US, Europe, China in race for Africa, scramble for continent begins
• How America lost Africa to China
• This is Africa’s golden era in international diplomacy, says Emewu
• Quality leadership is what Africa needs, declares Otaigbe
On Sunday, August 14, 2022, U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, began a five-day three-nation trip to South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
This was just as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was rounding off her trip to Uganda, Ghana and Cape Verde. Her trip began on Thursday, August 4, 2022, with Uganda as the first stop. Blinken’s visit was the third to the continent. He had also visited Africa during a three-nation tour of Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal in April and November 2021.
These trips came on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Africa. Lavrov had paid a four-nation visit to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo.
And China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, also began 2022 with a four-day visit to Eritrea, Kenya and the Comoros, keeping a 32-year tradition that the country’s top diplomat makes his first trip of the year to Africa. Not to be left out, France joined the fray.
At the same time that Lavrov was in Africa, French President, Emmanuel Macron, was on his own African safari, visiting Cameroun, Benin Republic and Guinea-Bissau. Macron fired the salvo to remind all that the visit was for their own power game, calling Russia ‘one of the last remaining imperial, colonial powers.’
Between December 12 and 15, 2022, President Joe Biden of America hosted United States-Africa Leaders Summit (USALS). The summit made headlines and garnered applause throughout the continent. Underpinning the summit, which came 2952 days after the U.S. former President, Barack Obama, hosted the first, was the need to court Africa and its resources: Human and natural.
The Biden administration, which seemed brawling on the edge of cliff in America’s relationship with Africa, said it was determined to resume the work of the Obama administration, which held the first US-Africa summit in 2014, by pursuing an African agenda free of the usual paternalism or what many have often described as ‘carrot and stick’, and based on mutual interest and mutual respect. It pledged to listen to, instead of lecturing its African partners, and to pursue sustainable policies that are in the best interest of the continent.
Biden also promised that the U.S. would provide $55 billion in aid to Africa over the next three yeas, as well as support African Union (AU) joining G-20 group of large economies as a permanent member.
That sounded more reasonable to African leaders, who had become comfortable with softer fiscal facilities (loans) from China, and were also aware that the summit was part of Biden’s effort to shore up dwindling American influence in various parts of the world from Latin America to the Indo-Pacific through Africa and the Middle East, where other powers, notably, China, are making considerable inroads, economically and strategically.
Scramble, partition of Africa
The first great surge of foreign interest in the continent was in 19th-century when European colonialists carved up Africa and seized its land.
Tagged the Scramble for Africa, the period between 1884 and 1914, saw European colonisers partition the largely unexplored African continent into protectorates, colonies and ‘free-trade areas’. Africa had an abundance of raw materials such as, oil, ivory, rubber, palm oil, wood, cotton and gum, from which Europe could make money.
The landmark conference in Berlin was catalysed by economic depression in Europe. The industrialisation in the continent led to social problems: Unemployment, poverty, homelessness and social displacement from rural areas, etc.
The second era of the scramble was during the cold war, when East and West vied for the allegiance of newly independent African states. The Soviet Union backed Marxist tyrants, while America propped up despots (pseudo-democrats), who claimed to believe in capitalism.
Known as the Cold War era, America and Soviet Union fought proxy wars in Africa. The continent was on the edge between East and West. A tilt either way resulted in sanctions. Best political puppets of this era enjoyed protection.
The political trajectory of this era was also cadenced on advancing European economic self-interest without going to war with one another. Africa, for European powers throughout this period and beyond, was just a ‘market’ to be carved out into spheres of influence for African raw materials and European processed goods.
A third surge, now under way, is more benign with a globabalised world, and trade much bigger and richer, well tried formula for survival.
This new narrative is different from when European powers parceled out the continent into their own ‘protectorates’, ‘colonies’ and ‘free-trade areas’ in what was then known as ‘The scramble for Africa’.
How America, Europe lost Africa to China
In the last 20 years, China has grown its influence on the continent at the expense of all Western powers, including the former colonial powers, Britain, France, Portugal and Germany.
