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China’s Debt Imperialism: The Art of War by Other Means?

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The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s ambitious attempt to create a global infrastructure corridor spanning 65 countries and connecting 60 percent of the world’s population, is the biggest imperial coming-out party in modern history. Not by armed conquest but by a strategy of debt-financed diplomacy, from Sri Lanka to Montenegro, from Islamabad to Mombasa, China is deploying its $3.2 trillion credit surplus to establish a 21st century Oriental Empire, impoverishing entire continents through the allure of roads, railways and bridges. DAVID NDII conducts a global cost-benefit analysis.

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Therefore the skillful leader subdues the enemy’s troops without fighting, captures their cities without laying siege, he overthrows their kingdom without lengthy operations in the field.” ~Sun Tzu

Colombo. On June 8, Fly Dubai’s last flight departed from Sri Lanka’s spanking new Mattala Rajapaska International Airport. It was the only airline flying there. Sri Lanka’s national airline stopped flying there in 2015. The “world’s emptiest airport” as its been known since it opened in 2013, is now officially a lily white elephant. The airport is a stone’s throw from Habantota, the world’s emptiest sea port that has made Sri Lanka the poster child of China’s predatory lending. The two are the largest of a slew of ill-fated mega-infrastructure projects that were supposed to transform Habantota, which happens to be the home town of former President Mahinda Rajapaska (for whom the airport is named, or rather, who named it for himself), into Sri Lanka’s second city.

It has not quite worked out that way. Rajapaska lost elections in 2015 in a cloud of corruption scandals, after a decade in power during which he buried Sri Lanka in a mountain of Chinese debt. After weighing its options the successor government ceded the Habantota port to China in exchange of a partial debt write-off. It has not helped. Sri Lanka is still caught in China’s debt trap. Last year, it turned to the IMF for a bailout. This year, Sri Lanka is looking to raise US$ 1.25 billion from China to keep up with its debt repayments.

Podgorica If you are an imperialist looking for a European client state, you could not do better than Montenegro. It is small (population: 620,000; GDP US$4 billion), vulnerable, and in a most strategic location on the Adriatic coast. Its hinterland includes Serbia and Hungary, both landlocked, as well as the Black Sea countries (Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine) whose access to the sea, the Bosphorous, is controlled by Turkey.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres, but the country is extremely rugged, making the cost prohibitive. Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along.

The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise. Unable to proceed, Montenegro has signed an MOU with the Chinese contractor to complete and operate it as a toll road on undisclosed terms. The fear now is that the Chinese have extracted onerous revenue guarantees. The contractor is none other than the state owned corruption scandal prone China Road and Bridge Company, the builder and operator of Kenya’s new standard gauge railway.

Montenegro has been mulling a grand motorway from its port city of Bar to Boljare on the Serbian border for a long time, a distance of only 165 kilometres…Two feasibility studies done in 2006 and 2012 for the Montenegro government and the European Investment Bank concluded that the highway was not economically viable. Then China came along. The first 41 kilometres of the highway, built with an EUR 800 million Chinese loan, has nearly bankrupted Montenegro, forcing the government to raise taxes, freeze public wages and cut welfare spending. Borrowing close to 20 percent of GDP to build a quarter of a road is unwise.

Islamabad. Pakistan sits between China and the Persian Gulf. When China buys oil from the Middle East and Africa, it has to be shipped 6000 kilometres round India, through the Straits of Malacca to the South China Sea. The Malacca Dilemma refers to China’s vulnerability to a potential trade blockade on this narrow sliver of ocean between Indonesia and Malaysia.

Enter CPEC. CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar. The corridor cuts the distance of China’s western border to the sea by half, from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, CPEC’s price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion.

Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble. The CPEC projects are bleeding the country and destabilizing the economy. In addition to CPEC debt, Pakistan is now living on a Chinese financial lifeline —US$5 billion so far — to stave off a foreign exchange crisis. A succession of devaluations have failed to stem the tide, and foreign reserves are now down to less than two months requirements. Pakistan is now caught between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea: to go for an IMF bailout or to settle into becoming a Chinese client state. An IMF bailout would put pressure on Pakistan to scale down CPEC and expose the secretive financing to western scrutiny.

CPEC stands for the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Billed as a crown jewel of the Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC is an ambitious and costly modernization of Pakistan’s infrastructure centred on a transport corridor linking China’s “landlocked” hinterland to Pakistan’s Arabian sea port of Gwadar, cutting the distance of China’s western border to the sea from four to two thousand kilometres. China has already taken control of the Gwadar port on a 40-year lease and is building an airport and industrial parks— effectively making it a Chinese enclave inside Pakistan. Costed at US$40 billion when it was launched in 2013, the price tag has escalated to US$ 62 billion. Four years on, Pakistan is in deep financial trouble.

What is China up to?

