Africa’s resources are again in high demand from the world’s industrially developed nations. Two in particular are geared to make the most of this competition – U.S. and China. In their efforts to win lie many unknowns, though there is a possibility Africa could become a victim of their rapacious appetites. A continent of nations led by corrupt governments, coupled with wealthy suitors capable and willing to do anything for more of what their economies and global status need is a very bad mix, to say the least.
For the better part of modern history, Africans, it would appear, have never owned Africa. Unfortunately, the wealth of the land and the spoils from the efforts of its people, has been ferried to “better” and far away places – places most Africans have no chance of ever seeing. This has been Africa’s lived reality. It is still so at this very moment whilst you read this. It is no secret. Many Africans know this. History classes all over the world teach this to the students of history. The “resource curse” set upon the most endowed continent has its riches serving, ironically, to impoverish its people.
|U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, kicked off her|
11-day Africa tour that she undertook during the summer,
with a first stop in Senegal where she gave remarks on the
U.S. commitments to a partnership with the continent.
At the moment its prospects are bright, it seems destined to have a chance at accomplishing its potential. Though, it also comes close to repeating history. It may, once again, be the theatre where more powerful actors have their way, leaving a shattered continent behind. China and the United States are equally in pursuit of what they can have from Africa, and the continent’s fate once again is in the balance. The competition, and how these two powerful nations compete over Africa will determine whether or not it is saved from repeating history.
The attention Africa is receiving now is different from history in one regard – Africa can actually benefit from the competition the global market has created for its resources. But could it survive being part of the geo-political calculus of two global powers? Can Africans reap the rewards of having what the two most important global economies want? These are questions experts often provide conjectures answering, because no can be certain whether good or damnation will come from this. There is so much to loose if African governments get it wrong again.
Both the U.S. and China need Africa, especially in the competition against each other. Oil, votes in international forums, and a market for their export goods are chief amongst their pursuits. The United States still enjoys a very good amount of political capital in sub-Saharan Africa but, like in North Africa and the Middle East, it is increasingly viewed as a paternalistic hegemony, singularly self-interested and not in helping Africa overcome its structural problems.
|In busy African markets, cheap Chinese products often|
take away the competitive edge of local businesses,
thereby ruining the livelihood of locals.
With the turn of the new century has come a considerable drop in U.S. popularity in sub-Saharan Africa. Many of the continent’s leaders are happy to have a second source of capital investments void of good governance (strings-attached) requirements. At the same time, ordinary sub-Saharan Africans are disillusioned with the age-old rhetoric from Western governments supporting democratic institutions, while Western private firms (especially the extractive industries) conduct business as usual – undermining government transparency; engaging in extensive environmental damage; and involving themselves, to disastrous effects, in local politics.
There is one important, though less visible, dimension to Africa’s relationship with the U.S. and China – its asymmetrical power. Africa, with all its resources in demand, is the junior partner at the table. China may still be considered a developing country, but it has long surpassed every country in sub-Saharan Africa. It has industrial and human resource capabilities that sub-Saharan African countries couldn’t even dream of, safe for South Africa. This power dynamic makes it possible for African governments to easily be bullied or turned into proxies.
China cannot continually pump billions of dollars in foreign direct investments (FDI) into a politically volatile place as Africa and not one day be required to protect its investments with military might. In fact, it must have already made such a strategic contingency plan before its government-backed FDIs went into Africa. The same can be said for the United States. However, the United States already has AFRICOM on the ground, increasingly spreading its strategic relationships with the national security arms of Africa’s governments. The close quarters in which both countries are operating on the continent makes it only a matter of time before their veiled competition becomes full-blown and permeates every aspect of the continent’s politics. It could completely suck the life out of the continent’s nascent democracies and its weak regional and continental bodies.
Africa is the land of many things,
including proverbs. “When two elephants fight, it is the ground that suffers!”
That has always been one that stuck with me. These two giants, through their
competition, can leave devastation in their wake when their tussle is done. There
is much to gain for Africans, though. But, one is truly pessimistic when
history and the current state of affairs are examined - African governments are
weak; little or no transparency exist in African macro-economies; lack of true
ownership of the most important industries within their economies, and the list
goes on. Yet, perhaps we should dare to imagine that it could be different this
time around. That Africa’s abundance can help save her people from their current,
undeserving sorry state.
Chinese and Chadian workers at an oil site in southern Chad, part of
China's growing economic presence in Africa. This, and other such
projects are defining China’s relationship with Africa.
[Image Credits: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times].
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