Togo and China: Half a century of fruitful cooperation, but also of rejection of any form of criticism

The Kégué Stadium, built by the Chinese. Photo by Jean Sovon, used with permission.

After a presence going back to 1972, the People's Republic of China is to celebrate the 51st anniversary of its cooperation with Togo in 2023. While Lomé and Beijing are showcasing an ideal relationship, the reality on the ground is more complicated.

During this half-century of cooperation, China has positioned itself as the kingpin of Togo's commercial exchanges with the outside world. So, Liu Yuxi, Chinese Ambassador to Togo, demonstrated in September 2017 on the occasion of the celebration of 45 years of bilateral relations between the two countries on the Chinese Embassy's official site:

Suite à l'établissement de ces relations le 19 septembre 1972, “la Chine est devenue le principal partenaire commercial du Togo et une des principales sources d'investissement”.

By the establishment of this relationship on 19 September 1972, “China has become Togo's principal commercial partner and one of its principal sources of investment”.

In 2021, as the Togo economy was struggling to emerge from the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, commercial exchanges between the two countries experienced spectacular growth. Since then, China has been contributing, alongside the Togolese government, to the implementation of a major construction policy.

The Belt and Road Initiative (or BRI, known in Chinese as “一带一路”), launched by China, is a vast political, economic and cultural strategy that joins various member countries, 43 of them in Africa, including Togo. This turn in Chinese foreign policy can only reinforce the China–Togo relationship.

There have been numerous manifestations of this new dynamic such as the Sinto Sugar Refinery in Anié, the building of the Stade Kégué sports stadium in Lomé, the Lomé Commune Regional Hospital Centre, the Palais de Congrès of Kara, the Gnassingbé Eyadéma International Airport, Lomé's bypass, and the new seat of Parliament.

The People's Republic of China is not satisfied with a relationship based on the realization of these major projects alone. Beyond the infrastructure sector, it is also present in the education of Togolese students through the Confucius Institute of the University of Lomé, created in October 2009 for the teaching of Chinese language and culture.

Confucius Institute building at the Université of Lomé. Photo by Jean Sovon, used with permission.

The Confucius Institute helps Togolese students find an entry route to Chinese enterprises established in Togo.

China also offers Chinese Government bursaries to Togolese students and trains experts and technicians in various fields.

In the health sector, several Chinese medical missions operate in Togo. Medical services and interventions are delivered by Chinese specialists in different disciplines. In all, Beijing has mounted 25 missions in the Regional Hospital Centres of Kara and Lomé, which were built by China.

Regional Hospital Centre of Lomé, built by the Chinese. Photo by Jean Sovon, used with permission

In 2015, this Chinese influence on Togo was viewed positively by the majority of Togolese, according to an investigation carried out by AfroBaromètre.

The privileges enjoyed by Chinese businesses in Togo

Official statements suggest the welfare of the people and the development of the local economy are at the centre of the relationship between China and Togo. Thus, in September 2022, on the occasion of the celebration of 50 years of the two countries’ relationship, Chao Weidong, Ambassador of the People's Republic of China in Togo asserted in his speech:

(…)Les ressortissants chinois acu Togo sont préoccupés par le bien-être de la population locale. En faisant don de fournitures depuis plus de dix ans, ils contribuent à la vie de la communauté, ce qui est un témoignage puissant des liens interpersonnels qui se resserrent de plus en plus(…)

(…)Chinese diplomatic staff in Togo are motivated by the wellbeing of the local population. By gifting materials over more than ten years, they contribute to the life of the community, bearing powerful witness to the ever tighter inter-personal ties(…)

Nevertheless, this is far from being the case in all projects associated with China. For example, infrastructure building contracts are awarded to Chinese businesses to the detriment of national businesses operating in the same sectors of activity. 

Although the implementation of the various Chinese undertakings in Togo does generate direct employment, many workplaces have suffered strikes arising from uninspiring working conditions.

In 2014, 120 Togolese workers were dismissed by WUITEC (the Chinese business engaged on the building of the new Lomé airport) for protesting against unacceptable working conditions.