There are two readily apparent economic objectives that China could be pursuing, one immediate, and one longer term.

The immediate objective is investment diversification. China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined (Japan $1.27 trillion, Switzerland $740 bn, Saudi Arabia $900 bn, Russia $460 bn). Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities, with just over a third (US$ 1.2 trillion) in US government securities. Analysts estimate that another one third is held in other US dollar-denominated securities.

The longer term objective is sustaining its economic rise. China’s economy may be the world’s biggest but it is still a middle-income country, with an average income of less than a fifth of Singapore. One of the big questions out there is whether China will escape the “middle income trap”. The middle income trap is the observation that while many countries easily transition from poor to middle income status, only a few managed to transition from middle to high income. Of 103 countries that were middle income in 1960, according to an analysis by the World Bank, only 13 had transitioned to high income status by 2008, almost fifty years later.

China is sitting on US$ 3.2 trillion of foreign reserves accumulated from its trade surpluses with the rest of the world, more than those of the next four countries combined. Most of this money is held in safe but low yielding American and European government securities…Returns on these have been pretty dismal since the global financial crisis. But outside these markets there aren’t many assets that can absorb money on this scale. The BRI can thus be seen as a strategy by China to create such assets.

China has followed the export-led industrialization model of Japan and the Asian Tiger economies. This model will soon run its course. China’s average manufacturing wage has increased three-fold in dollar terms over the last decade, and is now on a par with the poorer former communist eastern European countries. To make the transition will require China to move up the product value chain, or as a recent paper by investment bank UBS put it, from “made in” to “created in” China. This will entail moving its factories abroad, some closer to markets, some to low-wage locations. Some of the BRI initiatives do seem to be gearing up for this. CPEC is an obvious case. China’s Great Wall company has a manufacturing plant in Bulgaria, which is in the hinterland of the Montenegro motorway.

It still begs the question why it needs to roll out the biggest building project since the Great Wall of China. Japan and the other Asian Tigers did not have to. And the BRI’s scale and aggression defies these rational economic objectives. If it goes to plan, it will span 65 countries, accounting for 60 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of global economic output, and cost between four and eight trillion dollars That is not economics. It is empire building. It is not inconceivable that China is operating on a nineteenth century imperialism blueprint. Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative graphics that litter the internet conjure images of Chinese power men around a world map sticking pins on strategic targets.

It is off to a rough start. Mahathir Mohammed, Malaysia’s comeback prime minister has cancelled three big BRI projects worth $22 billion signed by his predecessor, who is now facing corruption charges. He says he is trying to save Malaysia from bankruptcy. Even Burma’s steely generals have got cold feet. They have cancelled a port project citing fears that it could end up like Sri Lanka’s Habantota. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister of Tonga, rallying fellow South Pacific Island nations to negotiate debt forgiveness with China, expressed his fears that China could seize strategic assets.“If it happens in Sri Lanka, it can happen in the Pacific.”

Habantota is turning out to be a strategic blunder.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? It is conceivable that China is unfazed by the political blowback. Folklore has it that the Chinese take a very long term view of things. But it is more likely that China did not anticipate the blowback.

China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism and overrated the grip of the regimes that it is corrupting on power. China will not be the first great power to do this. The USA has been muscling and blundering its way, wreaking havoc around the world by conflating its interests and political values for the better part of a century.

Did China actually set out to trap countries into debt or has the Belt and Road Initiative gone awry? […]China seems to have underrated the vulnerability of its would-be client states to the vagaries of global capitalism, and overrated the grip on power of the regimes that it is corrupting. China will not be the first great power to do this.

The real Achilles heel of the debt traps is that China has little recourse should any of its distressed debtors default. Western lenders can and often take concerted action on defaulters (a la Greece and “the troika”), but China is a lone ranger.

In China, economic illiteracy on this scale is not without precedent. Sixty years ago, Chairman Mao had the brilliant idea that industrialization could be drilled down to producing copious amounts of grain and steel. The government set a target of doubling steel production within a year and overtaking Britain’s production in 15 years. China’s peasant farmers were herded into communes. Villagers were forced to set up backyard furnaces. Pots, pans and other metal possessions were seized and melted up to meet production quotas. Trees were decimated and even furniture burned to fuel the furnaces. The Great Leap Forward, history’s most monumental political blunder, cost between 20 and 40 million lives.

It is noteworthy that Kenya is the BRI’s only touchpoint on the African continent.

Kenya’s SGR, Uhuru Kenyatta’s erstwhile legacy project, has turned out to be the bugbear that this columnist among others warned that it would be. Its freight capacity is a third of what was promised, and it cannot be competitive without a hefty public subsidy. Uhuru Kenyatta’s administration has increased Kenya’s foreign debt two and a half fold, from US$9 billion to US$25 billion. The railway alone accounts for a third of this increase; another third is by sovereign bonds for which the country has nothing to show.

