Exeter, Devon UK • Feb 23, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features Africa: Continent at the Crossroads

Africa: Continent at the Crossroads

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Online Features Editor Bryan Knight reports on the recent political developments in Africa and assesses the threats faced by the continent.

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced an ambitious initiative that would revamp an ancient trade network that connected the Eastern world with the West. This ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, as it is commonly referred to, was pitched as an investment project to develop and make way for China’s inter-continental trade. However, President Xi’s initiative has garnered particular interest from the West due to the rapid speed at which China has made its presence felt in Africa. China has funnelled billions of dollars in loans to fund infrastructural programs throughout the continent. Last year at the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, Africa was promised an extra $60 billion through Chinese investments and loans. 

countries such as Zambia and Djibouti have seen a vast rise in their national debt and face the possibility of defaulting on their loans

These high-value loans are offered despite there being a high risk of defaulting. Many African nations, however, have gratefully accepted these loans because China, unlike many international organisations, seems less concerned about the internal politics, credit history or human rights record of the borrowers. China’s loans have largely been used to fund infrastructural projects, such as the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railway which links the Nairobi capital to the coast of Mombasa. Since these projects have mainly been built and administered by Chinese-owned companies, they are seen as highly lucrative. However, countries such as Zambia and Djibouti have seen a vast rise in their national debt and face the possibility of defaulting on their loans. China’s willingness to offer such high-risk loans has attracted much scepticism.

Financial experts and commentators alike have accused China of orchestrating a neo-colonial mission through ‘debt-trap diplomacy’. Last year, Former US National Security Advisor John Bolton criticised China for using “bribes [and] opaque agreements” to politically entrap African nations. Bolton’s remarks, however, seem more rooted in anger at China, for undermining US interests in Africa, than a genuine concern for the continent.

President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Photo Credit: South African Government

American influence in Africa had been in slow decline for almost two decades and has culminated in China dethroning the US as the continent’s largest investor in 2009. In December 2018, Bolton outlined the Trump administration’s Africa strategy which aimed to rival the investments made by China, Russia and Europe. He unveiled a new $50 million ‘Prosper Africa’ initiative which signifies a move away from US foreign aid to a mutually beneficial infrastructural and industrial investment. America’s new strategy, however, seems merely a drop in the ocean compared with China’s investments in the continent. The US is now faced with the task of atoning for its years of neglect of Africa. This is made increasingly difficult by the pressures of managing the series of racist remarks and scandals caused by the incumbent President.  

What is apparent, however, is that China is extending its borders of influence as its ongoing trade dispute with the Trump administration continues. In 2007, a resolution was tabled by the UN General Assembly to condemn human rights abuses committed by the North Korean leader. Whilst the US-backed motion to denounce North Korea successfully passed, many were surprised to see that the majority of African nations either voted with China, abstained or were absent from the vote. This was viewed as an early sign of China’s increased power on the international scene.

President Xi’s self-titled ‘major-country diplomacy’ should be seen less as a new venture, than a renewed attempt to obtain influence in Africa. Chinese interest in the continent goes as far back as the days of Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China. During the 1960s, Premier Enlai and his senior administrative staff set the foundations for diplomatic relationships between China and much of the newly independent Global South. The Chinese leader was aware of the anti-colonial wave spreading through Africa and knew that to gain leverage, he needed to create an anti-imperial coalition with the new nation states. After setting the principles for fair diplomacy and extensively touring Africa, Premier Enlai had established alliances between the two continents that would prove beneficial for the next fifty years. 

The terms set in China’s contracts with its African partners remain shrouded in secrecy

Sino-African relations have been deemed extremely profitable for the Eastern superpower; however, Chinese vulnerabilities have begun to emerge. Trade tensions with the US have proved disastrous for the Chinese economy which has had a slowdown in growth. In 2018, the Chinese stock market was recorded as having had the worst performance and, consequently, saw a loss of approximately $2.3 trillion. As the Chinese economy experiences economic turbulence, it is feared that funding for African projects will significantly decrease and loans may be recalled. The terms set in China’s contracts with its African partners remain shrouded in secrecy, thus preventing the public from knowing which national resources have been used as collateral; this makes it almost impossible fully assess the damage that may be caused as a result of loan default.

