Features | Diplomacy

Sweet and Sour: China in Ghana

China is building influence in the West African power, but illegal mining issues continue to plague ties.

By Joseph Hammond for
Sweet and Sour: China in Ghana

China’s Premier Li Keqiang, right, meets Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Sept. 1, 2018.

Credit: Jason Lee/Pool Photo via AP

African-American intellectual giant W.E.B Du Bois spent his last years in newly independent Ghana. Today tourists can visit his tomb and modest home, which has been preserved as a memorial. In the bedroom, two large Chinese wall decorations still hang from the walls, as do photos of Du Bois meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong of the Chinese Communist Party in May 1959.

“China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood,” Du Bois said in a 1959 speech from Beijing aimed at calling on those of African heritage to support China. “You know America and France and Britain to your sorrow. Now know the Soviet Union and its allied nations, but particularly know China.”

China hosted many delegations in 1959 from revolutionaries around the world, some 84 from Belgian Congo alone that year, but, the visit from Du Bois, as one of the 20th century’s leading intellectuals, was exceptional. The Chinese government even distributed an English language newsreel of the trip for propaganda purposes.

The red-carpet treatment for Ghana’s most famous expat was also aimed at improving Sino-Ghana relations. Indeed, China’s relationship with Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah was soon blossoming.

Ghana’s first president kicked out Soviet military advisors in 1964 after they demanded a car and unlimited alcohol, and made undue advances on an orderly’s wife, according to the book Maoism: A Global History by Julia Lovell released earlier this year.

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Nkrumah had the Soviets replaced with Chinese advisors who arrived that same year and wanted only furniture and a cook. The Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare that Nkrumah wrote in the 1960s shows clear signs of Maoist influence.

Today a visitor to the Accra neighborhood of Cantonments, where Du Bois’ home is located, can easily find evidence of China’s growing influence in Ghana outside of Du Bois’ bedroom. The Chinese technology company Huawei has a tall headquarters building painted in Mao’s favorite color and located just down the road from the American Embassy –which shares a corner with the W.E.B Du Bois compound.

China has deep historical ties to Ghana. Indeed, a Chinese community has existed in Ghana since at least the 1940s. At that time Ghana’s status as a gold mining hub made it one of the fastest-growing economies in West Africa.

Today many Chinese miners are still drawn to Ghana. As a result, is the term “galamsey,” not “Huawei,” that is most often associated with China in Ghana. “Galamsey” is a term used to describe illegal mining operations in the West African country.

“Artisanal and small-scale mining produces 37 percent of the gold and 100 percent of the diamonds and employs 1 million people and 3 million people indirectly,” said Isaac Bonsu Kariki at the Mining Investment West Africa conference organized by Spire Events in Accra last May. Kariki is the National Project Coordinator of Ghana’s Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources.

During colonial times, Ghana was known as the Gold Coast, yet colonial authorities prevented locals from engaging in artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). The country’s gold and other resources were seen as strictly the prerogative of the British colonial authorities. ASM would not be legalized in Ghana until 1989. Today many ASM proponents in Ghana feel that another global power, in this case China, is preventing them from accessing the wealth beneath their feet.

“I am very skeptical of China’s role in Ghana and their adherence to the win-win principle,” says Abraham Odom, a member of parliament from NPP party, one of the two main parties in Ghana.

That view is reciprocated by many in Ghana.

Many ASM miners at the Mining Investment West Africa event used the venue to vent their frustrations about the role of illegal Chinese miners in the sector. A decade ago, many Chinese nationals came to Ghana to set up ASM operations, employing chemicals and machinery that left deep scars in the land. In 2013, I visited a muddy river that locals said had become contaminated due to Chinese mining techniques. A visit to the site this year found the river superficially improved, with the water clear and the site once again being used by locals.

Chinese miners in Ghana are often referred to as the “Shanglin Gang” because they disproportionately hail from Shanglin County in Guangxi.

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These days, stronger enforcement of regulations means fewer Chinese are involved directly in mining. A 2018 crackdown arrested some 1,370 Chinese miners. At least a hundred arrests have been reported this year.

Still, Chinese influence remains in the mining sector. Indeed, miners at the event were unanimous that illegal Chinese mining was continuing, though at reduced levels, despite government efforts.

Many Ghanaian officials wish the issue would merely go away. In 2017, the Chinese embassy sent a sharply worded warning to Ghana that further reporting of the galamsey issue could impact Sino-Ghanaian relations. Thus, the government of Ghana often chooses to deport rather than prosecute Chinese nationals arrested for mining violations.

Ghana is essential to Africa, and China has paid close attention to the country. Ghana is host to one of the few African offices of the China-Africa Development Fund (also known as the CAD Fund). Set up in 2007 with $10 billion in capital for investment in Chinese business interests in Africa, the fund currently has offices in Zambia, South Africa, and Ethiopia. The Ghana office was opened in 2011. The CAD Fund’s operations in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Central Africa are run out of a modest office in Accra’s World Trade Center.

“Ghana is a very important as scene as a gateway of Africa and political stability of the country is recognized in China and around the world,” said a CAD Fund official who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. He insists the galamsey issue can be improved through continued regulation by Ghanaian authorities and mutual understanding.

He describes Ghana-China relations in these terms: “Sometimes sweet, a little bit sour, but overall they are generally improving.”

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who had reported extensively from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.