Africa’s past is the mildewed train station in central Addis Ababa, where locomotives sit gutted and rusted tracks vanish in the grass. The line was once the greatest in Africa; built by France in the 1910s, it ran more than 450 miles northeast to neighboring Djibouti, where the desert meets the sea.
Africa’s future is the newstation a short drive away, a yellow-and-white edifice with grand pilasters, arched windows and a broad flagstone square. It’s connected to a $4-billion, 470-mile-long rail line, the first electrified cross-border rail system in Africa.
The new rail network was built by China’s state-owned rail and construction firms, which were eager to promote their investment in Africa’s future. Red banners running down the towering facade of the new train station declare, in bold Chinese characters, “Long live Sino-African friendship.”
China has described its railroad adventures in Africa as an exercise in altruism.
Yet for China, investing in Ethiopia — one of the world’s poorest countries — is more strategic than philanthropic. With U.S. engagement on the continent at a low ebb, economically and politically, China sees an opportunity to improve transportation through the Horn of Africa and make itself the dominant economic partner on a continent that is about to see an explosion of new cheap labor, cellphone users and urban consumers.
For several decades, China’s African investments were aimed primarily at creating political allies across the continent. Beijing invested heavily in hearts-and-minds projects such as soccer stadiums and hospitals. But a significant change is underway. China now sees Africa as an important economic opportunity. It has been pouring money into infrastructure across the continent, and this week it opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
By 2034, Africa is expected to have 1.1 billion workers, the world’s largest working-age population, By 2025, the continent’s consumers will be spending $2 trillion a year.
“My vision is, by 2020, Ethiopia’s economy will be among the world’s mid-level economies,” said Mekonnen Getachew, a project manager at the Ethiopian Railways Corp., which oversees the rail line. “The rail will make every economic activity easier. Our economy will boom.… This railway is making Ethiopia great again!”
The Chinese march through Africa has come as U.S. engagement on the continent has been dialed down to its lowest level in years.
President Trump has barely mentioned Africa in his public statements, and his “America first” rhetoric, some Africa experts say, is pushing the continent further into China’s embrace.
While Chinese companies have looked to make money in Africa and share with Africans some of the jobs, tax revenues, infrastructure and spinoff development that go along with new investment, the U.S. has focused on improving African lives through aid, social programs and conditional loans.
Western companies have often been reluctant to participate in African infrastructure projects for fear of overwhelming maintenance costs. In many cases, they could simply build new projects more cheaply.
“Americans still see Africa as a place where there are a lot of presidents for life, wars and famines,” said Reuben Brigety, dean at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to the. “They don’t understand what’s happening on the continent economically and demographically.”
In Ethiopia, the country’s rail executives said China seems more attuned to Africa’s needs.
“China doesn’t give simple aid,” Getachew said. “They do give loans. You work, and you return back. That’s a good policy. Aid is just making slavery.”
For decades, the China-Africa relationship was almost entirely transactional: China gave African states easy loans, enabling them to build bridges and stadiums; in return, those states gave China access to natural resources, such as oil, timber and nickel, fueling China’s economic boom.
But as China’s foreign policy grows more sophisticated — and more ambitious — that era is ending, and the relationship is growing much deeper, with extraordinary implications for the continent’s future.
Chinese nationals in Africa — once a scattered cohort of officials, mining executives and construction crews — are being joined by tourists, peacekeepers, poachers, soldiers and small-time entrepreneurs. Together, they are generating both riches and new political clout for Beijing and helping establish China as the world’s newest superpower.
For Ethiopia, China’s infrastructure expenditures are an essential element in plans to emerge from a long cycle of drought, poverty, famine and war. The railroad is a start.
Ethiopian officials say the line will eventually grow into a 3,000-mile rail network that stretches across neighboring Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya — where China recently completed another railway, for $3.8 billion.
The new Ethiopia-Djibouti line’s trains are near-identical copies of the carriages that traversed China before the government, about a decade ago, began swapping them out for high-speed rail. They have the same ramrod-straight seat backs; the same boiling water dispensers in nearly every car, essential for instant noodles and green tea.
Ethiopia relies on Djibouti’s ports for 90% of its foreign trade. But since the old railroad collapsed in 2009 after decades of decline, the landlocked country’s billions of dollars of imports and exports — fuel, coffee, livestock — have had to travel by truck, a three-to-four-day journey along rutted, dusty roads.
The new rail line, which will be fully operational by October, will cut the trip to 12 hours.
“The coaches are very new. It’s electric. It’s very comfortable. You enjoy the scenery along the corridor,” said Yehualaeshet Jemere, a top official with the Ethiopian Railways Corp. “It’s like a dream come true for us.”