Switching from Taiwan to China has led to more exploitation: Interview with Cameroonian scholar Richard Atimniraye Nyelade

Photo of Richard Richard Atimniraye Nyelade, used with permission.

Like most African countries, Cameroon has a history of switching diplomatic relations from the Republic of China (ROC in Taiwan) to the People's Republic of China (Beijing). Today, relations between Taipei and Yaoundé remain extremely limited and seldom studied. As for relations between Beijing and Yaoundé, which are expanding in many sectors, they also bring their own form of exploitation of Cameroonian people.

Taiwan's overall presence in Africa is limited to full diplomatic relations with Eswatini, as well as having a Special Representative Office in Somaliland, a country that, like Taiwan, is recognized by few countries, and not a UN member. Trade remains also limited between Taiwan and Africa as not a single African country ranks among Taiwan's top 25 trade partners.

To understand African perceptions of Taiwan, but also of China, Global Voices spoke to Cameroonian scholar Dr Richard Atimniraye Nyelade, who is currently pursuing a second doctorate in anthropology at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He is now based in Taiwan as a fellow from the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Canada's Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and his research interests center around the intersections of politics, international relations, and ethnic studies. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Filip Noubel (FN): What is the history of Cameroon and Taiwan relations?

Richard Atimniraye Nyelade (RAN): Cameroon's history is characterized by its struggle for independence from Western imperialism. Led by nationalists such as Um Nyobè, Ernest Oundié, Félix Moumié, and their comrades under the Cameroon Populations Union (CPU) party in the 1950s, France and Great Britain were compelled to concede a relative independence of the country in January 1960. Relative independence because the remnants of the influence Western powers continue to affect Africa, with the dominance of military bases and multinational companies, and interference in domestic affairs.

During the struggle for independence, France resisted granting full autonomy to its colony and supported the establishment of a pro-Western capitalist government. To suppress nationalist resistance, they resorted to violent tactics like the use of napalm. These details are highlighted in the book “Kamerun! une guerre cachée aux origines de la Françafrique (1948-1971)” by Thomas Deltombe, Manuel Domergue, and Jacob Tatsitsa. In contrast, nationalists received support from the Communist People's Republic of China and Russia.

Initially, the pro-Western government in Cameroon refused to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China and instead recognized Taiwan as the legitimate government of China. This decision was influenced by the political climate of the time. However, in March 1971, Cameroon followed France's lead and shifted its recognition to the People's Republic of China. This significant change in recognition marked a notable break in Cameroon's diplomatic stance with the Republic of China (Taiwan).

In the present day, the traces of Taiwan's influence in Cameroon are limited. The primary visible impact is through the presence of “made in Taiwan” appliances. The diplomatic shift to the People's Republic of China has reshaped the relationship between Cameroon and Taiwan, reducing the direct influence of Taiwan within the country.

FN: Are there African Studies centers in Taiwan or Taiwanese scholars focusing on Africa? What are the main topics of research from the Taiwanese side? 

RAN: To the best of my knowledge, there are no dedicated African Studies centers in Taiwan, and the number of Taiwanese scholars focusing on Africa is limited. However, notable works like “Peking versus Taipei in Africa” by Wei Liang-Tsai and “The United Nations from a Racial Perspective: China's Representation: U.S., Africa, and Taiwan Agricultural Aid, 1961-1971″ by Professor Liu Xiao Peng shed light on past research interests, although recent focus seems to have shifted.

While some professors teach courses on Africa in Taiwanese universities, this does not necessarily indicate personal experience or extensive research on the continent. Taiwan's engagement with Africa has largely centered around business-oriented associations such as the Taiwan Africa Business Association (TABA), focusing on economic opportunities and trade partnerships.

Unfortunately, Taiwan, like many capitalist-oriented regimes, faces the risk of falling into extractivism — a practice that prioritizes the extraction and export of raw materials with minimal consideration for people, cultures, and the environment. At present, Taiwan's engagement with Africa primarily revolves around business interests. However, it is important to advocate for a more holistic perspective that encompasses cultural understanding, social collaboration, and sustainable development.

FN: What are the main signs of China’s presence in Cameroon?

RAN: China's influence in Cameroon is evident through the establishment of Confucius Centers, the inclusion of Chinese language in the secondary school curriculum, infrastructure projects, commercial developments, and a notable presence of Chinese nationals.

For more on China's Belt and Road Initiative in Africa and other regions, read Global Voices’ Special Coverage and report: China's BRI: Deal or steal? 

FN: What is your assessment of China’s actions and their consequences in Cameroon? What framework do you think makes it just? Is it more appropriate to talk about development? Colonial capitalism? Debt trap? Global competition? 

RAN: During Mao Zedong's era, China-Cameroon/Africa relations appeared to exhibit more respect for grassroots nationalist movements and for people-to-people collaboration. However, since China's market economy opened up under Deng Xiaoping's leadership in 1979, the country has transitioned into a capitalist nation driven by a hunger for power, profit, and expansion. This transformation is disheartening, especially when considering that China itself experienced a century of humiliation by the West from 1849 to 1949. It is troubling to witness China's seeming insensitivity to Africa's ongoing post-traumatic slave and colonialism condition, engaging in unfair contracts that exploit Africa similarly to the West, albeit with less militarism but the similar level of hypocrisy, greed and racism.

Throughout history, the Black African community has been subjected to relentless humiliation by cultures that have shown a heartless disregard for universal human dignity and genuine friendship. The enduring scars of the Arab slave trade spanning thirteen centuries, the extensive four centuries of Western slave trade, colonialism, and neocolonialism, along with the oppressive rise of China's imperialism, have inflicted great suffering upon Africa. Despite these deep and painful wounds, the very same aggressors are now embarking on a new scramble for the continent, with the intention of dismantling it completely.

In closing, I would like to share a thought-provoking quote from Frank Wilderson III, a prominent figure in the development of Afro-pessimism [from his book “Afropessimism”]: “(…) White and non-Black subjectivity cannot be imbued with the capacity for self knowledge and intersubjective community without anti-Black violence; without, that is, the violence of social death. In other words, White people and their junior partners (Asians, Arabs, etc.) need anti-Black violence to know they’re alive.”

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