China gets raw goods at favorable prices.

But as I wrote an earlier piece on a Turkish construction firm winning a railroad contract in Ethipia, China is increasingly facing competition from other countries for construction projects. The reason? It seems that some African countries aren’t too keen anymore on the informal agreement “raw goods for infrastructure”.

And so Lamido Sanusi’s comment was indeed an important one. A validation that there was a disagreement in the African-Chinese wedding.

Yi Gang, the deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, and also present at the debate, didn’t want to make too much of a fuzz about Lamido Sanusi’s comments. Everything is fine, he said almost literally.

But for me, the fact that a senior African official was openly criticizing China, was really the key take away of the debate. I made it the main message of my FT article, called “Nigeria to China: we want to climb up the value chain“. To make the article more appealing, my lede was as follows:

Is the honeymoon of the unofficial Africa-China wedding over? Last week, the Nigerian Central Bank voiced its discontent about the unfavorable trade balance with China – and made it clear Nigeria was already looking elsewhere for friendship (and maybe more).

Following journalistic artistic rules, I came back to that comparison at the end of the article   (which, to tell the truth, was thanks to my colleague and editor, Rob Minto):

Yi Gang, for his part, assured China would continue to support in infrastructure and education investments in Africa. Not everyone wants a costly divorce.

It became apparent very quickly that I had struck a sentimental chord with many FT readers, as the article got shared more than 175 times on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

But what was most interesting, is that Lamido Sanusi himself decided to write an op-ed for the FT a few weeks later, in which he not only repeated his criticism towards China (openly this time) but also copied the comparison to the African-Chinese “marriage. He wrote:

It is time for Africans to wake up to the realities of their romance with China. […] Being my father’s son, I cannot recommend a divorce. However, a review of the exploitative elements in this marital contract is long overdue. Every romance begins with partners blind to each other’s flaws before the scales fall away and we see the partner, warts and all. We may remain together – but at least there are no illusions.

The words of Lamido Sanusi this time did not go unnoticed by the FT’s editors. They wrote their own comment piece, and made the Lamido Sanusi op-ed the main headline of March 11  FT newspaper.

Since, the topic has returned to the headlines several times. For example, when President Xi Jinping  of China visited Tanzania late March, the FT reported:

Mr Xi played to the crowd with references to a Chinese soap opera popular in Tanzania, drawing large applause and laughter, and told a story of a Chinese couple who fell in love with Africa while on safari in Tanzania.

But some were put out by what they saw as saccharine references. “Romantic blog posts and soap operas as a signifier of a muscular relationship smacks of paternalism,” said Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina. “If a Chinese leader cannot begin to articulate what Africa is to them with more substance, Africans should be worried.”

The article also referenced Lamido Sanusi’s op-ed again, and said Xi Jinping’s speech was probably an answer to the comments made by Lamido Sanusi.

This time, other major news outlets such as CNN included Lamido Sanusi’s comparisons to the failed marriage and the terms of the relationship.

Some, including Botswana President Ian Khama and Nigerian central bank governor Lamido Sanusi, have begun to question to what extent Africa has benefited.

“Cracks are appearing in this China-Africa relationship,” said CNN Beijing and former Africa correspondent David McKenzie.

“There’s a sense from Africans that it’s not an equal relationship. That China is extracting oil and then in return building infrastructure projects with its own companies and own workers and not necessarily transferring the skills to African workers.”

Early April then, Qu Xing, the head of Chinese Institute of International Studies, wrote an op-ed in the FT answering directly to Lamido Sanusi’s marriage comparison:

Lamido Sanusi, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, wrote in a recent article for the Financial Times that China’s approach to Africa embodied “the essence of colonialism” – the export of manufactured goods and the import of primary resources. China is a “significant contributor to Africa’s deindustrialisation and underdevelopment”, he said. I disagree: the relationship is actually mutually beneficial.

What did I learn from this string of events?

  1. Stay humble. Journalists don’t make news, politicians and business men do 
  2. It’s worth being contrarian. No one thought Lamido Sanusi’s comments in the CNN debate were worth a headline. I did. It turned out to be a major story
  3. It’s all in the wording. No doubt, China’s role in Africa was going to be a major story, with or without my article. But: I did help it get more attention because of the comparison to a marriage, which allowed to make the complex reality of the African-Chinese ties a lot more visible: people understand much better the complexities of a marriage then of a macro trade relationship between major economic powers.
  4. Dare to claim your contribution. This may seem opposing to number 1 above, but for a journalist, it is important. Lamido Sanusi never referenced to my article, but I’m sure he read it before writing his own op-ed; he realized the story would get more attention in the context of a marriage. I made sure to tell this to my editor. I didn’t need public acclaim, but the people who matter need to know you did a good job.


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