Free gift? China extends influence in Africa with $32M grant for regional HQ

The African Union building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was also a gift from China. It cost $200 million to build and was handed over in 2012.

(CNN)China raised eyebrows this month by announcing it will give the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) a $31.6 million grant to build a new headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria.

Accepting the grant, the president of ECOWAS, Jean-Claude Brou, thanked China and confirmed the organization's commitment to promoting future ECOWAS-China cooperation. A press release said that Brou called this a mark of goodwill from China. 
But critics questioned the Asian economic powerhouse's motives for the donation, which positions it at the center of West African politics.
    African, right, and Chinese workers, left, build railway track sections for the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line in Tsavo, Kenya.
    Earlier this year, a published report in the French daily, Le Monde, alleged that Beijing spied on the African Union through the computer systems it helped install. Citing anonymous sources, Le Monde reported that data was transferred from the AU systems in Ethiopia to its servers in Shanghai. China's foreign ministry called the Le Monde report "groundless accusations."  The AU called the report "baseless."
    "People will interpret this as a symbolic expression of China's growing presence in Africa," says Ian Taylor, a professor in international relations and African political economics at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.
    "But the real question is 60 years after independence (for most member states), why does ECOWAS think it's acceptable for a foreign power to build its headquarters?"
    ECOWAS did not respond to CNN's request for comment. China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it has consistently supported the organization "in enhancing its capacity building and playing a bigger role in peaceful development in West Africa and Africa."
    "Our projects are welcomed in Africa," MOFA spokesman Lu Kang said, adding he had "noticed some western media's groundless accusations."

    Why did ECOWAS accept?

    ECOWAS was established in 1975 to foster economic integration and collective self-sufficiency in West Africa.
    Its 15 member states include one of Africa's biggest economies by GDP, Nigeria, causing Taylor and others to ask why ECOWAS isn't self-funding the facility. Had the members split the bill, it would have cost just over $2 million each.
    Philip Olayoku, project manager at the Abuja-based Information Aid Network, says the official numbers are misleading and many countries in the grouping don't have cash to spare for such projects.
    "For me, reliance on GDP is the wrong way to determine how well a country's economy is doing," he says. Corruption in many West African governments, he explains, means "funds that are accrued for national growth are often not where they need to be," impairing a country's ability to contribute effectively to bodies such as ECOWAS.