Espionage and denial – Breaking the silence of the lambs

News of alleged Chinese espionage at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, has been circulating for the past several weeks. The reports triggered a rather long public rebuttal by the Chinese ambassador to South Africa in which he fiercely denied the allegations while stressing the constructive dimension of the partnerships between the two regions.

This article, although triggered by the events, does not intend to dwell on what is a ‘sensational’ story which has attracted keen interest – as well as concern. Rather, it seeks to re-articulate the need to build and strengthen Africa’s key ‘intelligentsia’, including its institutes, structures and bodies, to address the continent’s growing and glaring ‘intellectual’ deficit in relation to China (and for that matter, other development partners) and enhance ’mutual’ benefits and partnerships.

In light of the myriad initiatives sponsored and steered by the Chinese, largely in partnership with African countries and universities, a disproportionately unequal configuration of two ‘listening outposts’ is fast emerging. This trend is neither healthy nor mutual and thus calls for collective action by both parties.

Espionage – The art of survival

First things first. The overriding rule in the mysterious world of espionage is to never get caught. If one is caught, denial is the immediate deployable weapon. Indeed, given that Africa does not have tangible evidence of the alleged misdeed, China probably doesn’t need to worry too much.

The point is that, even if the alleged espionage took place, it should not be surprising. Indeed, it would be foolhardy – and possibly a dereliction of national duty – if the Chinese failed to protect their sovereign interests given their massive investment in the continent. One would only wish that Africa would take its interests as seriously and safeguard them against partners and friends alike.

Africans must be vigilant in protecting their strategic interests, among others, by narrowing the 'intellectual’ deficit to enhance their global competitiveness. However, except for South Africa and a handful of other countries, think tanks and research institutions remain ill-funded and are deployed, if at all, as ‘soft-power’ counter forces. As I argue below, the continent thus needs to make a serious effort to establish and systematically support its enabling bodies, including universities, institutes and think tanks, among others.

The Confucius Institute – China in Africa

The Confucius Institute is a public organisation associated with the Chinese Ministry of Education. Its objective is to promote and support Chinese language and culture, Chinese teaching internationally, and cultural exchange. Established in 2004, the institute operates in co-operation with local affiliate colleges and universities around the world.

Institutions in 40 African countries participate in this initiative, ranging from the University of Cape Town, which is arguably the continent’s premier institution, to the nascent Universidade de Cabo Verde, in Cape Verde.

What makes Confucius Institutes different from comparable entities such as the British Council, Alliance Française and the Goethe-Institut is that they are hosted and operate directly on university campuses. This gives China considerable leverage and unfettered access to key institutions, resources, the intelligentsia and the knowledge base in general.

‘African Institute’ – Africa in China

Due to increasing cooperation with Africa, a number of area studies have been established in China. For instance, the Institute of African Studies at Zhejiang Normal University claims that it is the first comprehensive institute specifically established for African studies. It adds that the institute has become a highly influential African studies institution and think tank on African affairs in China.

Despite the massive growth and proliferation of Confucius Institutes in Africa, a similar entity established in China and funded and supported by Africa, or operating independently of China, is a rarity.

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has been actively involved in crafting diverse Chinese engagements on the continent. For example, on 10 March 2017 the academy hosted a seminar on Investing in Soft Power Capacity: China-Africa think tank cooperation, in Nairobi, Kenya, in which more than 30 scholars from China and Africa participated.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation offers Chinese scholars a learning platform in the form of the China-Africa Joint Research and Exchange Program, while the China-Africa Think Tank Forum enables scholars to participate in public diplomacy and global communication.

During the most recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, China pledged to provide some 30,000 government scholarship opportunities for African students. This figure dwarfs any other government commitment to Africa across the world either in the past or present.

While the plan would result in a huge cohort of African intellectuals and scholars in China, it is not configured to play a comparable role to that of a Confucius Institute, Institute of African Studies or any of the other Chinese outfits that aim to cultivate a (critical) mass of Chinese intelligentsia that focus on Africa.

