Ugandans begin to question the high price of the growing China-Africa pact
The televised broadcast in Africa of a father's last call to his family before he was put to death for drug trafficking offences has sparked calls to review the imbalance in relations with Beijing, reports Patience Akumu in Kampala
The last words Ham Andrew Ngobi spoke to his wife, Mariam Nabanja, were intended to be reassuring. "Be firm. I am OK," he said, unaware that this was to be his last call to his family. Ngobi was one of two Ugandans put to death in Guandong province, China, in June after they were found guilty of drug trafficking. His last communication with home before he was executed was broadcast on Ugandan television, sparking outcry and demands that the country review its relationship with China.
In the recording, Ngobi reassures his wife that the appeal court will set him free and let him return home. Then comes a chilling second clip, a call from Uganda's deputy ambassador to China, Paul Makubuya, informing Nabanja: "It is not good. They have taken him. He did not understand what was happening, but I eventually told him in Luganda [his local dialect] that he was going to be killed."
Ngobi had provided a decent life for his family. His wife describes him as a loving husband and a man "who had everything he needed. He had built other houses in addition to the family house," she said. "Why, then, would he go into drugs?"
His is part of the wider story of China in Africa, and specifically in Uganda. In 2009 China overtook US and Britain to become Africa's leading trading partner. It is involved in virtually every sector of Uganda's economy.
Africa's growing relationship with China and other non-traditional allies has led to predictions that its long-awaited rise out of extreme poverty, disease and destitution to become an economic giant is near. Unlike the relationship with western countries such as Britain, Africa's relationship with China is untainted by colonialism.
Uganda's relationship with China dates back to 1962, when Uganda won independence from the British. Like most new African states eager to fortify their independence, Uganda looked for alternative development partnerships. China was one of the first countries to recognise Uganda's independence and the two countries built a relationship based on non-interference with each other's internal affairs. The anti-gay law in Uganda this year, and continued western criticism of President Yoweri Museveni's 28-year-old regime, only served to bind the two countries closer.
Ngobi, 39, sought to make the best of the opportunities which the China-Uganda relationship presented. According to his wife, he regularly travelled to China to buy clothes that he would sell in Uganda.
It's not only Ngobi who got caught up in the fallout from growing links between the two countries. Five more Ugandans in China are set to be executed amid warnings from the Ugandan foreign minister about the dangers of getting involved in the drugs trade.
The Ugandan government has said there is nothing it can do to help those on China's death row and that the executions will not affect China's relationship with Uganda. Its inability to save its citizens' lives, despite its close relationship with China, has angered Ugandans, with one journalist, Simon Musasizi, writing in the Ugandan Observer that "illegal traders in ivory also deserve death" – a reference to China's involvement in the illicit ivory trade in Africa.
In Uganda, one of the world's poorest countries, three quarters of the population are under the age of 30. Most are unemployed and unable to resist the lure of money from the illegal drug trade. Uganda's ambassador to China, Charles Wagidoso, said these young people were mostly "victims of economic circumstances" – mere carriers for big drug dealers. The economic circumstances have been worsened by drastic aid cuts, after corruption scandals and the passing of a harsh anti-gay law. Uganda heavily depends on external funding to supplement its budget and to directly support its population with basics such as food, health services and education.
Though China has reduced its number of capital offences, it has the highest number of executions in the world (Uganda retains the death penalty for some crimes). Human Rights Watch has warned that China's legal system does not provide enough safeguards for administering the death penalty. Ugandan human rights activists and MPs blame the government for not doing enough for Ugandans held under arrest in China. "This is a relationship in which China has the upper hand," says Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, an NGO that successfully campaigned for ending mandatory death penalties in Uganda. "China's interest in Africa is trade and not human rights, and Uganda badly needs China."
When big donors such as Britain, the US and the Netherlands slashed aid because of the anti-gay law, the government, in addition to levying new taxes, turned to China, making more investment deals with Beijing. Given the human rights records of both China and Africa, civil society organisations have cautioned that this relationship be monitored lest it becomes one no different from colonialism, with China siphoning off resources, indifferent to Africa's poverty.
Africans are now starting to question the nature of Chinese investment. In the New York Times in May, Howard French, a senior foreign correspondent and author of China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, wrote: "China has peppered the continent with newly built stadiums, airports, hospitals, highways and dams, but as Africans are beginning to fully recognise, these projects have also left many countries saddled with heavy debts and other problems, from environmental conflict to labour strife. As a consequence, China's relationship with the continent is entering a new and much more sceptical phase."
French points out: "The doubts aren't coming from any soured feelings from African leaders themselves, most of whom still welcome (and profit from) China's embrace." Rather, the doubts are coming from an increasingly vibrant civil society that wants to know how ordinary Africans benefit from China's dollars, infrastructure building and mineral extraction.
In Uganda the Chinese presence is everywhere. From owning shops and hawking merchandise to running hospitals and managing multibillion-dollar projects on which the entire future of Uganda rests, China's presence is conspicuous. China National Oil Shore Corporation won the right to develop Uganda's Kingfisher Field for $2bn. The Chinese have further invested in Uganda's $2.5bn oil refinery and a $1.4bn rail construction project across East Africa.
China is also financing the construction of two dams and a highway from Kampala, Uganda's capital, to Entebbe airport. Major government buildings, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the President's Office, were constructed by the Chinese. By 2011, China had invested $14bn in Africa and offered £75bn in aid. A big chunk of this money comes to Uganda and by 2013 bilateral trade between Uganda and China reached more than $500m.
It is the sheer volume and importance of these projects that convinces activists that the government can do more for Ugandans facing execution in China. "What China is doing is prohibited by international human rights law and diplomacy," said MP Betty Namboze. "We welcome them into our country, and this is how they repay us?"
Sewanyana points out that the two countries do not have an extradition agreement. In addition, he said: "Uganda needs to first review its human rights record before it reviews its relationship with China. Maybe if we strike out the death penalty completely, then we can ask that China does not administer the death penalty to our citizens."
Patience Akumu The Observer