Pope Francis has been on African tour this week, getting an ecstatic welcome by Kenyans and Ugandans, as both countries have large Catholic population, as well as other Christian denominations.
An African visit by another notable religious leader, Dalai Lama, seems much less likely nowadays. That has nothing to with religion, nor the fact that few Buddhists live in Africa. It is all about politics, namely Chinese influence in Africa. China will strongly oppose any attempts by Dalai Lama to visits China’s partner states in Africa. These countries, largely dependent on China-relations, will most likely heed to the Chinese advise.
Dalai Lama has visited South Africa in the past, in 1996, 1999 and 2004. But the tide has changed since. He was refused entry to South Africa in 2011 to attend Desmond Tutu’s 80th birthday, much to Tutu’s anger. Similarly, Dalai Lama was denied a visa to South Africa in 2012 and 2014.
China has certainly brought development to Africa, such as recent major infrastructure projects like Addis light rail, or Djibouti-Ethiopia railway line, and the ongoing construction of new Kenya standard gauge rail.
China’s main interests in Africa are vast natural resources the continent has to offer, and growing African economies that provide a potentially huge market for Chinese products and services. But the Chinese presence in Africa is wider than that. As the latest development, China announced that it will be forming its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
African leaders may prefer China over western donors, as the former will not preach about issues like democracy, human rights and corruption. But African countries have to accept that China’s interest are not purely economical. The refusal to allow Dalai Lama’s entry by some African countries proves they are ready to give up part of their soveiregnity to keep up cordial relations with China.