China Keeps Building Stadiums in Africa. But at What Cost?

The Alassane Ouattara stadium rises like a piece of sculpture from the dusty brown earth north of Ivory Coast’s largest city, its undulating roof and white columns towering over the empty landscape like a spaceship that has dropped onto a uninhabited planet.

On Sunday, the three-and-a-half-year-old stadium will host its signature moment, when the national soccer teams of Ivory Coast and Nigeria compete in the final of Africa’s biggest sporting event, in front of tens of thousands of fans chanting and cheering in a stadium financed and built by China.

While that is nothing new for the tournament, the Africa Cup of Nations, the arena is just the latest example of the contradictions that emerge from Chinese projects built on Chinese terms, and on African soil.

Stadiums have been a cornerstone of China’s diplomatic reach into Africa since the 1970s, but their number has increased since the early 2000s, part of a larger Chinese strategy to build infrastructure — from highways to railroads, ports to presidential palaces and even the headquarters of the African Union — in exchange for diplomatic clout or access to natural resources.

Through that trillion-dollar program, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, China has become a central partner to the developing countries that benefit from expensive projects they might not otherwise be able to afford. But Chinese construction has sometimes been accompanied by charges of local corruption, and critics have questioned the value of the big-budget projects, noting they deliver dubious long-term economic benefits but very real debts that governments can struggle to repay.

“China doesn’t ask why you need a stadium,” said Itamar Dubinsky, a researcher at the African Studies Program at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel. “It just finances and builds it.”

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