What price for the family silver?

06 April 2018
The importance of the president’s official visit to China cannot be understated. 
When other countries’ leaders conclude such visits, they return home with a report card listing what deals were made and for what specific financial benefit, and most importantly, what price was paid. 
We believe the nation is owed the specifics of all agreements or MoUs signed as soon as these details can be summarised and the specific benefits listed. 
Most of all, the people of Namibia need to know the cost (interest rates, currency used for the deal, repayment schedules, conditions and side concessions) of any loan for a project, grant ‘arrangement’ or agreement concluded. Key issues about ‘wins’ from the China trip remain unclear.  On the one hand, ‘no new loans’ was trumpeted in previous statements by the Minister of Finance, Calle Schlettwein and others in the administration.  On the other, the Finance Minister said the door is not closed to new loans ‘in the future.’  It has also been reported that the government signed ‘agreements on grants’ and that other financing arrangements are on a ‘project to project basis’.  None of these euphemisms rules out more Chinese long-term loans for Namibia.
The current reality is that by 2017, 71 percent of Namibia’s long-term loans are from China.  The issue of loan repayments to China for existing indebtedness is no small thing. 
Whether old loans were renegotiated or new loans or grants were requested and refused, or whether another loan is upcoming, but details aren’t confirmed so it cannot yet be announced, the government must come clean on this issue so we know how deep of a hole the country is actually in.
Those who have hard-won experience dealing with Chinese business people, will tell you that they are keen negotiators, squeezing and pushing for every advantage, no matter how miniscule – and they do it with a knowing smile from the beginning of talks until the end. 
They are tenacious in the art of the deal and will exploit any weaknesses (like Namibia’s current economic crisis) in their negotiating opponents.  In all the ‘deals’ made on this trip, we need to know if Geingob gave away the family silver.
For example, hearing that ‘agreements were made on the protocol to facilitate beef exports to China’ is too vague.  Is the barrier to export Namibian beef to China pertaining specifically to no lumpy skin disease in our cattle for 12 months changed or not?  This is a tangible ‘win’ for Namibia if this protocol was adjusted.  Why not announce it to the public.   Oversimplifications like ‘successful and historic visits’ or ‘technical exchanges’ or ‘mutually beneficial business arrangements’ are not all of what we are asking.  We want the ‘who, what, when, why, where and how much’ of the entire trip.  Those who must pay the bill and live with the results should have clear information.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, firmly in control of the ruling Communist Party of China as its General Secretary and now granted the Chinese presidency for life and has his political thoughts written into his party constitution, sent representatives to sit across the table from Namibian President Hage Geingob who is also the president of the ruling SWAPO Party (though not for life) to negotiate on two completely different levels. 
We have no illusions, China and Namibia are not on the same playing field in today’s world.  With an estimated USD$4 trillion of foreign reserves stashed away in various sovereign wealth funds, China has cash resources Namibia can never even dream to approach. 
So, let us accept the fact that they are the big brother in this equation and we, the younger sibling sitting in the smaller chair at the end of the table.  Still, we agree with Geingob, Namibia did not go begging to China. 
Thinking that way over-simplifies the complexities of the Namibia/China and China/Africa history and relationships.  Namibia is at the dinner table (albeit at a lower ranked place), not someone locked outside begging for scraps.  This country does have resources and trading block access that has value for China.
Quite deliberately, China has overtaken Western countries in forging ties with Africa. Concerns of the USA focus primarily on security relationships and military bases and programs, secondarily on programs like AGOA or PEPFAR. 
China’s dealings in Africa, particularly through its Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), has made its focus on trade, securing access to primary resources and keeping its economic priorities at the centre of all agreements. 
There is no desire from the Chinese to ‘take over’ Namibia as some local people complain.  No doubt some of the 40,000 Chinese currently living and trading in Namibia have involved themselves in illegal activities, including tax evasion and poaching.  That aside, there will never be Chinese colonialism in Africa as the western countries have done, that is not their method of extracting what they need to meet their priorities.
China’s first interest is China.  Geingob, in his negotiations with China must surely have embraced this and made sure that Namibia’s first interest is Namibia. 
We ask that State House and the Ministry of Finance disclose the conditions for each outstanding loan owed to the Chinese.  What are the repayment terms and how much does it cost us in interest payments and side agreements (i.e., currency of the deals, work permits to Chinese citizens, profit repatriation agreements, application or waivers of existing Namibian labour and affirmative action laws, political agreements to support Chinese positions internationally, etc…).
Geingob’s visit to China sandwiched between the more critical visit of the reclusive North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and our Zimbabwean neighbour, Emmerson Mnangagwa, can yield good things for the Land of the Brave, but this country, struggling under massive economic pressure, needs to have information to help us have a better idea of what to expect. 
We still ask the question:  do we have to pack up the family silver and ship it to Beijing?


The Windhoek Observer is an English-language weekly newspaper, published in Namibia by Paragon Investment Holding. It is the country's oldest and largest circulating weekly.

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