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Why Chinese and U.S. Stakeholders Should Listen Carefully to What PLO Lumumba Has to Say


By Eric Olander

Kenyan law professor and former director of the anti-corruption commission Patrick Loch Otieno (PLO) Lumumba first came to the attention of a lot of China-watchers in Africa in 2018 when the Zambian government blocked him from entering the country. Lumumba had been scheduled to give a speech at Eden University in Lusaka on the topic of China’s growing influence in Africa, but fearing that the outspoken critic of the Chinese presence would also lambast President Edgar Lungu’s close relationship with Beijing, and more consequentially Zambia’s dependence on Chinese loans, Lusaka thought it prudent to deny him a stage.

While he may be unfamiliar to many outsiders, he’s well known throughout East Africa, and increasingly across the continent, for his strong views on anti-corruption and weak governance in Africa.

He is most well-known for his brief tenure as Director of the Director of Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission, a post he held for less than a year from 2010 to 2011. Since 2017, he’s been at the helm of the Kenya School of Law but also speaks regularly on panels across the continent where’s built a large and growing following on African social media for his sharp criticism of both the Chinese and their partners in the African public sector.


A Different Kind of China Hawk

It would be a mistake to characterize PLO Lumumba as a typical China-hawk, similar to many of the anti-China voices in Washington and on those Twitter. Although he’s very critical, often very skeptical of Chinese intentions in Africa, he makes it very clear that he doesn’t “condemn China” but instead “warns Africa about China.”

The best way to describe Lumumba’s philosophy is similar to that of Steve Bannon and even Donald Trump in that for him it’s “Africa First” and he effectively wants to “Make Africa Great Again.” He also seems to be heavily inspired by his namesake, the late Democratic Republic of Congo leader Patrice Lumumba, and in many ways, he channels the passions of the Pan-Africanist movements that were popular in the post-colonial era.

One of the central themes that he raises repeatedly in speeches and interviews is what is China longterm objective in Africa? “When China is handing down these many loans, including the $60 billion (FOCAC) loans to African countries, what will she get in return? My view is that we must begin to ask the foundational question: what are we doing to ensure that China does not ride roughshod over African countries?”

So, Lumumba is seemingly less concerned about the Chinese in particular, and more interested in how African governments respond to the incursions of yet another major power seeking to engage the continent. This is why it would be a mistake to simply write Lumumbu off as “anti-Chinese” or even xenophobic. He seems to be advocating for better governance on the African side so as to ensure that Africans stakeholders benefit from engagement with the Chinese in terms of trade, investment, and loans.

Why is PLO Lumumba Important?

In the late 1990s/early 2000s, then Zambian-opposition leader Michael Sata, who later became president, was by far the most outspoken critic of the Chinese in Africa. He was the go-to guy for what seemed like every US and European news article about the Chinese in Africa at the time. And he delivered with sizzling, provocative quotes that news editors in London and New York just devoured.

Lumumba is similarly sharp-tongued in his outspoken criticisms but unlike Sata he’s not a nationalist, he’s a Pan-Africanist and he seems far less interested in engaging international media than speaking to local audiences in Zambia, South Africa, and Kenya among other places. More importantly, he’s building a sizable following on social media where hundreds of thousands follow his speeches on social media like this popular Facebook page that highlights quotes from Lumumba speeches:

U.S., Chinese and other stakeholders would be wise to carefully listen to Lumumba’s message because he seems to be channeling many of the anxieties and frustrations that African constituents have with their own governments and the foreign countries those governments increasingly depend on.

Additional Reading and Resources:

Read the Original Article on The China-Africa Project

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