Public debt service now stands at KSh 860 billion (US$ 8.6 billion), a staggering 72 percent of the last financial year’s tax receipts. The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have. The Chinese have a concession to run the railway until 2027. That includes a take-or-pay freight assignment contract, which is to say, the Kenya Ports Authority, the port operator, has to meet the railway’s freight target or pay the railway for the unused capacity. In effect, the port is working for the railway.

The question that is frequently asked now is whether, if Kenya cannot pay, the Chinese will take over the port of Mombasa. Word on the streets of Mombasa is that the port was pledged as security for the railway loans. In a manner of speaking, they already have.

“It is not uncommon for a country to create a railway, ” said Charles Elliot, the Kenya Protectorate commissioner who oversaw the construction of the Uganda railway. “But it is uncommon for a railway to create a country.” Almost 120 years later, after it emerged that Kenyan workers are routinely subjected to physical punishment by Chinese, following which the Chinese ambassador dismissed this as Chinese culture, Kenyans are wondering whether the railway heralds a new age of Oriental colonialism. On this, my take is that China and Kenya’s political class have bitten off more than they can chew.

Seeing senior public officials grovelling and making excuses for these Chinese excesses gives perspective to history, from the chiefs who sold their people into slavery to those who signed away their lands to European imperialists for blankets and booze. We get it.

Related Links

Letter by US Senators to US Government on IMF China Belt and Road Initiative

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David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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SAPs – Season Two: Why Kenyans Fear Another IMF Loan

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the country is economically healthy but the reality is that the IMF has come in precisely because Kenya is in a financial crisis.

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Never did I imagine that opposing an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Kenya would be viewed by the Kenyan authorities as a criminal act. But that is exactly what transpired last week when activist Mutemi Kiama was arrested and charged with “abuse of digital gadgets”, “hurting the presidency”, “creating public disorder” and other vaguely-worded offences. Mutemi’s arrest was prompted by his Twitter post of an image of President Uhuru Kenyatta with the following caption: “This is to notify the world . . . that the person whose photograph and names appear above is not authorised to act or transact on behalf of the citizens of the Republic of Kenya and that the nation and future generations shall not be held liable for any penalties of bad loans negotiated and/or borrowed by him.” He was released on a cash bail of KSh.500,000 with an order prohibiting him from using his social media accounts or speaking about COVID-19-related loans.

Mutemi is one among more than 200,000 Kenyans who have signed a petition to the IMF to halt a KSh257 billion (US$2.3 billion) loan to Kenya, which was ostensibly obtained to cushion the country against the negative economic impact of COVID-19.  Kenya is not the only country whose citizens have opposed an IMF loan. Protests against IMF loans have been taking place in many countries, including Argentina, where people took to the streets in 2018 when the country took a US$50 billion loan from the IMF. In 2016, Eqyptian authorities were forced to lower fuel prices following demonstrations against an IMF-backed decision to eliminate fuel subsidies. Similar protests have also taken place in Jordan, Lebanon and Ecuador in recent years.

Why would a country’s citizens be against a loan given by an international financial institution such as the IMF? Well, for those Kenyans who survived (or barely survived) the IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and 90s, the answer is obvious. SAPs came with stringent conditions attached, which led to many layoffs in the civil service and removal of subsidies for essential services, such as health and education, which led to increasing levels of hardship and precarity, especially among middle- and low-income groups. African countries undergoing SAPs experienced what is often referred to as “a lost development decade” as belt-tightening measures stalled development programmes and stunted economic opportunities.

In addition, borrowing African countries lost their independence in matters related to economic policy. Since lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF, decide national economic policy – for instance, by determining things like budget management, exchange rates and public sector involvement in the economy – they became the de facto policy and decision-making authorities in the countries that took their loans. This is why, in much of the 1980s and 1990s, the arrival of a World Bank or IMF delegation to Nairobi often got Kenyans very worried.

In those days (in the aftermath of a hike in oil prices in 1979 that saw most African countries experience a rise in import bills and a decline in export earnings), leaders of these international financial institutions were feared as much as the authoritarian Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, because with the stroke of a pen they could devalue the Kenyan currency overnight and get large chunks of the civil service fired. As Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out recently at a press conference organised by the Linda Katiba campaign, when the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”. It can no longer claim to determine its own economic policies. Countries essentially lose their sovereignty, a fact that seems to have eluded the technocrats who rushed to get this particular loan.