In January 2016, published an account entitled “The hidden face of “big-hearted” China in Togo: Abuses, violence and cruelty of Chinese “colonists” against African workers.” In this article, the newspaper brought to light the hidden actions and machinations, and the darker side of Chinese businesses in Togo with the explanation that:

[Il n'y a pas] pas de place possible pour le droit avec les Chinois. C’est peut-être une réalité commune à toutes les entreprises sans distinction ; mais avec les entrepreneurs chinois :

pas de contrat de travail pour les employés

pas d’indemnité pour les travaux de nuit,

pas de bulletins de paye ;

il n’existe non plus de déclaration à la caisse, des prélèvements sur salaire pour cause d’absence même en cas de maladie sont effectués,

les accidents de travail ne sont nullement pris en charge et les ouvriers blessés sont abandonnés à leur triste sort…

[There is no] possible place for compliance with the Chinese. Maybe this is a reality common without distinction to all businesses; but with Chinese businesses:

no staff contract of employment for staff

no night shift allowances,

no payslips;

there are also no national insurance statements, and pay deductions are made in the case of absence even as a result of sickness,

accidents at work are not acknowledged and injured workers are left to a callous fate…

In 2018, it was the Chinese Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC)'s turn to face workers’ anger on the construction site of the Lomé–Vogan–Anfoin highway.

Similarly, other sectors such as agriculture benefit from the support of China–Togo co-operation, but only to the profit of the Chinese businesses. A study carried out by the Technical Centre for Agricultural/Rural Co-operation (CTA) and the Centre for International Co-operation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD) highlights that China's support to Togo in this area adhered to a highly specific agenda. The report quotes in conclusion:

(…)la coopération agricole sino-togolaise est plus diplomatique que technique. Alors que le partage de savoir-faire agricole paraît constituer la clé de voûte de la coopération, sa mise en œuvre très superficielle laisse supposer que les véritables enjeux sont ailleurs. Les experts chinois présents sur les Centres semblent remplir leur feuille de route avec conscience mais sans trop tenir compte du contexte, dans un relatif isolement renforcé par la barrière de la langue. Leur action contribue à renforcer le potentiel de pénétration des intrants chinois (semences améliorées, engrais, pesticides, machinisme) sur les marchés africains.

(…)Sino-Togolese agricultural co-operation is more diplomatic than technical. While the keystone of the co-operation seems to be the sharing of agricultural know-how, its highly superficial implementation would seem to suggest the true stakes are elsewhere. The Chinese experts present in the Centres seem to fulfil their mission conscientiously but without great attention to the context, in relative isolation reinforced by the language barrier. Their actions contribute to strengthening the potential for the penetration by Chinese inputs (improved crops, fertilizers, pesticides, machinery) of African markets.

Good relations above all else

These negative examples do not seem to inhibit the practices of Chinese businesses. For their part, the Togo authorities pass no comment on these recurring strikes, as is their general practice, not only as regards Chinese businesses, but also the majority of firms that are held by foreigners.

Having expressed its desire since 2016 to be the pivot of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Africa, Togo participates in Chinese-organized summits on its territory, including with Chinese private sector players. On the day following the seventh Forum on African-Chinese Co-operation (FOCAC), held on September 3 and 4, 2018, the president of Togo met Chinese investors in the hope of attracting many more Chinese investors.

In August 2021, the joint commission for cooperation between Togo and China organized a video-conference session in the course of which new announcements were made on the continuation and consolidation of relations between the two countries. According to the site TogoFirst:

(…)l’Empire du milieu entend articuler désormais sa relation avec le Togo autour de la santé publique, de l’emploi, de la production et de l'inclusion sociale, conformément aux nouvelles orientations du gouvernement togolais contenues dans sa feuille de route quinquennale, une ambition bâtie autour de dix (10) grands piliers déclinés en quarante-deux (42) projets et réformes prioritaires.

(…)The Middle Kingdom [China] intends, going forward, to tailor its relationship with Togo around public health, employment, production and social inclusion, in accordance with the new departures of the Togolese Government contained in its five-year road plan, an ambition built around ten (10) great pillars broken down into forty-two (42) priority projects and reforms.

In 2022, Togo benefited along with many other African countries from the cancellation of a part of the debts incurred to China.

These declarations as well as actions demonstrate that the bilateral relationship between Togo and the People's Republic of China is probably set to grow in the years to come — but without necessarily proving beneficial to all Togolese.

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