Neo-colonialism in Africa: The cases of China and Iran

Neo-colonialism is a term used to describe the practices of colonialism that persist in formerly colonized countries through the means of economics, society and religion. Several concepts can be used to explain neocolonialism. It owes much of its thinking to Marxism, which refers to the unequal power relations between former colonies and colonizing nations. It can also be explained by the dependency theory, which states that resources flow from the periphery of the poor and underdeveloped states to the core of the wealthy states, benefiting the latter at the expense of the former. This theory explains that, conceptually, after independence, African states should have developed at a very swift rate, both politically and economically. However, this was not possible as they were still economically dependent on their former colonisers. This inability of African economies to develop led them to enlist foreign aid in the form of loans bearing high amounts of interest whose repayment led to the underdevelopment of African economies. This forms the crux of neo-colonialism. During the height of the cold war, when the United States became involved in the neo-colonial practice to keep the politically independent African countries in the capitalist camp and to prevent them from aligning with the Soviet Union, it showed that any state, which is not a colonial master, too, can enact neo-colonialism. The proponents of neo-colonialism were Kwame Nkrumah and Frantz Fanon. Nkrumah argued that the practice of neo-colonialism used capitalism, globalisation and cultural imperialism to influence developing countries indirectly. He estimated that while African countries held 53% of the world’s natural resources, they were being used to serve overseas interests. Frantz Fanon offered a different perspective on the same concept. He stated that it was the African bourgeoisie that had received political power from the former colonial masters that had enabled neo-colonialism. They affected the smooth transition from colonialism to neo-colonialism. They had benefitted from the colonial system and continue to benefit from neo-colonial policies at the expense of the African masses.

This essay shall discuss the neo-colonialism of African states at the hands of China and Iran. The focus shall be on Chinese investment in Africa while examining whether the role of China is that of a partner or a coloniser. The latter section of the paper shall discuss the religious neo-colonialism affected by Iran.


China is the African continent’s biggest trade partner, with its ‘presence’ in 39 African states. The bilateral trade between China and Africa stands at $254 billion. The trade between Africa and China grew at a very swift rate, rising $10.5 bn in 2000 to $40 bn in 2005, $166 bn in 2011, and finally, $254 in 2022. China’s rapid entry into the African market can be attributed to its “no political strings” foreign policy and Beijing’s willingness to provide aid and concessionary loans. In 1992, the former Supreme leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, embarked on his southern tour and reinforced the implementation of his ‘Reforms and Opening up’ program in mainland China which committed to transforming the Chinese economy and argued for the best approach of foreign policy. However, self-sufficiency was not being met, which formed a central pillar of Chinese policy in various areas such as energy, forest resources, and food production. Even the Daqing oilfields, whose discovery and exploitation sparked several ideological campaigns in the 1960s, were beginning to run low in light of the Chinese needs. At that time, China’s economic development began to produce significant foreign currency reserves coupled with their technical and managerial expertise, and the possibility arose that China could themselves solve these resource deficiencies with a new source for energy and natural resources: Africa.  

China’s transition from an oil exporter to an oil importer in 1993 was a significant milestone for Africa. China made investments in Sudan’s oil industry from 1996 onwards, and Chinese MNCs have made equivalent investments in Nigeria, Angola, Gabon, and the purchase of shares in Algeria’s natural gas fields. Here, Chinese companies have successfully outbid their Western counterparts by linking investment to tie-in projects, providing low labour costs in the form of inexpensive managerial staff and introducing their own contract workers. While energy resources form the core of China’s engagement with Africa, China also plays a vital role in shaping investment ties, in commercial logging in Liberia and Equatorial Guinea, textile manufacturing in Zambia and Kenya, rehabilitation of transport infrastructure in Botswana and installation of sophisticated telecommunication systems in Djibouti and Namibia. China is seen as a more attractive ally as compared to their Western counterparts as a Chinese relationship does not require the same diplomatic conditions of economic aid. Chinese financial support comes free of expectation of political or social reform.


It isn’t easy to classify the Chinese-African relationship as a mutually beneficial relationship or a neo-colonial relationship.

