By Monica Johnson, International Banker
African Liberation Day (ALD) turned 60 years old on May 25. Commemorating the 1963 founding of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in Ethiopia, the day represents the firm commitment of newly independent African states toward promoting self-governance and freeing the continent from the widespread foreign interference that had plagued it during previous decades. Indeed, among the OAU’s key goals was to eradicate all forms of colonialism and neo-colonialism, largely in response to what became known as the Scramble for Africa, which inflicted untold exploitative economic damage across Africa. And while today, colonialism may be officially considered a relic of the past—the OAU itself was replaced by the African Union (AU) in 2002—the recent behaviours of global powers toward Africa have many wondering and fearing that a new scramble could be underway.
The infamous Berlin Conference laid much of the groundwork for the original Scramble for Africa. Beginning on November 15, 1884, the event saw representatives from 14 Western economic powers—Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden-Norway, Turkey and the United States—gather at the residence of German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to carve up the entire African continent into their respective dominions. Commercial and economic factors largely motivated this partitioning, with the vast potential riches reaped from extracting Africa’s abundant natural resources underpinning the agreement reached among competing interests. Britain, France, Portugal and Germany were the conference’s major players, having already colonised the lion’s share of Africa; Italy, Spain and Belgium were also granted sizeable chunks of the continent to govern.
What followed was nothing short of an imperial onslaught at the hands of those European nations. The Scramble for Africa provided scant material benefits to local Africans, while in some cases, such as the German colonisation of Namibia and the Belgian Congo, history has since recorded unspeakable horrors and repression being unleashed on native populations. As Howard W. French, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of the book Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War, observed in a December 2022 article for Foreign Policy magazine: “Over the half century or so that followed what came to be known as the ‘Scramble for Africa,’ Europe did virtually nothing to further education on the continent and inflicted some of the worst atrocities of the modern era on Africans, as colonists raced to extract natural resources using land seizures and forced labor, and implemented military conscription to fight and provide pack horse-like logistical support in Europe’s wars.”
Fast forward to the present day, and both the Scramble for Africa and the Cold War—during which time African countries were often turned into bloody battlegrounds of US-USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) rivalries as well as ending up the recipients of frequent coup d’états sponsored by the likes of France, the United States and the United Kingdom—have left scars that run deep through the African psyche, with longstanding local challenges emerging from those periods of abject economic underdevelopment remaining unresolved. And given the simmering geopolitical tensions between the East and the West that continue to intensify in 2023, fears abound that Africa is once again the hapless pawn within a great power competition, with the US, France, China and Russia vying for the most influence in the region today.
This is perhaps no more clearly exemplified at present than in Sudan, where war recently broke out between rival factions of Khartoum’s military government—the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces and Sudanese Armed Forces—amid the country’s proposed transition towards a civilian administration. Although several longstanding issues underpin the ongoing violence in the country, plans by the incumbent government to host Russia’s naval base along the Red Sea, purportedly to support peace and security in the region, appear to be the key contributing factor.
What is expected to be Russia’s first naval base in Africa has, not surprisingly, been met with strong opposition from the US. “There are some reports that Russia is trying to implement the agreement it signed with ousted President Omar al-Bashir in 2017 to establish a military base along the Red Sea,” the US ambassador to the Republic of Sudan, John Godfrey, said in September 2022. “All countries have a sovereign right to decide which other countries to partner with, but these choices have consequences, of course.” And with a US delegation having arrived in Sudan in March, just a few weeks prior to the outbreak of the war, many believe the country is becoming home to a protracted proxy war for influence in the region, primarily between the US and Russia but also other parties with vested interests, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
With both Russia and the US dramatically stepping up their security offerings to African countries—the former primarily through its private military contractor, the Wagner Group, and the latter through its defence combatant command, Africa Command (AFRICOM)—more proxy battles on African soil seem only inevitable. But the US now faces serious questions over the real intentions of its expanding military presence, even within its own borders. A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing on “U.S. Military Posture and National Security Challenges in the Greater Middle East and Africa”, for instance, saw AFRICOM Commander General Michael Langley scrutinised by Congress over the alarming proportion of African soldiers trained by the US military who have subsequently led coups against their civilian governments.
“Why should US taxpayers be paying to train people who then lead coups in Africa?” Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz (R) asked Langley. “Congressman, our curriculum harvests core values and also to be able to embolden these countries for a representative democracy,” the commander general responded. This prompted Gaetz to press further. “But General, that democracy isn’t what emerges. The problem is, I know you may have great confidence in what you’re teaching, but when two governments had been overthrown—I guess how many governments have to be overthrown by people we train before you sort of get the message that our core values might not be sticking with everyone? Is it five countries? Ten?”
