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The impact of China’s presence in the Horn of Africa: Human rights, oil and weapons

11th January 2011

By: In On Africa IOA


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In recent years, China has strengthened its economic ties with Africa through colossal investment in natural resources extraction, oil, infrastructure projects, construction, textile and other commodity sectors. In 2007, the value of trade between the two parties had reached US$ 65 billion.(2) China’s involvement in Africa has provoked much debate and discussion. Is China just the latest in a line of exploiters of Africa’s rich natural resources who put their own economic interests above humanitarian, environmental or human rights concerns, or is China’s engagement an extension of North- South solidarity?(3)

Much of the commentary on China-in-Africa denounces China for practices that have been the norm for US and European powers. Such practices include support for dictators, callous destruction of the environment, exploitation of minerals, and complete disregard for human rights.(4) According to Daniel Large, China’s return to Africa for the long term has been regarded by many as “the most dramatic and important factor in the external relations of the continent – perhaps in the development of Africa as a whole – since the end of the cold war.”(5) In the light of these developments, this CAI paper examines the practical impact of Chinese investment on human rights in Sudan.


Holding China accountable for complicity in the Darfur genocide

China’s main oil and gas supplier in Africa is Sudan.(6) Oil exports from Sudan now constitute one tenth of China’s total oil imports,(7) with China receiving 82.3% of Sudan’s total oil exports in 2006.(8) From 2006 - 2007, exports to China more than doubled, reaching 200,000 bpd.(9) China therefore has extensive economic links with the Government of Sudan. The state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) owns and controls the largest single share (40%) of Sudan’s oil consortium, the Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), and a 41% stake in Petrodar, which operates two oil bocks.(10) China is now both Sudan’s largest trading partner and its biggest investor.(11) Oil-thirsty China continues to look at Sudan exclusively through the lens of its growing petroleum needs, and its US$ 10 billion commercial and capital investment in the National Islamic Front economy.(12) China’s presence in Sudan and its contribution to the oil revenue that has helped fund the janjaweed militia and the genocide in Darfur has sparked global protest.


In exchange for oil, Beijing provides weapons and diplomatic support to the National Islamic Front. Using its position as a member of the UN Security Council, China has regularly protected Khartoum from resolutions that might lead to decisive global action in Sudan, particularly in Darfur.(13) As an illustration, China abstained from the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1706 (authorising a robust UN peace support operation to Darfur), which significantly weakened the international consensus that was essential for this key development. Publicly, China has insisted that any deployment of forces to halt genocide in Darfur must have the permission of Khartoum’s génocidaires. China has also signalled that it won’t support any subsequent UN Security Council Resolution with Chapter VII (enforcement) authority. Khartoum does not have a better or more supportive ally, nor one more willing to turn a blind eye to massive atrocity crimes and human-rights abuses.(14)

Since 1996, Beijing has been the principal arms supplier to Sudan, and has sold Khartoum US$ 100 million worth of arms (including small arms and light weapons (SALW), helicopter gunships, antipersonnel mines, jets and battle tanks) between 1996 and 2003.(15) China continues to profit as a primary weapons supplier to the Khartoum regime, despite full knowledge of the purpose of these weapons. Despite the passing of UN Security Council Resolution 1591 in 2005, which imposes arms sanctions on all those party to the Darfur conflict, China continues to sell weapons to Sudan.(16) It is estimated that as much as 80% of Sudan oil revenue buys arms, while the general population remains one of the poorest in the world.(17) Oil ventures in Sudan are “…an undeniable and well-documented enabler of Khartoum’s genocidal policy in Darfur.”(18)

Violated human rights

According to many human-rights groups, Chinese companies present in Sudan, especially CNPC, have encouraged and facilitated human-rights abuses in the country. A 2006 Amnesty International document reports that the exploitation of oil in Unity and Heglig oilfields in southern Sudan, “was accompanied by mass forced displacement and killing of the civilian population living there. Sudanese planes bombed villages and southern militias, supported by Sudanese armed forces. They attacked villages, killing people and destroying homes until the area was depopulated, in an apparent aim to clear the area of people for oil exploration and extraction.”(19)

The silence of companies such as CNPC in their activities in Sudan and their cooperation with the Government of Sudan amounts to complicity in “scorched earth” tactics, human-rights abuses and the perpetuation of war. According to one activist, CNPC have given Khartoum’s army direct assistance to clear the oilfields, whilst “prospecting for oil.”(20) CNPC’s oil extraction has damaged agricultural land, dwellings and local livelihood by causing ecological degradation and allowing toxic water, extracted when drilling for oil, to steep into soil and underground waters, and discharging it untreated.(21) Additionally, the Chinese workers brought in to construct the Merowe dam deprived local Sudanese of employment opportunities and have caused additional tension by appropriating the local water supply for the project.(22)

Courting the Horn: the impact of the Chinese presence in Ethiopia, Eritrea and Kenya

