In the Beginning…
When my PhD supervisor Dr. Sandra Evers and colleagues first drafted the grant proposal around 2009 that would lead to my hiring as part of the project team, international media was awash with sensational news of a grand Chinese project on Uganda’s western shores of Lake Victoria. A project that would transform the way we think of Chinese investments in Africa.
The Sseesamirembe Eco-City and Free Trade Zone would be one of its kind and a first in Africa: a model ‘Designer Eco-City’ where the objectives of rapid and sustainable socio-economic growth would be achieved in an ecologically friendly manner. This new city, which would rise from the marshy shores of Lake Victoria, would be an international show-case of ‘an integrated socio-economic-climate change package that can be replicated’ across Africa.
The Eco-City would occupy a 200-square mile planning area straddling the common border of Uganda and Tanzania. Its economic implications would be unprecedented in the region. Sseesamirembe Eco-City and Free Trade Zone would be Africa’s largest tax-free economic zone with a potential market of over 100 million people in the East African countries of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Eastern Congo and Northern Tanzania. It would offer the most viable trans-shipment corridor for the land-locked countries in the region, linking them to the port cities of Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam on the Indian Ocean coastline. Its integrated development model would include an international university with a medical research centre, an industrial park and manufacturing complex, an international airport and shipping port as well as eco-tourism and leisure parks. In short, it would be an ecologically friendly commercial, industrial and logistics hub for East Africa.
Enter the Chinese
According to local media reports, Ugandan officials and Chinese companies signed a memorandum of understanding for the investment venture in January, 2006. More details emerged following an alleged signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between a Ugandan firm Kagera Eco-Cities Limited and Chinese owned Paradise International Investment in August 12, 2008 for the construction of the Free Trade Zone. Interestingly, the Chinese Company is linked to one Liu Jianjun, a colourful Chinese character linked to other Chinese ventures in Uganda.
The Chinese are reported to have made a capital injection of US$ 1.5 billion to finance construction of the Eco-City. The sponsors of the project put up a sophisticated website with design images of the range and scale potential projects to be set up in the mega-city. The site is however down, but online sources still show the grand designs that the initiators had in mind. The same website captured images of site visits by Chinese investors exploring the wild frontiers of the savannah terrain, rushing river rapids and lush lake shores that would be transformed into gleaming towers of concrete, steel and glass.
Fast forward to September 2011. My supervisor’s research project proposal has been approved and funding granted by the Dutch Scientific Organization (NWO) under its WOTRO Science for Development subsidiary. So when I signed my contract to start research as part of a team of four PhD fellows studying ‘foreign land grabs and development in Africa’, my research topic, case-study and location was clearly defined as analysing the global dynamics and local impacts of Chinese investments in Uganda’s Lake Victoria Free Trade Zone (FTZ). It was supposed to provide a rich comparative case study with other Chinese FTZs in other parts of the continent.
However, in the first six months of refining my proposal and preparing for the field, there seemed to be no new reports of the grand project since 2008. In fact, the only media reports available were of local attempts to gain regulatory approval for setting up the Eco-City and a parliamentary inquiry in Uganda into the affairs of the local implementing partner Kagera Eco-cities Ltd.
More interestingly, it appears that the project was facing an uncertain future when the local investor came under presidential scrutiny and its local activities were halted amidst a national inquiry into its affairs. Even more unsettling was the emergence of rather unsavoury reports linking the company to so called spiritual backers allegedly linked to a cult-like religious sect.
By December 2011, I was beginning to get worried that my entire PhD project was crumbling. Using my contacts in Uganda, I requested a local journalist to visit the site in southern Uganda to establish the state of affairs on location. My fears were confirmed when he sent me photographic evidence of what appeared to be a ghostly pale shadow of the promised grand developmental paradise.
Zombie Chinese land grabs?
Three years into my research and looking back, the spectacular failure of the Sseesamirembe Eco-City shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Many media reports of Chinese projects across the African continent have turned out to be false alarms and gross exaggerations. A good number of reports on Chinese land-grabs in Africa are often based on false data that are picked up and amplified by many more websites without checking the accuracy of the original source. This has led to what prominent China-Africa researcher, Prof Debora Brautigam calls Zombie Chinese land grabs.
The main culprits appear to be prominent databases such as Land Matrix, Aid Data, Oakland Institute and www.farmlandgrab.org among others. These databases and websites tend to simply capture unverified media reports of (Chinese) land grabs and other ‘deals’ and post them on their websites without any fact-checking. It the case of Uganda, some media reports have cited the presence of up to 350 Chinese ‘successfully farming’ 4,000 hectares, while others boldly report of a Chinese Baoding village in Mbale in Eastern Uganda; all of which are, on the basis of available information, non-existent.
The case of Sseesamirembe and the other ‘ghost’ Chinese ‘land-grabs’ cited above are instructive for a number of reasons. One: the scale and magnitude of overall foreign ‘land-grabs’ in Africa may be largely exaggerated and thus much less than the media hypes it to be. More certainly, the figures available in the public domain are inaccurate and should not be taken as factual. Second: The narrative of an alleged rapid ‘colonisation’ of Africa by Chinese interests could also be an overreaction based on false, distorted and, more often than not, inaccurate and unverified data. Third: (typical of scholarly conclusions, but no less important) more empirical research is needed to separate fact from fiction and establish not only the scale and size of foreign (Chinese) large-scale land acquisitions, but also their mechanisms or processes of entry, operational practices and local impacts in Africa.
In order to achieve these objectives, macro-level continent-wide, regional, or even national analyses may often miss the detailed processes, interactions, operations and relations that define and help us understand the ‘real’ scope and more especially local impacts of Chinese engagement in Africa. In my next post, I will chart the trajectory that my research took in light of the ‘failure’ of the Sseesamirembe project, and the challenges of adaptation in the face of changing realities in the field.