China’s direct state involvement in Africa, through loans and mega infrastructural and technological projects — from ports to power stations — has even made it harder for others like the United States to compete.
As recently as 2006 Africa’s three biggest trading partners were America, China and France, in that order. By 2018, it was China first, India second and America third (France was seventh). Over the same period Africa’s trade had more than trebled with Turkey and Indonesia, and quadrupled with Russia.
China has far surpassed the U.S. as an economic player in Africa. It is also the largest provider of foreign direct investment, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs, which roughly doubles the level of U.S. foreign direct investment. With its trading business in the continent hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding, by a factor of four U.S.-Africa trade.
While Chinese lending to African countries has dipped of late, China remains by far the largest lender to African countries. It is to be expected that China’s commercial activity in Africa would increase with the dramatic rise of its economy to become the second largest in the world, especially given China’s need for raw materials to support its very large manufacturing base. But this growth also represents a determined Chinese government-driven effort to consolidate its significant inroads in Africa.
A media analyst, Chris Paul Otaigbe, said the Chinese created a more translational and mercantile method of getting the African continent under its grip: Giving money to and building infrastructure projects for the countries; with very strong strings attached.
Veteran Belizean journalist and writer based in Lagos, Thérèse Belisle-Nweke, sounded a note of warning. She said though Africa has benefited from the Chinese economic boom through increased trade and investment, mainly in natural resource sectors, Africa would be vulnerable to economic shocks hitting the Chinese economy.
She said should China’s GDP growth slow as is being currently projected, due to its obvious mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fall in China’s demand for Africa’s commodities could create tensions in the current account and fiscal positions of these countries.
“Due to the contraction of the world from what it was decades ago, 21st century technological advances which the three predators amply possess as against the fact that Africa has relatively none, the takeover of the continent, which is really their sole goal, will be totally devastating for its current occupants,” Belisle-Nweke said.
She added, “the stakes are higher than in the first scramble, because not only are the continent’s natural resources necessary for the very survival of the three predators, but without them they will eventually go under. In other words the situation is an existentialist one.”
America, EU play a catch up
In an address to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the commander for U.S. forces in Africa pointed to China’s dominance in a region vital to America’s security and economic growth and warned that Washington ignores Africa at its peril.
“China’s heavy investment in Africa as its ‘second continent,’ and heavy-handed pursuit of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, is fueling Chinese economic growth, outpacing the U.S., and allowing it to exploit opportunities to their benefit,” U.S. Africa Command Gen. Stephen Townsend, told the House Committee on Appropriations, echoing comments he made earlier to the country’s Senate Armed Services Committee.
Townsend noted the region is home to rare earth metals used for mobile phones, hybrid vehicles and missile guidance systems, and stressed that “the winners and losers of the 21st century global economy may be determined by whether these resources are available in an open and transparent marketplace or are inaccessible due to predatory practices of competitors.”
The continent also occupies a key geostrategic location. Townsend expressed concern that China — which already has a naval base at the mouth of the Red Sea in Djibouti — is looking at setting up another on the Atlantic coast. That, he said, would “almost certainly require the (Defence) department to consider shifts to U.S. naval force posture and pose increased risk to freedom of navigation and U.S. ability to act.”
To deter Africa from turning to China will be difficult as many African states are enjoying financial largesse from that country. Realising that it was loing the continent, Europe launched Africa-EU Strategic Partnership and the first-ever summit between the 27 members of the EU and the 54 nations of Africa in 2007.
This summit was a reset of sorts in the two regions’ relationship. Indeed, over the last decade, the EU has worked, with a large degree of success, to transition to a partnership model based on reciprocal trade. The fifth EU-Africa Summit took place in Abidjan in 2017 against a background in which two-way trade exceeds $300 billion. In association with the summit, the EU pledged to mobilise more than $54 billion in ‘sustainable’ investment for Africa by 2020.
