Superpowers are once again competing for influence in Africa. It’s time for the continent to reclaim its sovereignty.
The world’s most powerful nations are once again competing for the control of the abundant natural resources of the African continent. Some analysts describe this phenomenon as a “new scramble for Africa” in reference to the first “scramble for Africa”, which took place between 1881 and 1914 and resulted in powerful European nations dividing, occupying and colonizing the continent.
Superpowers like the US, China and Russia, as well as some key European countries, and less powerful nations like Japan, India and Brazil are currently active in Africa. Some energy-rich Gulf countries are also racing to consolidate their investments on the continent, as they seek to expand their economies beyond oil and gas sectors.
Foreign military presence is also growing on the continent under the guise of counter terrorism efforts. Djibouti has agreed to host American naval and drone bases that conduct operations in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Many other nations have also established military bases in the country, including France – the former colonial power – Italy and Japan. The French military base in Djibouti is hosting troops from Germany and Spain. On the other hand, some of the parties to the GCC crisis, such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have established military bases in Eritrea and Somaliland, while Somalia is hosting Turkish troops. Furthermore, the US has been increasingly involved in the fight against “terror” groups in the Sahel, providing arms and military training to the governments of the region.
At the moment, Africa does not have a serious, unified strategy or the institutional capacity to effectively respond to this so-called “new scramble for Africa”. It is true that, in 2016, the African Union (AU) introduced an ambitious strategic framework called Agenda 2063 under the leadership of Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, the former Chairperson of the AU Commission. But this agenda does not include a clear and coherent strategy on increasing foreign presence and competition in Africa. Furthermore, African leaders seem to lack the necessary political will to counter these efforts and protect the continent’s vital interests. But all is not lost – Africa can still turn this situation around, reclaim its sovereign rights and take its rightful place on the world stage.
Trump’s lack of interest in Africa
The United States is losing some ground against China in Africa, but it is still an influential foreign power on the continent.
For decades, it has invested billions of dollars in aid, health, development projects, and cultural and educational programmes. Furthermore, it supported peacekeeping, peace building and humanitarian intervention operations. In return, it used Africa’s immense natural resources to meet the needs of its industries.
However, since the 9/11 attacks, US activities in Africa have been shaped by the so-called “war on terror”. Even US humanitarian aid to Africa has been linked to this agenda. Since 2007, AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, has been playing a major role in the fight against “terror groups” across the continent. Nevertheless, African countries have been reluctant to host AFRICOM as they are deeply suspicious of its agenda and feel it could undermine their sovereignty. For this reason, AFRICOM is based in Germany and not on the continent.
Moreover, Washington’s policies on Africa are more enigmatic today than ever before.
Africa was not a foreign policy priority for the Obama administration, which focused its efforts in the Middle East, and it is also not a priority for the current administration. Some key vacancies in the Department of State’s Africa Bureau have not even been filled yet. Just like his predecessor, Trump’s focus is currently on the Middle East. It is obvious that the new US president is not looking to form a meaningful, mutually beneficial partnership with Africa – he only wants to pursue narrow national interests, namely counter terrorism efforts and extraction of natural resources.
Also, during his election campaign and after assuming office, Trump made several controversial remarks about Africa that were described by Africans and many others as insulting and racist. In January this year, it was claimed that Trump had referred to African nations as “sh****** countries”. The president immediately denied using such vocabulary, but this remark has since turned into a symbol of his insulting attitude towards the African continent and its people. Even if Trump decides to make Africa a priority later in his tenure, he would be facing the grueling challenge of gaining the trust and respect of African peoples.
Africa as a market opportunity for Russia
Russia is another key player in Africa. Earlier this month, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov went on an extensive Africa tour during which he visited Ethiopia,Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. In Ethiopia, he attended the joint ministerial committee that was established to advance bilateral relations between the two countries. Lavrov also met the chairperson of the AU in Addis Ababa.
It is quite revealing that Lavrov chose to visit only one East African country – Ethiopia – during his Africa tour. All the other countries he visited were Southern African countries that have huge natural resources like oil, uranium, copper, gold and cobalt. This shows that Russia’s main priority in Africa is not reviving its Soviet-era prestige and influence, but extraction of natural resources.
But Russia is also investing in security and military projects in Africa. As the second-largest arms exporter in the world after the US, it sells billions of dollars in weapons annually across the continent. During his latest visit, Lavrov signed a defence cooperation agreement with Mozambique.
As a result of the sanctions that have been imposed on it by the US and Europe, Russia is now looking for new markets and seeking to make Africa one of its main export centers. All in all, Russia views Africa as a major trade opportunity and hopes to extend its influence in the continent rapidly.
China: the new dominant foreign power in Africa
As the world’s second-largest economy, China has become Africa’s most important and influential development and trade partner over the past two decades. China has no colonial past in Africa, in fact, like Russia, it supported Africa’s liberation struggle in the mid-20th century. China’s “clean” history in Africa makes it easier for the country to extend its influence in the region.
China’s influence on the continent started to increase rapidly in 2000, after the establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Since then, cooperation forums have been held every three years, and the next forum is scheduled to convene in Beijing later this year.
In 2000, the China-Africa trade volume was just $10bn. By 2014, the value of contracts that were undertaken by Chinese companies in Africa reached $75bn. In 2015, China pledged to invest a further $60bn in Africa to cover major collaborative projects on industrialization, agricultural modernization, infrastructure, finance, green development, trade and investment, poverty reduction, public welfare, public health, and peace and security.
Nevertheless, China’s activities in Africa are under harsh criticism. For instance, the head of the US’ National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, had accused China of “locking down strategic natural resources, locking up emerging markets and locking out the United States”. Others criticized China for pursuing a “new form of colonialism” and “massive resource grab” in Africa. Furthermore, Chinese programs have an adverse impact on the environment.
How to respond to the ‘new scramble for Africa’
Today, these three superpowers may be competing for influence in Africa, but the level of exploitation and cruelty caused by this rivalry does not amount to the atrocities committed during the original “scramble for Africa”.
Africans still have a chance to successfully navigate the situation.
The AU should develop a coherent, unified and comprehensive strategy to deal with the three superpowers’ competition over its natural resources and engage all three superpowers to cooperate with Africa instead of exploiting it. It should swiftly implement robust institutional reforms and start acting as the decisive power on the continent. Also, in order to resist any detrimental foreign interference and preserve their independence, dignity, and sovereignty, African states should work towards ending their financial dependency on the West and other international players. The continent’s independent military capabilities should also be increased in order to have the ability to maintain peace and security without needing any help from foreign powers that undoubtedly have ulterior motives and conflicting interests.
Most importantly, African masses, civil society, youth and women groups should play a leading role in Africa’s relations with the world – the era of gatekeepers must end. It is natural and vital that Africans engage with the world directly. There may be a “new scramble for Africa” under way, but this time, Africans can and should be the ones benefiting from the superpowers interest in their countries. The US, Russia and China – and any other foreign power – should only be allowed to operate in Africa as long as their actions are also beneficial for the continent.
By Nasr Escobar, Presently the Ambassador to The African Union and a Adjunct senior fellow for African peace and security issues at the Council of African Affairs , Nasr also sits on the Africa-Middle East Trade and Securities Counsel.