When he took office in 2002, President Mwai Kibaki kept the World Bank and the IMF at arm’s length, preferring to take no-strings-attached infrastructure loans from China. Kibaki’s “Look East” economic policy alarmed the Bretton Woods institutions and Western donors who had until then had a huge say in the country’s development trajectory, but it instilled a sense of pride and autonomy in Kenyans, which sadly, has been eroded by Uhuru and his inept cronies who have gone on loan fishing expeditions, including massive Eurobonds worth Sh692 billion (nearly $7 billion), which means that every Kenyan today has a debt of Sh137,000, more than three times what it was eight years ago when the Jubilee government came to power. By the end of last year, Kenya’s debt stood at nearly 70 per cent of GDP, up from 50 per cent at the end of 2015. This high level of debt can prove deadly for a country like Kenya that borrows in foreign currencies.

When the IMF comes knocking, it essentially means the country is “under receivership”.

The Jubilee government would have us believe that the fact that the IMF agreed to this loan is a sign that the country is economically healthy, but as Ndii noted, quite often the opposite is true: the IMF comes in precisely because a country is in a financial crisis. In Kenya’s case, this crisis has been precipitated by reckless borrowing by the Jubilee administration that has seen Kenya’s debt rise from KSh630 billion (about $6 billion at today’s exchange rate) when Kibaki took office in 2002, to a staggering KSh7.2 trillion (about US$70 billion) today, with not much to show for it, except a standard gauge railway (SGR) funded by Chinese loans that appears unable to pay for itself. As an article in a local daily pointed out, this is enough money to build 17 SGRs from Mombasa to Nairobi or 154 superhighways like the one from Nairobi to Thika. The tragedy is that many of these loans are unaccounted for; in fact, many Kenyans believe they are taken to line individual pockets. Uhuru Kenyatta has himself admitted that Kenya loses KSh2 billion a day to corruption in government. Some of these lost billions could actually be loans.

IMF loans with stringent conditions attached have often been presented as being the solution to a country’s economic woes – a belt-tightening measure that will instil fiscal discipline in a country’s economy by increasing revenue and decreasing expenditure. However, the real purpose of these loans, some argue, is to bring about major and fundamental policy changes at the national level – changes that reflect the neoliberal ethos of our time, complete with privatisation, free markets and deregulation.

The first ominous sign that the Kenyan government was about to embark on a perilous economic path was when the head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, made an official visit to Kenya shortly after President Uhuru was elected in 2013. At that time, I remember tweeting that this was not a good omen; it indicated that the IMF was preparing to bring Kenya back into the IMF fold.

Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, shows how what she calls “disaster capitalism” has allowed the IMF, in particular, to administer “shock therapy” on nations reeling from natural or man-made disasters or high levels of external debt. This has led to unnecessary privatisation of state assets, government deregulation, massive layoffs of civil servants and reduction or elimination of subsidies, all of which can and do lead to increasing poverty and inequality. Klein is particularly critical of what is known as the Chicago School of Economics that she claims justifies greed, corruption, theft of public resources and personal enrichment as long as they advance the cause of free markets and neoliberalism. She shows how in nearly every country where the IMF “medicine” has been administered, inequality levels have escalated and poverty has become systemic.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan. Or, through carefully manipulated data, it will make the country look economically healthy so that it feels secure about applying for more loans. When that country can’t pay back the loans, which often happens, the IMF inflicts even more austerity measures (also known as “conditionalities”) on it, which lead to even more poverty and inequality.

IMF and World Bank loans for infrastructure projects also benefit Western corporations. Private companies hire experts to ensure that these companies secure government contracts for big infrastructure projects funded by these international financial institutions. Companies in rich countries like the United States often hire people who will do the bidding on their behalf. In his international “word-of-mouth bestseller”, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins explains how in the 1970s when he worked for an international consulting firm, he was told that his job was to “funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development and other foreign aid organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s resources”.

Sometimes the IMF will create a pseudo-crisis in a country to force it to obtain an IMF bailout loan.

The tools to carry out this goal, his employer admitted unashamedly, could include “fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder”. Perkins showed how in the 1970s, he became instrumental in brokering deals with countries ranging from Panama to Saudi Arabia where he convinced leaders to accept projects that were detrimental to their own people but which enormously benefitted US corporate interests.

“In the end, those leaders become ensnared in a web of debt that ensures their loyalty. We can draw on them whenever we desire – to satisfy our political, economic or military needs. In turn, they bolster their political positions by bringing industrial parks, power plants, and airports to their people. The owners of US engineering/construction companies become fabulously wealthy,” a colleague told him when he asked why his job was so important.

Kenyans, who are already suffering financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic which saw nearly 2 million jobs in the formal sector disappear last year, will now be confronted with austerity measures at precisely the time when they need government subsidies and social safety nets. Season Two of SAPs is likely to make life for Kenyans even more miserable in the short and medium term.

We will have to wait and see whether overall dissatisfaction with the government will influence the outcome of the 2022 elections. However, whoever wins that election will still have to contend with rising debt and unsustainable repayments that have become President Uhuru Kenyatta’s most enduring legacy.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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