The EU is also shoring up its commercial position in Africa through a web of free trade agreements, or Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which Brussels is negotiating or has concluded with 40 African nations in sub-Saharan Africa. The EPAs provide European companies with preferential access to markets across the region and will liberalise about 80 per cent of imports over 20 years.
Just a few months after the European Union-Africa Summit was held last February, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the Chairperson of the African Union (AU), and Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission President, met in Brussels to unveil details of the EU’s $150bn Global Gateway Plan for Africa.
The Global Gateway represents a shift in the EU’s foreign policy from development aid to investments in key infrastructure projects in the energy and productive sectors. The plan, initially unveiled in December 2021 as part of the EU’s €300bn Global Gateway investment strategy – of which half is to be deployed in Africa – is seen by many observers as a counterweight to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Von der Leyen alluded to the comparison in comments that seek to distinguish the EU scheme from its competitors.
“The difference between Global Gateway compared to others who come with infrastructure projects is that there is transparency, there is good governance, and there is the absolute goal to have locally added value and skills,” von der Leyen told the media.
Von der Leyen and Mahamat both said the AU-EU partnership needs to be strengthened as a result of the war in Ukraine, which poses significant energy and food security challenges for the two continents.
Europe promised investment to facilitate African countries’ transition from fossil fuels, notably the Africa-EU Green Initiative, which is estimated to lead to investments of $15bn. Several green projects funded by the EU are already underway across the continent, including a contribution of $1.6bn towards Morocco’s energy transition, €3bn for the implementation of the Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa, and a €1bn initiative to help the low carbon transition of Côte d’Ivoire.
Von der Leyen also recognised the need for immediate actions concerning Africa’s food security issue and pledged more than €4.5bn for the continent until 2024.
The investment should increase local food production through the adoption of modern technologies, she said. The blocs will also cooperate on the provision of fertilisers to the continent, which has been severely disrupted as a direct result of the Russia-Ukraine War, given the region’s vital role in production.
The investment package also aims to develop multi-country infrastructure to facilitate trade and mobility, both within Africa and between Africa and Europe.
Implication of new scramble
No doubt, the third surge for Africa has led to the continent becoming an entrepreneurial ecosystem and proliferation of start-ups and has raised a string of questions, including expectations of what Africa stands to gain.
Experts and political commentators, who spoke with The Guardian, agree if Africa handles the new scramble wisely, the main winners will be Africans themselves. They point to engagement with outside world as mostly positive, as more competition will help the continent’s economy.
Publisher, Africa China Economy magazine, Ikenna Emewu, said, “this is Africa’s golden era in international diplomacy, as everyone is soliciting its attention to outdo one another and an attempt to make Africa stand on its own.”
While commending recent development in international economy, Emewu debunked the idea that there could be recolonisation like it happened before.
According to him, “Africa stands to gain a lot from this.”
He urged Africa to learn from China, leverage on existing benefits and build their continent, adding, “at the last Africa-U.S. summit, two weeks ago, they budgeted some good amount as aid to the continent. They even budgeted $4 million to create jobs for the younger population, which Nigeria would be a major beneficiary. Africa should not get laid back waiting for these countries to help them, but leverage on what is available.”
For him, “Africa should be able to bargain. It must not commit itself to a contract it cannot get out of. If anybody gives Africa more loans, it is not to encumber them, because no one can do that. It’s about what you do with the borrowing, because everyone borrows. If you utilise your borrowing right, you grow from it.”
Also, Foreign Affairs analyst, Henry Ugwu, stressed the heightened interests in Africa could be used as a basis to negotiate deals that would leave the continent in a better place.
Ugwu says, “unfortunately, Africa lacks a leader that can unite it and drive a vision amid the complicated power games.”
He laments the fate of Africa, which, despite its huge potential, is the poorest continent in the world, with a significant part of its people living in penury.
According to Ugwu, in these delicate times, Africa will face difficulties “if a leader does not emerge from Africa to aggressively drive a vision that protects and benefits Africa.”
