NYT | SHARON LaFRANIERE |November 20, 2009
Like parents everywhere, mothers and fathers in Namibia, an impoverished southern African nation, worry about college costs and opportunities for their children. The Chinese government has stepped forward to help — for a select and powerful few. So far this year, the Beijing government has secretly awarded scholarships to study in China to the offspring of nine top officials, including to the daughter of Namibia’s president, Hifikepunye Pohamba. Two young relatives of Namibia’s former president and national patriarch, Sam Nujoma, also received grants. The disclosure of the scholarships, first revealed by a feisty Namibian newspaper, has unleashed a wave of fury from the nation’s civil society groups and youth organizations. In a country where five in six high school graduates do not go on to college, many find it unconscionable for well-paid government leaders to accept overseas university scholarships for their children. “Only senior people in government knew about the scholarships,” said Norman Tjombe, director of the nonprofit Legal Assistance Center. “No chance was given at all to the general public.”
The controversy has reignited a simmering debate in Namibia over deals with the Chinese government, already under scrutiny by Namibian prosecutors. Inquiries there and in other developing countries in Africa and Asia have cast a fresh light on how China sometimes uses its treasure chest of foreign loans and aid to create elite alliances and ease the approval of no-bid contracts. Even some within Namibia’s governing Swapo party are asking whether China is trying to buy influence with their nation’s political leadership to gain access to mineral resources or to win business for its well-connected companies. “How is it that this favor just comes like manna from heaven?” said Elijan Ngurare, secretary general of Swapo’s youth league, in a telephone interview. “Clearly there must be something that they are after.” To some international relations experts, the scholarship controversy illustrates a blind spot in China’s aggressive strategy to cement diplomatic alliances, lock in natural resources and solicit trade and business on the African continent. In Namibia at least, Chinese government officials seem caught off guard by the public scrutiny exercised by a vibrant civil society.
The scholarship scandal was first revealed in Informante, a free tabloid in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, with a proud motto: “You conceal. We reveal.” It has no counterpart in China, where even the most aggressive media outlets stop short of raising unfavorable questions about the dealings of top officials or their children. Bates Gill, director of the Stockholm International Peace Institute, said China was accustomed to opaque, controlled, government-to-government relations. “China’s engagement in Africa is moving further and faster than its ability to try and shape perceptions there,” he said. As a result, “there will inevitably be embarrassments.”
The list in Namibia is growing. In July, anticorruption investigators alleged that a state-controlled Chinese contractor had facilitated a $55.3 million deal to sell the Namibian government security scanners with millions of dollars in kickbacks. The inquiry is particularly delicate because until late last year, Hu Haifeng, the son of President Hu Jintao, ran the scanner company. A Chinese Commerce Ministry official recently said that China was cooperating with the Namibian authorities. Another investigation centers on allegations that a Chinese weapons company funneled $700,000 to Lt. Gen. Martin Shalli, the commander of Namibia’s defense force. Namibia’s president suspended General Shalli from his post in July. General Shalli so far has declined comment. Mr. Gill said such allegations threatened to undermine China’s impressive campaign to link its development with Africa’s. Over all, while China is making “an enormous and positive contribution to Africa’s development,” he said, it is still unaccustomed to the dynamics of some African democracies.
At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation this month, the Chinese prime minister, Wen Jiabao, announced that China would double the amount of low-interest loans it offered Africa to $10 billion over the next three years, increase the number of scholarships and reduce tariffs on products from the poorest nations. But he sounded frustrated when asked whether China was only after Africa’s natural resources. “Why are there always accusations against China?” he said at a Nov. 8 news conference in Cairo. “Is this an African viewpoint or rather a Western viewpoint?” In Namibia, political scientists say concerns are growing about whether officials are negotiating arm’s-length contracts with China. “People are thinking China is making secret deals with the government here and they are having all kinds of suspicions,” said Carola Engelbrecht, a citizen activist. The scholarship recipients include children of some of Namibia’s most powerful officials, including the inspector general of the Namibian police and the justice minister, who is also the secretary general of Swapo.
One grant recipient is the son of the defense minister, whose agency buys weapons from China. Another is the son of the home affairs and immigration minister, whose agency is responsible for approving residence and work permits for an army of Chinese workers whose companies have won government or private contracts for business in Namibia. Three other recipients are children of the minister, deputy minister, and a third high-ranking official at the Ministry of Mines and Energy. In July, the ministry renewed a license that gives a subsidiary of state-owned Chinese company sole rights to search for uranium and other minerals in a prime prospecting area. The nation’s anticorruption commission has begun a preliminary inquiry into how the scholarships were awarded. Chinese government officials have reacted in a familiar fashion: three government agencies in Beijing did not answer written questions.
Xia Lili, first secretary of the Chinese Embassy in Windhoek, said he had no obligation to respond to queries. “This is over,” he said. But with national elections scheduled at the end of the month, it clearly is not. Bill Lindeke, a political scientist with the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, said Namibian officials might be forced to pay for their children’s educations in China to quiet the controversy. Chinese Embassy officials initially insisted that the Education Ministry was in charge of the selection process. But Namibia’s education minister, Nangolo Mbumba, said at a news conference this month that his ministry handled only 10 scholarships to underprivileged students and had nothing to do with the other grants — some of which apparently cover five years of tuition. He said the president’s daughter, Ndapanda Pohamba, who is now studying at the Beijing Cultural and Language University, “applied for the scholarship in her own right and only notified the parents afterwards.” The minister’s statement that “you cannot bribe someone with a bursary” set off a fresh wave of indignation in a nation two universities of which can accommodate only about 2,000 of the 12,000 high school students who graduate each year. “Mr. Mbumba: anything of value you accept, or even worse, solicit, constitutes a bribe if you hold public office,” one citizen said in a text message posted on the Web site of The Namibian, a Windhoek daily.