Wednesday, April 26, 2006

China Builds and Pays for Togo President's Palace

While international media attention was focused on oil-rich Nigeria, where President Hu Jintao of China signed important energy and infrastructure agreements on Wednesday, one of its envoys was making local news in a much smaller west African nation that has few known natural resources--Togo.

In the country's capital, Lome, China's ambassador spoke at the festive inauguration of a new presidential palace that was built--and paid for--by Beijing. Togo President Faure Gnassingbe, who visited China for a week last month, cut the ribbon on the 60,000-square-foot structure.

The Chinese are not disclosing the cost of constructing the two-story complex, which includes more than 40 separate offices, banquet and conference halls.

Built by the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design, the project employed more than 700 workers.

The unusually tight security surrounding the project raised eyebrows in Lome's expatriate community. Roads to the site were blocked off during construction; and nobody--not even Togo's president--was permitted to see the palace before completion. The veil of secrecy spurred suspicions among foreign observers that Beijing wanted a free hand to install sophisticated surveillance devices, prompting dinner party jokes about Togo's "Chinese trojan horse."

"Togo is a poor and politically unimportant country, so it's difficult to see why China would even want to spy on it," said a foreign business executive who has regularly visited the country for many years. "On the other hand, in Africa, as elsewhere, it never hurts to be able to read a fax or listen in on a telephone conversation. You never know what you might learn."

China has a long and close relationship with Togo. The current president's controversial late father, President Gnassingbe Eyadema, who ruled for more than three decades after coming to power through a coup--Africa's first--laid the foundation stone for the palace when work started in April 2004.

China has also promised to give Togo a new parliamentary building; and work on it is expected to begin before the end of this year.

The prestige projects speak volumes about Beijing's approach to Africa--even to countries such as Togo, which seem incapable of offering little but minimal trade and goodwill in return for financial largesse.

Togo is a former French colony; and French companies continue to dominate the country's commercial scene, despite recent corruption scandals that have produced something of an anti-French backlash. Top executives of the giant Bollore media and transportation conglomerate--a corporate symbol of traditional French influence and intrigue in Africa--were recently arrested by Togolese police and charged with bribing local officials to get a lucrative port management contract. The executives, who have since been released on bail and allowed to return to Paris, were hauled off their gleaming corporate jet as it awaited take-off on the tarmac of Lome airport.

Though cultural ties between Paris and the French-speaking nation remain strong, the current president is said to resent French (and European Union) efforts to pressure him on matters of political reform.

The United States has tried to get a foothold in the country at France's expense; but heavy-handed US meddling, dating to the country's first multiparty presidential elections in 1998--which Washington criticized, siding with opposition leaders and other critics who accused the government of fraud--have also backfired.

In contrast with the US and France, China has only moved ahead in Togo. As a former diplomat assigned to Lome put it, "With China, there are no lectures, no pressures about human rights or democracy or rule of law, only money and business. The US gives advice and threatens all kinds of things if a country does not do things its way. China gives money and does business--simple."

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