A New Scramble for Africa?

Not a single one of my LSE students reads the Economist. That may be down to the selection bias of people wanting to take my course on activism, but I think they’re missing out. If, like me, you’re liberal on social issues, sceptical on economic laissez faire, and just plain confused on politics, then at least read the Economist, which is consistently liberal across all of them, for the social and political stuff.

Case in point – its fascinating recent Africa and geopolitics briefing. Some excerpts.

‘More than 320 embassies or consulates were opened in Africa between 2010 and 2016. Turkey alone opened 26 (see maps). Foreign leaders are supporting the diplomatic push. This year Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, is set to host the first Russia-Africa summit, a tribute act to the triennial Forum on Africa-China Co-operation (FOCAC), in Beijing. Hosted by President Xi Jinping, last year’s FOCAC attracted more African leaders than the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly. Japan and Britain are also hosting gatherings in the coming months.

When not hosting African politicians, foreign leaders are visiting them. China’s top officials made 79 visits to Africa in the decade up to 2018. Since 2008 Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has paid more than 30 visits to African countries, most of them sub-Saharan. Emmanuel Macron has visited the continent nine times since becoming president of France in 2017; Narendra Modi has visited eight African countries during his five years in power in India. But not all are so keen. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian have visited more African leaders than has Mr Trump, who has yet to set foot on the continent.

Such visits and summits are in part efforts to make use of Africa’s diplomatic clout. Its 54 nations make up more than a quarter of the UN General Assembly and by custom it always has three of the 15 non-permanent seats on the Security Council. China has persuaded nearly every African state to ditch diplomatic recognition of Taiwan; only eSwatini (formerly Swaziland) remains to be swayed. Russia has petitioned African politicians over its claims to Crimea; 28 African countries abstained on a General Assembly motion condemning the annexation. Israel has sought recognition of Jerusalem as its capital, and now has Togo on its side.

Military ties are strengthening alongside the diplomatic ones. The Horn of Africa has become part of the broader competition between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one side and Iran, Qatar and Turkey on the other. In 2017 Turkey built its largest overseas military base, and its first in Africa, in Somalia. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have launched attacks into Yemen from their positions in the Horn. Saudi Arabia has also recruited soldiers from Sudan, some of them children. It is also thought to be keen to open a base in Djibouti; the UAE is set to open a new one in neighbouring Somaliland.

China’s military influence stretches well beyond the base in Djibouti. Last year the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted exercises in Cameroon, Gabon, Ghana and Nigeria. Chinese popular culture celebrates Africa as a place for derring-do. In 2017 “Wolf Warrior 2”, a film in which Chinese special forces save beleaguered doctors in Africa, set new records at the box office. “Peacekeeping Infantry Battalion”, a television show, celebrates China’s role as a provider of blue helmets. The country fields more UN peacekeepers than any of the Security Council’s other four permanent members, most of them in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, South Sudan and Sudan.

This interest in peace goes hand in hand with a brisk business in arms; China sells more weapons in sub-Saharan Africa than any other nation. Chinese expansion has worried other Asian powers. Japan is enlarging its base in Djibouti. India is developing a network of radar and listening posts around the Indian Ocean, though plans for a base in the Seychelles were blocked by the archipelago last year. In March the Indian army will host its first military exercises with a number of African countries, including Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa.

Keeping up with the Joneses is not the only reason for military involvement. European countries are stepping up their presence in the Sahel, the arid region on the southern edge of the Sahara desert, aiming both to quell Islamic terrorism and stem the flow of migrants to Europe.

Russia’s moves are more muscular, and more mercenary. Often the key figures are cronies of Mr Putin, like Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former chef, rather than official state employees. Mr Vines likens them to Cecil Rhodes and other 19th-century imperialists who would lead private invasions with the implicit protection of the government back home. Last year, after the Central African Republic (CAR) asked for help fighting rebels, Russia barged aside France, the CAR’s former colonial ruler, quickly sending arms and advisers. Experts in extractive industry soon followed. The defence ministry is now home to a group of Russian “advisers”.

African countries are increasingly home to foreign manufacturing firms. Chinese state-backed companies have helped set up “special economic zones” in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda as well as Djibouti. Olam International, a Singaporean company, operates a free-trade zone in Gabon; India is trying to open one in Mauritius. Turkey has a facility next to the Chinese one in Djibouti, part of a set of ambitious plans for the continent which include building railways in Tanzania, airport terminals in Ghana and much of the “futuristic” Diamniadio Lake City in Senegal. Turkish Airlines, which is 49% state-owned, flies to more than 50 African cities.

As others have bolstered links with Africa, America has cut funding for development and diplomatic programmes. It has announced a 10% reduction in troops in Africa and has left key positions unfilled; it took Mr Trump’s administration 18 months to fill the top Africa job in the State Department.

America’s relative economic importance is also waning. In 2006 America, China and France were the three countries doing the most trade with sub-Saharan Africa, defined as the sum of imports and exports (see chart). From 2006 to 2018 Chinese trade increased by 226% and India’s by 292%. Other countries also posted impressive increases, although from low starting points: 216% for Turkey, 335% for Russia, 224% for Indonesia. The EU, still all-told the region’s largest trading partner, managed only a modest 41%. American trade with sub-Saharan Africa shrank.’


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2 Responses to “A New Scramble for Africa?”
  1. Robin Stafford

    I think you could be more challenging, and ask whether this is a new form of colonialism, but coming from the East rather than the North/West. The ‘selection bias’ of your students and their education may be making it very difficult for them to recognise this.
    Its not so many years since I was sat in a trustee meeting at a large NGO where the question was raised by trustees from Zimbabwe and Nigeria who saw what was happening and viewed it pretty much as a new form of colonialism. They were very concerned about the land grabs, buying of political influence, infrastructure intended to enable extraction of natural resources, construction projects mostly staffed by Chinese with little or no attempt to train local staff. Others in the room who had the ‘traditional’ development education just could not recognise it as they were trained to see colonialism as only a North/West phenomenon.
    My personal ‘favourite’ is the building by the Chinese of a new Parliament building for Malawi. Together with a 5* hotel opposite for the politicians to stay in. Buying political influence in its most naked form.
    If this sort of behaviour was wrong in the past, we ought to be condemning it now as well.

  2. James Gibbs

    Chinese soft power and influence . See African Theatre 15: China, India & the Eastern World. That volume includes an interview with Mohammed Ben Abdallah about to the construction of the National Theatre in Accra. (J J Rawlings met Deng Xiaoping in September 1985; the opening production at the theatre was in January 1993; there is continuing Chinese involvement in the maintenance of the theatre.) Abdallah provides rare insight into working with Chinese architects, engineers and construction workers. (Confession of interest, as joint editor of the publication I had been trying for some years to get the Ghanaian ‘side of the story’ into print. James Gibbs)