Deficit mode – The case for moderation

While China’s growing engagement on the African continent has been phenomenal, there is a dearth of higher education institutions in Africa that focus on China. These vast deficits in intellectual capital on the part of Africa are troublesome. They are neither appropriate nor healthy for both parties in generating and moderating discourses, perspectives and interests.

The situation calls for China and Africa to seriously consider balancing these deficits. I set out three possible scenarios as a way forward:
  • The Pan African University: The Pan African University established by the African Union in 2012, now operates five institutes across the continent in different fields and disciplines, largely dominated by hard sciences.

    The university could seriously consider establishing an Institute for Chinese (and Asian) Studies, either attached to one of the institutions or as a stand-alone structure in a strategically located African country, funded (partially, if not fully) by its own resources to ensure full independence.

  • African universities: Despite massive growth in Chinese and African partnerships, dedicated programmes directed at this development remain a rarity. One exception is Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Chinese Studies that was established in 2004.

    African universities, especially flagship ones, should be duty bound to establish and consolidate Chinese (and Asian) studies entities. Governments and continental and regional bodies such as the African Union, the East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States, as well as financial institutions like the African Development Bank, among others, should support such endeavours.

  • African think tanks: A fairly large number of think tanks operate in Africa with different levels of standing and impact, largely due to chronic financial straits. For instance, the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) and until recently the Organisation for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa (OSSREA) have been instrumental in producing key strategic documents and steering major continental and international dialogues.

    In pursuit of this interest in higher education, the International Network for Higher Education in Africa established the Higher Education Forum on Africa, Asia and Latin America in 2016 under the leadership of this author.

    Unfortunately, a number of these organisations struggle for their very survival as they receive minimal domestic and international support. It is thus imperative that these institutions – what could be called ‘parallel paragons' of the African intelligentsia – are fully supported and that their work is incorporated in engagements and dialogues in the service of continental strategic interests.
External players’ interest in the phenomenal growth of China-Africa partnerships has also grown and dedicated programmes are being established to undertake research, policy dialogue, publications and commentaries.

One such outfit is the China-Africa Working Group established by the Social Science Research Council based in New York. Some of the reports from these entities have not been favourable to Beijing, accusing it of ripping off the “silent lambs”.

Breaking the silence

John Kirkland, former deputy secretary general to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, is of the view that, “any government not wanting to boost its reputation in the world [through development cooperation]… would be neglecting its obligations”. Despite their sworn statements on cooperation for mutual benefits, the Chinese cannot be treated as an exception.

Furthermore, regardless of the benevolence or malevolence of the Chinese, or for that matter, any external partner, it is critical that Africa protects its strategic interests through the consolidation of its intellectual citadels.

Intellectuals in many African countries are known to have uneasy relationships with their respective governments. This has been regularly cited as one of the key reasons for poor interaction, often prompting the outsourcing of key national and strategic agendas, dialogues and negotiations to external entities.

In light of the chronic shortage of research funds in Africa and pressure to solicit resources from the West – and now the East – it is inevitable that academics will continue to dance to the tune of the bloc that pays the piper.

Unfortunately, this may sustain the sad reality of African academics serving as pawns in the geopolitical and intellectual game between the two blocs without full and meaningful participation, or worse: being co-opted. This unequal state of affairs will remain a threat to national and regional strategic interests, raising the need for governments and academia to engage more cooperatively to build the intellectual capital critical for sovereignty.

In the wake of alleged espionage and fierce denial, the silence of the ‘lambs’ needs to be broken – not just in words but in action. The African intelligentsia must appeal to and persuade its political establishment and institutional leaders to establish – and sustainably support – strategic academic institutions and intellectual powerhouses in order to advance the continent’s competitiveness in the increasingly complex global political, economic and intellectual landscape.

Acknowledgments: The comments of Professor Belay Kassa (Pan African University), Professor Ibrahim Oanda (CODESRIA), and Associate Professor Wondwosen Tamrat (Saint Mary’s University, Ethiopia) are acknowledged.

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at and