Paa Kwesi Wolseley Prah
From the turn of the century, scholars have written much about China’s resource interest and infrastructural investment in the transport sectors of individual African states labelled “resource-rich” or geostrategically relevant. From a broader overview, China’s resource interest and in investment in railway/roads in Mali a conflict/terrorism prone Sahel state largely regarded as one of the poorest countries in Africa and among the twenty five poorest countries in the world has not garnered much intellectual and policy examination to the extent that very little is known of China’s Chinese engagement in the country. As Mali does not fall within the top fifteen resource-rich countries on the continent, much emphasis has not centred on its strategic interest to China on the “resource” pendulum. Hence the relationship has not been squarely placed in the “resource exploitation” narrative by Beijing critics.
Putting Mali’s natural resources into perspective, the country boasts natural resources that are the envy of many economically stable countries on the continent. The natural resource industry in Mali is by far dominated by gold, estimated at eight hundred tons, and the country is the fourth largest producer of gold in all of Africa, following the likes of Ghana, South Africa, and Sudan). In 2019, Mali’s gold output rose to 71.1 tons, contributing 403.6 billion CFA ($734,311,051) of the government revenue while the mining sector accounted for 9.7% of its GDP. The mining industry is the primary source of revenue for more than two million individuals, which is equivalent to more than ten percent of the total population. The Ministry of Mines of Mali estimates the country has other mineral prospects like iron ore (500 million tons), manganese ( 20 million tons), lithium (4 million tons), limestone (10 million tons) and bauxite as the majority of the territory remains largely unexplored and unmapped. Furthermore, it is believed that Mali might contain large stores of uranium (5,000 tons) and hydrocarbons. Other iron ore reserves in the Bale basin are believed to total approximately 400 million tons combined.
China is the single largest importer for most of these resources, despite the fact that demand on a worldwide scale has flactuated in recent years. Additionally, there is a widespread consensus that Mali may be home to substantial uranium and hydrocarbon reserves. Multiple Chinese companies have been conducting uranium exploration in the southwestern part of the country, and the preliminary reports have been encouraging. In the years leading up to the outbreak of civil war in 2013, a number of western businesses conducted oil exploration in the northern regions of Mali. Also, the country was projected to be on track to start the production of lithium by 2020, with 694,000 of exploitable reserves already discovered.
The availability of these high-value natural resources in the country, regardless of the widespread insecurities in the country such as the 2015 attack by Islamist militants on a hotel in Mali’s capital Bamako that killed 19 people, including three Chinese executives of a state-run railway firm, and more recently the 2021 attack on a Chinese construction site in the southwest of the country in which three Chinese workers were kidnapped, has not deterred Chinese enterprises from investing heavily in the mining and infrastructure projects across the country, especially in the transportation sector. For example, the Malian government and the CGCOC Group Co. Ltd. (formerly known as CGC Overseas Construction Group Co. Ltd) came to an agreement in 2014 to allow the Chinese company to exploit Mali’s 100 million ton iron-ore deposit at Bale, which is located 136 miles to the west of Bamako. According to recent reports, the Chinese company Ganfeng Lithium has also reached an agreement to purchase a 50% ownership stake in the Goulamina Lithium Project in Mali in exchange for $130 million.
Like other African countries, the major obstacles to the development of Mali’s mining sector are poor road infrastructure and deficient construction. This is where Chinese presence in the mining and transport sectors are viewed as a blessing for Mali. According to claims from a variety of sources, there were roughly over twenty Chinese official development finance initiatives carried out in Mali between the years 2000 and 2012 alone. These projects ranged from a grant of $51.5 million to build the “Third Bridge” in Bamako in 2007, to loans from China totaling $154 million at preferential rates to develop the Bamako-Ségou expressway in 2010. In September 2014, Mali signed a string of agreements with China totaling about $11 billion. While Mali gave few details on the terms of the agreement, most of it was intended to finance two major railway projects linking the landlocked country to the coastal neighboring states. From the total amount, $8 million was for the development of a 900-kilometer railway in the country. The objective is to construct a railroad track that is 560 miles long and will connect Mali with neighboring Guinea’s port capital, Conakry. In addition, the Chinese government renovated a railway that is 466 meters long and connects Mali with Senegal. This was done in order to provide this landlocked country with simple access to Mali’s mining areas and sea ports outside of its borders. For the remaining $1.5 billion, China’s Railway Construction Corp (CRCC) would rebuild Mali’s outdated 1,230-kilometer railway between Bamako and Dakar, which serves as the country’s primary link to seaport. The improved infrastructure, according to Lassana Guindo, an adviser at the Malian Ministry of Mines, will enable Mali to end its dependency on gold.
Also In 2016, an agreement was signed between the China Railway Construction Corporation (CRCC) and the government of Mali for the construction of a modern railway between Mali and the west African coast via Senegal. It is estimated that the project will cost approximately $2.7 billion. The project is reported to involve modernizing older lines and remodeling the stations at various stations along the route. Overall, Chinese investment in Mali’s transportation is in anticipation of the fact that improving transportation within the country will make Mali’s underexploited resources, such as iron ore and bauxite which are bulkier and more expensive to transport more easily than gold.
The import and rationale behind these heavy Chinese infrastructural investments in Mali’s railway and road infrastructure is shrouded in the ultimate hope of both Beijing and Bamako that the construction of these new railway tracks will improve the transportation infrastructure in Mali and draw the interest of foreign investors into Mali’s native resources, which include uranium iron ore, bauxite amongst others. From an analytical point of view, although Chinese investments in the transport and mining sectors of Mali by extending loans for rail and road projects are not inherently bad, it is worth pointing out that China’s investment in such projects in Mali is similar to that in other African nations where such projects create the possibility of African states becoming ensnared in what has become a cliché in academia as “debt trap diplomacy” that will leave the country weak, vulnerable, and more firmly under China’s influence. The case of Mali slowly but surely becoming overburdened with Chinese loans for such infrastructural purposes is analogous to what Deborah Brautigam and Meg Rithmire describe as a gambler who owes money to the Mafia, and as a result, he runs the risk of losing his limbs as a consequence of this situation. Thus, when viewed in this manner, this internationalization policy by China to assist in Mali’s infrastructural development in its transport sector and other sectors, which is outlined in the BRI and other programs, will not only be viewed as a pursuit of geopolitical influence, but it can also sometimes be seen as a potent weapon or tool for Beijing to wield influence in Mali.
To be fair, China strategic resource interest in Mali, and for that matter any resource-rich country on the continent, and its designed strategy to gain access to these resources by providing loans to build railways and roads to connect mining areas, when viewed critically, have always been quite transparent and straightforward. But it is also easy to comprehend why Mali and most African nations consent to receiving such financial assistance from China in these situations. Primarily, their demands for infrastructural projects have been largely left unfulfilled by global institutional investors for an awfully long time, and they do have a variety of important needs. As a consequence of this, they are susceptible to pounce on such opportunities when Chinese investors offer themselves as generous investors and easy credit providers. This is highly contingent on the fact that China does not attach conditionalities to loans, and as long as China continues this trajectory of heavily investing in Mali’s mining and transport sectors, Sino-Mali relations is bound to flourish.
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Paa Kwesi Wolseley Prah is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Affairs at Lingnan University under the Hong PhD Fellow Program focusing on China Africa relations. He is a DAAD Helmut Schdmit scholar with a masters degree in Democratic Governance and Civil Society from the University of Osnabruck, and a bachelors degree in Political Science(major) with the Study of Religions from the University of Ghana.