The new scramble for Africa

The twenty first century scramble for Africa is no less significant than that of the nineteenth century and is
potentially even more dangerous, argues Steve Bishop

The original ‘scramble for Africa’, at the end of the nineteenth century saw the division of the continent amongst the imperialist powers and precipitated the first imperialist war in 1914, with the re-division of natural resources and economic control at its core.

The twenty first century scramble for Africa is no less significant and is potentially even more dangerous, due to the increased magnitude of firepower possessed by the imperialist powers and the heightened stakes in the race for the new re-division of Africa.

In terms of natural resources political and economic control of Africa is a huge prize.  The continent has 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, crucial components in the manufacture of electronic goods and armaments. Africa also has 8% of the world’s natural gas and 12% of the world’s oil. In a period where energy costs are soaring and control over energy resources is at a premium, reserves on such a scale are significant.

Not surprisingly the United States has been at the head of the Western charge to gain or retain control of African resources. While neo-colonial pressure has consistently undermined the efforts of African nations to fully assert their independence, the presence of the former Soviet Union was a significant counter weight to the machinations of imperialism to fully dominate the continent. The political and material support of the Soviet Union to many national liberation movements, struggling to free themselves from colonial domination, was often a crucial factor in many African nations gaining and sustaining their independence.

While the demise of the Soviet Union has by no means meant African allegiance was transferred to the newly emerging oligarchy in Russia, it nevertheless ensured a strong anti-imperialist legacy in many African states, determined to be free of the neo-liberal diktats of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. For example, trade between Africa and China rose to a record high in 2021. The jump was massive: 35% between 2020 and 2021, reaching a total of $254 billion. China is by far Africa’s biggest trade partner.

It is increasingly clear that, given the West’s colonial past, and Russia’s historic association with various liberation movements on the continent, in many African states, intelligentsia and ordinary people are eager to break free from the grip of western hegemony.

Western governments and media have devoted a great deal of time and attention to Africa as China, and to a degree Russia, continue to alter the foreign policy map of many African countries. However, Western interference in the affairs of African nations continues to hamper development in many parts of the continent.

The continent has continued to experience regional wars, often stoked and supported by the West out of economic and political self-interest.

The insurgents in northern Mozambique have weakened the ability of the state to fully address the challenges confronting the country. The continued crisis in Ethiopia is also undermining the integrity and sovereignty of the country. The spill-overs into South Sudan and horn of Africa, point to much broader regional instability which could lead to external Western intervention, as has been seen in Libya, resulting in its destruction and partition. More positively, in Mali, the military coup has seen France and its military expelled. The new government is aiming to unify the country and overcome historic tribal divisions.

However, there is growing evidence that the United States is attempting to increase its hegemony in Africa, with a significant presence of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), with 29 bases across the continent, and military drills, often in cooperation with the EU and NATO. France also continues to have a military presence in about ten countries on the continent.

The occupation of the Western Sahara by Morocco, effectively with the backing of the United States, continues to be a blight on the movement towards democracy on the continent. The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), led by the Polisario Front, has for decades been engaged in an independence struggle for the former Spanish colony. SADR is recognised by many African countries but not by Morocco or the West.

The intransigence of those opposed to SADR independence was underlined in June 2022 when the annual African Lion military exercise, the largest on the African continent, was launched by the United States and host country Morocco. More than 7,500 soldiers from ten nations took part, including Britain. In addition, military observers from NATO and fifteen partner countries were also involved.

If the sheer scale of the operation were not provocation enough, troop landings and artillery fire took place close to the Polisario Front base in Tindouf, Algeria. In spite of a decades old referendum having voted for independence in the Western Sahara, the US and Morocco continue to hold out. During his presidency Donald Trump took things a step further by approving US recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty over the territory claimed by Polisario. In return Morocco resumed diplomatic ties with Israel.

In April 2022 the House of Representatives in the United States passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, aimed at sanctioning African states if they trade with Russia. The US is clearly not prepared to tolerate the fact that, in a series of United Nations votes to condemn Russian intervention in Ukraine, there has been a hard core of over 35 countries abstaining, including a number of African nations, with a handful of countries voting against.

Such outcomes challenge the Western narrative that ‘the world’ is united in its opposition to Russian intervention in Ukraine, given that the nations abstaining or voting against US resolutions represent nearly half of the global population.

The political and economic instability forced upon much of the African continent has resulted in migration being one of the key issues shaping relations between European countries and Africa. Large numbers of young African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean are lost through drowning. Even if they manage to reach the coastline of Europe, they are often subjected to inhumane treatment. The issue of migration has resulted in a shift to the right in many parts of Europe, as the fortress mentality takes hold and migrants become easily scapegoated for home grown social and economic problems. 

African nations continue to struggle for the right to self determination and control over their land and natural resources. The legacy of colonial and neo-colonial relationships with the West presents significant challenges for many African nations.  However, as with the divided international response to the war in Ukraine, the unipolar world under its control, which the US desires, is by no means a given.

While the US, backed by the EU and NATO, may desire hegemony in Africa a new centre of gravity, linked in particular to the emerging economic power of China, is beginning to grow. That may at least give African nations, for decades dominated by unequal trade agreements with the West, alternative approaches to structuring their economies. 

The scramble for Africa in the twenty first century may not go as smoothly as the West hopes, with the real scramble being that for real economic and political independence and self-determination for African nations themselves.  

Steve Bishop is a Liberation member

Photo: There is growing evidence that the United States is attempting to increase its hegemony in Africa, with a significant presence of the US Africa Command (Africom): Here pictured are foreign liaison officers (FLOs) assigned to Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) on a visit to the U.S. Africa Command Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany Oct. 30-31, 2018. During the visit, FLOs from Burundi, Comoros, Kenya, Uganda, Italy, and South Korea met with AFRICOM staff members and received briefings about the command / Creative Commons

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