According to many, China’s approach to Africa is more Africa-friendly due to its infrastructure efforts, genuine sympathy for other developing and underdeveloped countries, and insistence on the principle of non-intervention in international relations). In contrast, the West, in addition to supporting African authoritarian leaders whenever it sees fit, tries to impose neoliberal values on African countries through IMF or World Bank development packages and force their compliance with the West’s foreign policies through conditional aid, while also imposing protectionism when it needs to protect its domestic industries from African exports. It is also argued that Chinese investment in infrastructure benefits the continent in general and paves the way for economic development. In the political context, China’s presence in Africa has helped it deconstruct its asymmetric relationship with the west, giving it bargaining power to negotiate a more equal relationship with them.

China uses its soft power to solicit the support of the global south in the United Nations. China is fully aware of Africa’s value as a regional voting bloc which can determine the outcomes of several international affairs. One area where China heavily relies on Africa is the issue of human rights. China has secured the African voting bloc’s support in relation to human rights several times. It started in 1996, during the proposed condemnation of China for its violation of human rights, where 14 African states votes against its sanction. Similarly, in 2004, a resolution at the UNHCR aimed for China to yield to U.S. pressure and adopt international norms and transparency regarding human rights. However, China pushed a ‘no action’ motion which was passed with the help of 27 states, with the African voting bloc forming half of them. More recently, in 2020, 25 African states voted against condemning China’s National security law in Hong Kong at the Human Rights Council. The resolution committing to a debate condemning China’s repression of the Uyghur minority was rejected by all but three African countries. Thus Africa has been instrumental in providing diplomatic support to China within the UNGA and UNHCR. However, this support has been reciprocated by China to Africa. In 2007, China opposed a U.N. resolution that seeks sanctions against Sudan on the issue of the bloodshed in Darfur. China being the major purchaser of Sudanese oil had the most to lose if the sanctions passed. China’s policy of ‘non-interference’ was seen during the 2013 Kenyan elections in the light of growing concerns from the international community and human rights activists. Uhuru Kenyatta, the president, and William Ruot, the vice president, were charged with orchestrating violence post the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections. This mutual support on the international forum signifies a partner rather than neo-colonial relationship.

The expansion of Chinese economic presence has however been accompanied by a political presence on the continent. A key objective of Chinese relations with Africa is its diplomatic drive to displacing Taiwan’s official relations with Africa. When China’s ‘Yuan diplomacy’ began to progress, they encouraged Taiwan’s African allies to shift their political recognition and endorse China’s ‘One China Policy’. China’s political presence began to expand when South Africa terminated its official relations with Taiwan in 1998. . Since 2000, many African countries have began to recognise China as opposed to Taiwan predominantly through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Beijing has offered economic aid to many African states with the hope of reducing their diplomatic ties to Taiwan and isolating it from the international community. Currently, Eswatini is the only African country to recognise Taiwan formally.                          

China’s political influence can also be seen in the policy-making of African countries. In 2007, China successfully persuaded the Sudanese government to allow the deployment of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Darfur’s war-stricken region. Similarly, China, emerging economic prowess has led to the Beijing Consensus, which is a Chinese economic model promoting state capitalism and is becoming more popular among African countries as opposed to the U.S.-based Washington Consensus, which promotes neo-liberal capitalism. In addition to this, the role of Chinese diplomats in Africa has grown in influence. This can be evidenced by the Kenyan government’s decision in 2016 to deport 8 Taiwanese nationals to China instead of Taiwan under the pressure of Chinese diplomats.

China’s military presence too, has been increasing in Africa. Chinese involvement in U.N. peacekeeping is significant, with China contributing personnel to the peacekeeping missions around the world. China has provided more troops to the UNSC peacekeeping missions than all the other permanent members combined. Africa has become the destination for most Chinese peacekeeping troops stationed abroad. Under Xi Jinping, China’s military presence has reached a whole new level with China contributing combat troops for peacekeeping missions in Sudan in 2012 and Mali in 2013. In 2017, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, just on the coast of the Horn of Africa which is one of the world’s most important chokepoints for maritime trade. Since December 2021, there has been speculation that the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy is negotiating with the government of Equatorial Guinea to construct a naval base at the Equatorial Guinean mainland port of Bata. China has also been accused of fuelling conflict in Sudan through its sale of arms. In 2008, it was reported that 90% of light weapons bought by Sudan and used in the Darfur crisis were sold by China, in violation of the U.N. embargo.