But while escalating military competition between the US and Russia continues to play out across Africa, seizing mutually beneficial economic opportunities is prompting China to expand its presence to the extent that it now easily commands the greatest overall influence in the region of all the major powers. Such opportunities have been largely unearthed in the countless infrastructure projects spearheaded by China that have done much to close Africa’s infrastructure gaps vis-à-vis the rest of the world and expedite its economic development. China’s strong track record in this regard also stretches back much further than other countries’, only cementing its dominant position in the African market. Indeed, the Asian superpower contributed to constructing an estimated 13,000 kilometres of railways, nearly 100,000 kilometres of highways, about 1,000 bridges, nearly 100 ports and more than 80 large-scale power facilities across the continent between 2000 and 2020. It also supported the construction of 130 medical facilities, 45 sports venues and more than 170 schools; trained more than 160,000 professionals across various fields; and created more than 4.5 million jobs for Africans during this time.
But is the Africa-China relationship exploitative? This is perhaps the question to which China’s Western rivals are most desperately seeking an answer. It certainly appears that China’s biggest challenge in advancing economic cooperation with African countries is overcoming accusations that it is disproportionately burdening them with unsustainable debt levels to ultimately bend them to its political will. However, the extent to which Chinese financial lending to Africa can be characterised as “debt traps” is negligible, according to much of the research. And having written off 23 interest-free loans for 17 African countries last year, China remains decidedly keen to demonstrate the equality inherent within its economic relationship with Africa.
Should China’s actions on the continent match its stated intentions, it would go a long way toward preventing the coming years from simply being a case of history repeating itself, with the statuses of African nations as equal economic partners extinguishing any chances of them ending up as the victims of yet another period of subordination and abuse. Perhaps the Berlin Conference’s most notorious feature was that not even a single African was present when Western powers decided the continent’s eventual partitions. But as the home of 54 independent, sovereign states, many of which are experiencing rapid economic growth and development, Africa is now far from helpless.
On the contrary, one might even argue that Africa’s global systemic importance has never been greater, with the magnitude of its influence no more clearly on show than when South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, confirmed on May 22 that his country, along with Senegal, Egypt, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda, had submitted a peace proposal to both Russia and Ukraine as a precursor for ending the war, now in its 16th month. “First is the cessation of hostilities. Second is a framework for lasting peace,” the South African presidency spokesman, Vincent Magwenya, confirmed. Although reports suggest the aim of the proposal is in part to expedite the release of essential grains and fertilisers for shipment to Africa, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy agreed to meet separately with the six-nation African delegation to discuss plans to end the war.
As such, many countries are wielding considerable power and influence over how important events unfold, both around the world and in their respective neighbourhoods, while African leaders continue to assert themselves confidently at even the first hint of potentially maligning foreign interference. And it is this defiance that may well prove decisive in elevating African nations to being the masters of their own economic destinies during the next decade and beyond. “Africa can no longer be ignored and must be seen as having inherent strategic value. That is a significant shift in the US approach to the region,” Cameron Hudson, a former US official and now a senior associate at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Africa programme, recently acknowledged to the South China Morning Post. “Unless and until we can show the kind of consistency that the Chinese have, Africans will have every right to remain sceptical of US intentions.”
And evidence of an evolving US approach to Africa is growing. A Strategic Trade and Investment Partnership (STIP) trade pact is currently being negotiated with Kenya to “increase investment; promote sustainable and inclusive economic growth; benefit workers, consumers, and businesses (including micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises); and support African regional economic integration”. It covers five main pillars of mutual interest, having been reduced from the eleven pillars discussed earlier in the year: economic prosperity, trade and investment; defence cooperation; democracy, governance and civilian security; multilateral and regional issues; and health. Some believe this substantial trimming of the trade agreement is an attempt by the US to follow China’s non-interference model in their trading partners’ internal affairs and is thus an acknowledgement of the success of Beijing’s less prescriptive approach to Africa.
Nonetheless, as the world’s second-biggest continent and one rapidly approaching the cusp of a massive economic-development wave, it may prove impossible for global powers to stay away from Africa’s increasing allure. Djibouti, for instance, contains multiple foreign military bases, with forces from the US, China, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, Japan and Turkey all present within a limited territory. And while that may not necessarily translate into a scramble in the same destructive vein as that of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it does mean those powers will seek ever-larger slices of the pie on offer from Africa. Exactly how they go about obtaining those slices—and how effective African countries prove in resisting any signs of emerging imperialism while retaining their independence and sovereignty—will go a long way toward determining the continent’s economic prospects in the long run.