China views Ethiopia as its major economic and trading partner in Africa. China’s minister for commerce said trade with Ethiopia will reach US$3 billion by 2015.(23) Human-rights abuses reported during the year 2008 included limitations on citizens' right to change their government in local and by-elections, unlawful killings, torture, beating, abuse, and mistreatment of detainees and opposition supporters by security forces, usually with impunity.(24) Government repression caused many civil society activists and journalists to flee the country in 2010.(25)

"Expressing dissent is very dangerous in Ethiopia," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The ruling party and the state are becoming one, and the government is using the full weight of its power to eliminate opposition and intimidate people into silence."(26) Ethiopia is heavily dependent on foreign assistance, which accounts for approximately one-third of all government expenditures. The country's principal foreign donors – the World Bank, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union and recently China – have been very timid in their criticisms of Ethiopia's deteriorating human-rights situation. The prevailing understanding of China’s increasing presence in Africa, especially in the Horn, is that Chinese trade may enable repressive regimes in Africa to avoid even the relatively limited constraints on their conduct imposed by Western donors’ conditions.(27) China effectively deals with Africa on its own terms via the China-Africa Cooperation Forum, of which it is the convenor. China-Africa security cooperation is particularly problematic. Chinese-made weapons are often cheaper than Western equivalents and China does not usually impose political, human rights or humanitarian conditions in its arms sales.(28)

Frustrated by the world’s failure to force Ethiopian compliance with a 2002 border ruling, Eritrea turned its back on much of the international community and fell into the open hands of China. Eritrea is becoming increasingly isolated from the West and Africa and its government lays its trust in enhancing trade and cooperation with China. China started providing Eritrea with aid for calamity relief in 1992. In 1997, China began providing financial aid for putting up a hospital in the capital city, Asmara. At present, there are five Chinese companies, including China Building Engineering Corporation and China Aviation Technology Import and Export Corporation, working for businesses in Eritrea. They have completed road-construction and building projects.(29) In 2002, the trade value of the two countries came to US$ 6.029 million, of which exports from China was US$ 6.025 million.(30) In 2006, China became the first commodity partner of Eritrea. This amounts to the speediest growth rate among the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) countries with China.(31)

Unlike oil-rich Sudan or diamond-producing Zimbabwe, Kenya doesn’t have raw materials but is a gateway to central Africa. Following the 2008 post-election violence and the loss of revenue the country continues to experience, commentators are afraid that punitive actions or sanctions against Kenya could push it into the open arms of a resource-hungry China. Evidence of a growing relationship is highlighted in the signing of an important oil-exploration agreement by President Hu Jintao with Kenya during his trip to Nairobi in 2006. Six other deals concerning malaria, rice and roads have been signed, too. President Hu Jintao is even due to visit wildlife parks that are eager to attract Chinese tourists. Kenya is also keen to secure Chinese investment deals in the pharmaceutical and technology sectors.(32)

According to a Kenyan government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, “China is an easy country to do business with because the Chinese do not peg their economic activity or aid to political conditions… you will never hear the Chinese saying that they will not finish a project because the government has not done enough to tackle corruption. If they are going to build a road, then it will be built.”(33) The problem is, however, that China basically sells Africa’s natural resources to their origins, in the form of manufactured products. This is a dangerous equation that reproduces Africa’s historic relationship with colonial powers. The equation is not sustainable for a number of reasons. Africa needs to preserve its natural resources for future use during its own industrialisation processes. Secondly, China’s export strategy is contributing to the de-industrialisation of some middle-income countries.(34) A 2008 study by an economist at Addis Ababa University noted that while Ethiopian consumers will benefit from cheap Chinese imports, small local firms, particularly in the clothing and footwear sectors, will lose out.(35) Opposition figures, like many of their counterparts elsewhere in Africa, mutter darkly about deals agreed behind closed doors and speculate about the motives of both the government and Beijing. They suspect that Meles Zenawi’s regime sees China’s overtures as an opportunity to shore up support where it matters on the world stage.(36)

Conclusion and recommendations

Chinese financial investment in Africa and especially in Khartoum, Nairobi, Asmara and Addis Ababa continues to attract controversy and criticism. It is clear that the rapidly evolving China-Africa relationship offers immense opportunities for Africa but may also present new challenges. China’s aid in Africa is perceived as leeway for African leaders to perpetuate human rights violations resulting in both positive and negative impact on human rights in Africa. For example, dam projects have displaced thousands of people and had detrimental effects on the surrounding environment, while at the same time contributing to much-needed power generation.(37) We must therefore be careful not to let the recently highly publicised example of Darfur pervade all analyses of China’s investments in the continent. What is significant in China-Africa cooperation is that instead of the top-down approach used by the West, China has instead used a partnership and friendship-orientated discourse. The West is keen to criticise China’s stance in Africa and brand China as irresponsible and reckless due to its non-interference policy. However, it is doubtful that this criticism is a result of genuine concern for African welfare. It is rather the jealousy of a competitor.(38)

