Major global powers are, once again, competing for rich natural resources, market potential, and influence opportunities offered by the African continent.
The continent bore witness to the imperial struggles of colonist countries and their efforts for gaining access to new markets and accumulating more resources following the industrial revolution during the first “scramble for Africa” that took place in 1881-1914 between Queen Victoria’s Great Britain and other colonial powers in Europe, which was listed as one of the important factors that triggered World War I.
In fact, centuries prior to this process of African regions officially getting under the rule of European colonialists, the Atlantic slave trade had already started, global markets-targeted industrial farming initiatives taken and networks for transferring the natural, human and economic resources of the continent to colonial centers created.
Africa was given an international role of supplying raw materials, agricultural products and cheap labor, through the slave trade, for fields requiring heavy manual labor required by Europe and the U.S. which were in the industrialization process.
The continent — possessing some of the most critical regions in the world in terms of the natural resources and trade routes — was integrated into British, French, German, Italian and Belgian colonial systems, while their traditional trade networks, political institutions, cultural texture, lifestyles and means of living were destroyed. The African continent exploited until exhaustion by soldiers, missionaries and merchants, was defined as the “white man’s burden” and had to live through endless wars, blood feuds, poverty, political chaos and international pressures for the past two centuries.
Alongside the great powers of China, Russia, and the U.S., the rising powers of Japan, India, Brazil, and Turkey, as well as the former European colonial powers who do not want to lose their privileges are in continuous competition for the continent.
From decolonization to international funding trap
African countries who officially gained their independence following the decolonization process of the 1960s were forced to deal with the obstacles to their development and dynamics of their political, cultural and economic dependencies to the outside world during the Cold War. Falling into the international funding trap following the waves of economic globalization in the 1980s, African countries took credits in amounts far greater than they would be able to repay, from the IMF, the World Bank and also some Western commercial banks. They soon were not able to provide education, healthcare, security and fundamental infrastructure services to their people due to the amount of interest paid to those institutions. Being a victim of “mass looting” for centuries, the continent continues to struggle with hunger, poverty and contagious diseases, while its gross national income per capita has stayed around $850. The majority of the population, with a life expectancy of 55 years — while life expectancy in Japan is 85 years — does not have access to electricity and potable water. All these challenges the continent face are results of the historical accumulation.
But it is also necessary to point out that a second “scramble for Africa” is coming to life as global and rising powers are looking for new markets and resources to overcome the current recession of the 2000s in the world economy. This new scramble scenario is being played through the control of critical harbors, waterways and trade routes, as well as strategic raw materials such as petroleum, natural gas, gold, diamond, and uranium. The U.S. consumes one-fourth of the global petroleum with its population and a massive army, while only possessing 3% of the global petroleum reserves. Petroleum imports from countries in Western Africa such as Nigeria, Angola, Chad, DR Congo, and Gabon, surpassing traditional Middle Eastern sources, is a significant indicator that Western Africa is a critical raw material source for the U.S. The “global factory” China, whose petroleum consumption doubled in the past decade, is also looking to benefit from the unexplored petroleum resources and critical raw materials in Africa to maintain its accelerated economic growth. The Chinese government is taking advantage of the “state capitalism” system and conducting tangible projects in Africa via public or near-public corporations, such as The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), that simultaneously work on energy, mining, petrochemistry, construction, transportation, and finance, which raise concerns for many countries.
US dominance in continent has declined
With a clean record of not having a colonial past in Africa, and speaking the language of anti-imperialism with leaders of developing countries, the Chinese administration did not have difficulty in taking the control of critical harbors, airports, railroads, and refineries, thanks to the infrastructure projects and low-interest credit deals made with petroleum-producing African countries such as Sudan, Nigeria and Angola in exchange for their energy resources. Also, Chinese companies, with their fundings, took strategic mining initiatives ranging from gold to diamonds, uranium, and palladium, in countries such as Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, and Niger. China became the world’s second-largest economy in the past twenty years, and functions as Africa’s most important development and foreign trade partner, which is certainly part of A long term neo-colonial strategy. The U.S. has managed and securitized its post-9/11 foreign policy on the African continent with the “global fight against terrorism”, which seems to have resulted in the governments of the region taking a more distant position from the U.S., making Beijing’s job easier. Obama administration’s focus on the Middle East in his foreign policy initiatives and Trump administration’s focus on trade wars with China, with an obvious discriminatory, and even occasionally racist political language, considerably reduced the U.S. dominance in the continent.
While the Beijing administration who invested billions of dollars in industrialization, modern agriculture, transportation, communication, energy, education, health and poverty reduction projects and created a diplomatic event that nearly surpasses the UN through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the priorities of the U.S. in the region are only limited to anti-terrorism and energy resources. Yet, the U.S. attempted to respond to the increasing Chinese influence in countries in Eastern Africa such as Sudan and Ethiopia — which are traditionally open to the U.S. influence and located close to the Middle East — through political and diplomatic reactions. The strong support behind the petroleum-rich South Sudan’s demands to gain independence from Sudan in the international arena and the deposition of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir were initiatives taken to damage the worrying Chinese influence in the region. It’s also necessary to remember that the former Prime Minister of Libya Muammar Gaddafi gave the royalties of critical petroleum fields to Chinese government corporation CNPC, which was disturbing for many Western administrations.
Russia looking to gain grounds in Africa
Another global power aiming to establish a military and economic presence in Africa is the Russian Federation. Russia became a major power, both directly and indirectly interfering with the conflict regions in the Middle East. After being subject to the economic sanctions of the Western world, Russia accelerated its Africa oriented initiatives. Recognizing the effectiveness of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Vladimir Putin organized the first Russia-Africa Summit last year. Also, it’s no secret that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is making frequent visits to countries with critical raw material sources such as oil, gold, uranium, copper, and cobalt in South Africa, as well as looking for new markets to the Russian weapons industry in sub-Saharan Africa against China, who became the largest arms dealer in the continent. Moscow is looking to gain grounds for political influence and arms trade, entering military areas of colonial powers such as France and the U.K. by sending “military consultants” to chronic conflict zones such as DR Congo. If also the Japanese efforts for expansion in Africa through military bases, petroleum and strategic raw materials due to their concerns over the increased Chinese influence and other rising economic powers like India and Brazil are considered, the actual dimensions of the “new scramble for Africa” will surface.
Africa bore witness to great diplomatic vitality with the opening of over 300 embassies and consulates since 2010. Turkey stands out as one of the most active countries in the recent period, with 42 embassies in Africa already. While Erdogan’s periodic visits to Africa accelerated the political, economic and strategic relationships between Turkey and the African countries, there still is a long way to go from here as many global actors are competing for their presence in this critical region. All global and rising economic powers, except for the U.S. whose current president has not set his foot in the African continent yet, have placed Africa to an important position in their global competition strategies due to the continent’s rich raw material resources, ready-for-growth market potential and its proximity to strategic trade routes, especially to the Gulf area.
For the “tragic fortune” of the continent to not repeat itself and the destructive effects of the 19th century’s scramble on the people of Africa to not come back, countries in the region must be careful when dealing with global actors who are looking to create deliberate political and economic ties among them. Networking and cooperating with countries such as Turkey — which has an ethical and egalitarian approach towards African societies, prioritize “win-win” relationships and work on improving the life standards of the people in the region — will benefit all parties in the long term.
[The writer is an economist at Istanbul University.]
* Translated by Can Atalay in Ankara.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.