It has also been argued that China has become a ‘Patron for misgovernance’ in Africa by supporting pariah regimes and instigating corruption in Africa. Zimbabwe is an example of China’s relations with a pariah regime. The Zanu-PF government, in the light of protests from urban dwellers and ex soldiers embarked on a controversial ‘fast track’ land reform of the white-dominated commercial sector. Its non-compliance to property law and the Zimbabwean constitution drew criticism from western donors and NGOs which imposed sanctions upon the regime when the Zanu-PF government rigged a series of elections against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. This led to the external investment drying up and the Mugabe regime looked towards new investors to replace the Western investors and development assistant programs. China encouraged investment in the regime despite international sanctions that have been imposed from 2002, which also led Zimbabwe to announce its ‘Look East Policy’ in 2003. China has made considerable investments in Zimbabwe’s agricultural and mining sectors which are part of its broader interests. If China can improve Zimbabwe’s political and economic environment, it will be able to benefit from a country that Western powers have very little leverage over. The commercialisation of diamonds in the Zimbabwean mining sector that led to an increasing amount of Chinese investment, forced Mugabe to make economic concessions to China in the wake of public opposition. Mugabe implemented a nationalisation law that stated that mining companies could only sell to a few designated government entities or set up employee share-ownership programs. This would impact all foreign-owned firms with a net asset value greater than $1 million. However, Mugabe’s dependence on Chinese investment rose to such a point that Chinese-owned firms were exempt from this law. On December 22nd, 2015, Zimbabwe became the first country to adopt the Chinese Yuan as its primary international currency. Zimbabwean officials rejected this as neo-colonialism but rather stated that it is part of Mugabe’s Look East Policy. China has also repeatedly given grants and supported Francois Bozize’s dictatorial regime in The Central African Republic (CAR).

One of the most significant issues that has arisen with Chinese companies in Africa is their poor working standards and blatant defiance of African labour laws. Several Chinese nationals are said to come with racist ideologies and a slave work ethic. In 2012, a Johannesburg based organisation, South Africa Resource Watch, observed that the local employees in the mining industry were subjected to harsh working conditions and widespread abuse by the Chinese companies. In 2004, local Zambian employees complained about the low wages of $65 a month and the poor working conditions at the Chambishi mine. In April 2005, a blast at the mine killed 46 Zambian workers whose families were not compensated with the amount promised by the Chinese embassy. The incident prompted worker strikes over the wages and conditions and an agreement to allow unionization was finally reached which allowed up to $500 in back pay. However, the claim turned out to be false, upon which workers stormed into the management’s offices. An apparently frightened Chinese manager shot five workers. Similarly, there have been protests in Kenya regarding the promised job opportunities, pay, and working conditions of the Chinese infrastructure projects over the last few years.

The impact of Chinese clothing and textiles trade over established African firms and labour interests has also been brought into focus. In Nigeria, Chinese imports undercut locally manufactured products and by 2005, over 80% of Nigeria’s textile factories were forced to shut down which led to an estimated 2,50,000 workers being laid off. Similarly, in South Africa, the influx of Chinese textiles coming in had a significant impact on local textiles, clothing and shoe manufacturing. The Congress for South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) declared that over 800 businesses employing an estimated 60000 workers were forced to shut down. The ending of the Multi fibre agreement, too, brought Chinese textiles in direct competition with African products in third markets. This led to harsh declines in employment in Lesotho, Kenya, South Africa and Swaziland.

The growing presence of China in Africa also led to a lot of parties building their election campaign around bringing a halt to Chinese interference. Former Zambian president Michael Sata built much of his campaign around the anti-Chinese sentiment. He declared that Zambia was becoming a new province of China. He made contact with Taiwanese representatives, where after allegedly receiving funding support, he committed himself to switching back recognition to Taiwan should he win the election. The Chinese declared that if Sata won the election, all of their investments might be pulled from the country, thus clearly violating their policy of ‘non-interference’. However, the threats did not work and Michael Sata emerged victorious. The Chinese delegation was amongst the first to pay their respects to the newly elected president and all talk of pulling out their investments disappeared. Sata stated that they could stay as long as the country’s laws were respected. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s opposition party, MDC, declared that China was “asset-stripping the resources of the country” and vowed to expel the Chinese when in power.

The case of China in Africa is an intriguing one. A view of China’s foreign policy towards Africa would show that China’s intentions are pure and they have no intention to be a neo-coloniser or a threat to Africa in any way. However, a closer attention to the activities and deeds of the Chinese in Africa would paint a different picture.