It may be in China’s interest to continue on its strategic path, but additional pressure must be put on the Chinese to reassess the way they do business in areas of conflict. African governments need to be accountable to their citizens, and factions that benefit from their relationship with the Chinese need to be held accountable. The Chinese government should utilise all means possible to pressure Khartoum, both publicly and privately, to bring an end to the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Darfur. It should under no circumstances allow Sudanese armed forces to use Chinese-built or operated oil installations and infrastructures as bases from which to attack or displace civilians.(39) It is also necessary for Western governments and business to change policies that are unfair to Africa. Competition for African resources is beneficial to Africans, as it provides a range of choices and better ensures a fair deal and the long-term strengthening of African human rights.(40)

The best means of maximising China’s positive influence is for African leaders to use investments and trade agreements with China to guarantee a fair deal for their own people. Africans leaders must ensure that all financial agreements on behalf of their states comply with Article 21.1 of the Banjul Charter:(41) “All peoples shall freely dispose of their wealth and natural resources. This right shall be exercised in the exclusive interest of the people. In no case shall a people be deprived of it.”


(1) Contact Lassana Koné through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit (
(2) Tesfa-alem Tekle, ‘Africa- China trade tops 65 bln USD’, Sudan Tribune, 12 February 2008,
(3) Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu.
(4) Ibid.
(5)rge, D. “As the beginning ends: China returns to Africa.” in Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu. P. 157
(6) Yates, D. A. “Chinese oil Interests in Africa.” in Le Pere, G. (ed.) 2006. China in Africa: Mercantilist predator or partner in development? Midrand: Institute for Global Dialogue. Pp. 219-237.
(7) Ibid.
(8) Ali Abdalla Ali, ‘EU, China and Africa; the Sudanese experience’, Sudan Tribune, 10 July 2007,
(9) ‘Sudan doubles crude export to China in 2007’, Sudan Tribune, 23 January 2008,
(10) Large, D. “As the beginning ends: China returns to Africa.” in Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu. P. 2
(11) Save Darfur Coalition Fact Sheet,
(12) Eric Reeves, ‘The genocide Olympics’, 17 December 2006,
(13) Waging Peace. 2008. “China in Africa: The human rights impact.”
(14) Ibid.
(15) Chandra Sriram, ‘China, human rights and the Sudan’, Jurist, 2007,
(16) Save Darfur Coalition Fact Sheet, Pp.3-4.
(17) Ibid.
(18) PetroChina, ‘China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and the Darfur Genocide’, Washington DC: Sudan Divestment Task Force, 2007, p.3; Mahmoud Suleiman, ‘Oil for blood: Chinese are unwelcome in Darfur’, Sudan Tribune, 5 Dec 2007,
(19) Amnesty International, ‘Appeal by Amnesty International to the Chinese Government on the occasion of the China-Africa Summit for Development and Cooperation’, 2006,
(20) Danna Harman, ‘China focuses on oil, not Sudanese needs’, Sudan Tribune, 25 June 2007,
(21) ‘Sudan: Post- Conflict environmental assessment, Nairobi’, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 2007. P. 148-9
(22) ‘Overview of Chinese dam building in Africa’, International Rivers Network, 7 February 2007,
(23) ‘China views Ethiopia as a major economic trading partner in Africa’, China View, 12 January 2010,
(24) Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘2008 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’,
(25) ‘Ethiopia: Repression rising ahead of may elections’, Human Rights Watch Press Release, March 24 2010,
(26) Human Rights Watch Report, ‘One hundred ways of putting pressure: Violation of freedom of Expression and Association in Ethiopia’, 2010,
(27) Obiorah, N. “Who’s afraid of China in Africa? Towards an African civil society perspective on China-Africa relations.” in Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu. P. 157.
(28) Ibid.
(29) Ibid.
(30) Ibid.
(31) "Chinese exports to Eritrea rise to $37.7 million in 2006", SudanTribune, 18 April 2007,
(32) Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu.
(33) Crilly, R. ‘China seeks resources, profits in Africa’, USA Today, 21 June 2005,
(34) Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu.
(35) Mary Fitzgerald, ‘China invests in Ethiopia but at what cost?’, 27 January, 2010,
(36) Ibid.
(37) Waging Peace. 2008. “China in Africa: The human rights impact.”
(38) Chidaushe, M. “China’s Grand Re-entrance into Africa: Mirage or Oasis?” in Firoze Manji & Stephen Marks (eds.) 2007. African perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi and Oxford: Fahamu. P. 157
(39) Waging Peace. 2008. “China in Africa: The human rights impact.”
(40) Ibid.
(41) African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, adopted 27 June 1981 by the 18th Assembly of Heads of State of the Organisation of African Unity at Nairobi, opened for signature, ratification and accession on 27 June 1981, entered into force on 21 October 1986.

Written by Lassana Koné (1)


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