Associate Professor, Political Science, Lead City University, Tunde Oseni, who is currently a UK Global Talent researcher based in Newcastle, noted that what is called the new scramble for Africa is a continuous search for opportunities.
“In fairness to some of these countries that seek opportunities in Africa, the continent has also benefited from their technology and knowledge. While we may argue that the bigger countries tend to benefit more due to the asymmetrical nature of the global political economy, it may be well argued that Africans must always put on their thinking cap when dealing with Western countries or Asian tigers such as China. Nothing goes for free in the international economic climate. Africa will benefit more than it currently does not necessarily more than the other parties if the leaders think through their plans and policies freely entered into,” he said.
According to him, “Europe has always been influential in Africa and would always have economic and geopolitical interests since majority of African countries were colonised by European super powers like Britain, France, Belgium and Germany.”
He said, “Africa is the second largest continent with vast resources than most other continents. So USA, Europe and China need gold, diamond, oil and gas. They need agricultural produce like cocoa and groundnut, which Africa has in abundance. So, it is largely about economic growth and expansion.”
Oseni advised Africans to avoid any recolonisation, cautioning that loan arrangements would have to be properly analysed and weighed.
“If it is recolonisation, it is this time not forced. China will sign loan arrangements with African countries in plain language that everybody understands. Critical thinking and lateral analysis of such arrangements will help Africa avoid potential dangers of indebtedness and disrupted growth. And that is why if properly planned and executed much of the international, be it bilateral or multilateral arrangements with Europe, USA or China can still be mutually beneficial to all parties,” he added.
He explained that in real politics, all countries want to gain and not lose, adding that the responsibility lies on African leaders to always think through what agreements they sign on behalf of the people.
Otaigbe also believes the new scramble for Africa is basically an up scaled and refined aspiration from how Africans were got into slavery.
“Only this time, with modernity and technology. The approach is moral suasion, subtle blackmail and covert/overt coercion,” he said. “In those days, they needed the raw muscle of our forefathers to work their plantations. Today, they need the brains of our youths to build their technological civilisation. The European started it; the Americans joined them at some point in the days commencing full colonialism. Though, the Chinese didn’t rise to that elite status back in the day.”
Otaigbe said having learnt the ways of the West in colonising Africa, they have devised their own style. “They have built on the greed and corruption; a virus the West injected into the leadership structure of the continent. That virus was designed to infect and consume the few persona that personified the leadership across the spectrum of society and governance; to build strong men; who they now deploy as puppets to keep the majority of the people subjugated; while the individuals in power dance to the tune of the Western puppet masters. We see this resonate more with the Francophone countries; where ultimate power and authority devolves from France to the individual francophone countries. For the Anglophone countries, it is slightly different; though more noble than that of the French; where the Anglophone states enjoy greater pseudo autonomy.”
Quality leadership is what Africa needs
THERE is a need to get priorities right and straight. African countries need to tackle the basic problems such as high poverty, inequality, and government debt, which hamper economic growth. The effects of climate change are strongly felt in many African countries already.
The continent needs to prove that it is equal to the demand of this third scramble. Unlike the previous, where it was blindfolded and left to enter the ring, this is time for more seriousness in the area of international economics and politics. The continent must address its issues more squarely and shun free meals. Nothing is free, even in Freetown.
Otaigbe reckons, “it has to do with leadership. Once Africans can get their leadership structure right, I believe Africa will regain her pride, dignity and strength. Just as the Chinese did, when they bounced back from their setbacks, Africa will be able correct its economic issues and with the right leaders, set sail on her path to permanent prosperity.”
But there is much work to do. He says: “Unsurprisingly, Nigeria can lead the charge. As Nigeria prepares for the 2023 elections, it is hoped Nigeria may get it right, at last. The massive reawakening of the Nigerian youths who are determined to take back their country through the leader of their choice, may indeed prepare the path for Nigeria to get her groove back and take back her leadership of the African continent; to lead her to the top of the global economic ladder where she belongs; as the hub of global natural and human resources.”