Iran presents a different type of neo-colonialism when compared to China. Since, its establishment in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has made efforts to export Shia Islam around the world. Africa, with its 1.2 billion Muslims, provides Iran with a quest to dominate the Islamic world. Gaining and influencing the African Shiite communities would, in Iran’s view, favorably influence Africa’s policies towards it, and provide a network for financial and manpower support to groups that they organise in the Middle East, for example, the Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon. Shiite ideology and the Iranian Revolution, promoted by Iranian diplomats, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and related organisations, have fueled subversion, terrorism, radicalisation, and organised crime in Africa. On takeoff from Cotonou, Benin, in 2003, Union Transport Africaines Flight 141 crashed, killing two Hezbollah leaders who were transporting $2 million in contributions to the group’s Beirut headquarters. Two Lebanese citizens were detained in South Africa in February 2018 and charged with purchasing drone parts illegally and transferring them to Hezbollah. Two Iranians were accused in a Kenyan court in 2016 with gathering data to aid a terrorist act after they were discovered collecting video footage of the Israeli embassy. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launched ‘Project Cassandra’ in 2016 to combat Hezbollah’s billion dollar narcotics and money laundering enterprise across the globe. Despite this, not a single African country lists Hezbollah as a terrorist entity. Hezbollah creates front firms, solicits donations from corporations, brings in new members, launders money, and is heavily involved in the trade in blood diamonds. Hezbollah operates in diamond trade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the DRC. Hezbollah’s presence in Africa surpasses the economic, political and cultural levels and creeps into the dangerous territory of terrorism, which threatens the stability of the African host countries. Hezbollah is just one example of how Iran has used Shia Islam to influence African society and export Tehran’s revolutionary ideology.

Another organisation with the same purpose but different methodology is the Al-Mustafa International University, which trains foreign clerics and missionaries around the world. The university has 17 main branches in Sub Saharan Africa and runs about 100 schools, mosques and seminaries in 30 African countries. Since 2007, around 45000 Islamic scholars and clerics have graduated from the university, 5000 of whom are African. A majority of them have been hired as teaching staff for the university or sent as missionaries around the world. A key requirement of African students studying there is to convert to Shia Islam and spread the Iranian revolution and ideology while also taking part in struggles and street demonstrations inside and outside Africa. Nigeria, a nation with a sizable Shiite population, is home to most of Mustafa’s significant African centres. There, the institution has five schools and seminaries with a little under a thousand students. Asserting that Al-Mustafa is a potent tool for attracting potential recruits for the Iranian regime’s terrorist and military activities both domestically and abroad, including direct involvement in Iran’s imperial wars, the Nigerian army attacked the Islamic Movement’s hubs in Nigeria in December 2015, killing dozens of activists, and detaining its leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky. Al-Mustafa has been instrumental in recruiting candidates for the regime’s terrorist activities abroad, including direct participation in Iran’s imperial wars. Several Al-Mustafa officials took great pride in declaring that several foreign fighters deployed in Syria were Al-Mustafa students and that well known terrorists and radicals in Nigeria, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia were products of Al-Mustafa’s teachings. Besides these organisations, Iran also operates in Africa through two of its charities, the Iranian Red Crescent and the Imam Khomeini Relief committee, and the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization.


The intent of this paper was to show that Africa is suffering from neo-colonialism. The mode of operation of China and Iran vary, with the former using economics and investment and the latter primarily using religion. While both parties benefit to some extent, the relationship is more asymmetrical and at the cost of the African states and their people. China’s official policy toward Africa, which emphasises political equality, mutual benefits, non-intervention, and win-win cooperation, has raised plenty of public expectations of China among the African populace, who hope that China is the type of foreign power to genuinely indulge in their welfare and varies from the neo-colonial powers whose primary motive is resource exploitation and acting as a political supervisor. However, given the discrepancy between the Chinese government’s official statements and the behaviour of the Chinese people in reality, there is a significant deal of power imbalance between both parties. The Iranian regime has invoked religion to perpetrate their culture and ideology and radicalise the population. Neo-colonialism in Africa is active and increasing. Instead of capitalising on the benefits of political independence, the decades since have seen the regressive impact of unregulated forms of aid, trade, and foreign direct investment with donor and corporate interventions that continue to stifle genuine opportunities for growth in African countries. It is for this reason that neo-colonialism has become an important concept in the history of ideas.


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I am Sriya Marellapudi, a second-year student of Economics at University of Hyderabad