The hypocrisy of the international community is not lost on anyone, as a new ‘scramble for Africa’ is taking place from all corners of the globe. One nation salivating at the thought of carving out influence in Africa is Russia. The annexation of Crimea has proven detrimental to Russia’s relationship with the Western world and, consequently, it is being forced to seek alliances further afield. The previously overlooked African continent not only offers markets and raw materials, but also allows Russia to undermine US and French influence. The difference between Russia’s Africa ambition versus the Chinese equivalent, is the complexity of the Kremlin’s plan and Putin’s denial of direct involvement.

In June, leaked Russian documents were published by the Dossier Centre, which seeks to uncover the criminal activity of the Kremlin. The documents exposed Russia’s mission to gain influence throughout Africa. The leading figure behind these efforts is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman previously indicted for meddling in the 2016 US elections. Prigozhin, a Putin ally, is alleged to be using his private military company, The Wagner group, to carve out pockets of influence for the Kremlin. Russia’s Africa policy is being enacted through a host of methods such as military cooperation and training, utilisation of state-owned media, and the manipulation of loyal politicians. Whilst Russia maintains a high presence in Sudan and Madagascar, the Central African Republic (CAR) remains its most significant and strategic base.

Russia’s relationship with the CAR, in 2013, came as a surprise to international observers, since the African country was in the early stages of its ongoing civil war. Following the overthrow of former President François Bozizé, the country was catapulted into a state of disarray. Despite the UN formerly placing an arms embargo on the CAR, the Security Council permitted Russia to train the country’s army. Since then, Russia has engaged with the CAR both militarily and commercially. The country is seen as a key asset for Russia as it holds reserves of minerals such as gold, diamond and uranium. However, this partnership has aroused suspicion and created tension with France, the former colonial overlord. Additionally, there have been concerns that the Kremlin leased out the responsibility of training CAR troops to the controversial Wagner group. In the past year, three Russian journalists were killed trying to investigate the Wagner Group’s involvement in the region.

Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on the activities of China and Russia, many have overlooked a rogue but extremely powerful player: Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s operations on the continent can be explained by two main reasons. The first being Saudi Arabia’s need for resources and secondly their wider political motives. Saudi Arabia is faced with an agricultural problem and, as a result, it is highly reliant on other nations for food supplies. Consequently, in 2008 King Abdullah advocated a land-grab policy as part of his ‘Initiative for Saudi Agricultural Investment Abroad’. Africa seemed an ideal location. Since then, Saudi Arabia has been exploiting its oil reserves in order to gain access to the continent. 

Saudi Arabia has successfully severed most of Iran’s African alliances through using financial incentives

Saudi Arabia’s long-standing proxy conflict with Iran has spilt into Africa due to both countries seeking control of the Muslim world. The continent was of great importance to Iran’s international standing, especially prior to the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran’s partnerships in East Africa, specifically with Sudan, came into direct conflict with Saudi Arabia’s plans for the region. Saudi Arabia has successfully severed most of Iran’s African alliances by using financial incentives. The rivalry between both powers has especially caused havoc in Nigeria due to its heightening of religious divides; whilst Saudi Arabia opted to fund Sunni groups in the country, Iran backed Shia equivalents.

Since the sun set on its Empire, Britain has maintained economic links with many of its former African colonies. However, in this renewed scramble for the continent Britain has found itself to be a weak and unattractive player, lagging behind its competitors. Last August, former Prime Minister Theresa May conducted a three-day tour of Africa in hope of securing post-Brexit alliances with Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. May’s visit largely consisted of vague promises and ambitious forecasts. The awkwardness of her tour was clear to see, as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed dismay at the fact that it had taken over thirty years for a British Prime Minister to visit the country. Britain’s colonial and post-colonial history of exploitation in the continent are further obstacles to its alliance-building mission.

Illustration of the Berlin Conference

Britain’s colonial past is tainted as a result of the maltreatment of Africans, displacement of ethnic groups and land pillaging that occurred decades ago. One can clearly see how this uncomfortable history can hider Britain’s plans to secure trade relationships today. However, some of these unethical practices remain in use. One sector notorious for this is mining. In 2016, Anti-poverty charity War on Want released a damning report that revealed the extent to which British mining companies were involved in tax evasion, land degradation and the exploitative extraction of minerals from Africa. The report even highlighted how complicit these companies have been in the displacement of the Sahrawi people, through their continued mining in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. What is apparent, is that both Labour and Conservative governments have failed to regulate the international mining practices of British-registered firms. Consecutive prime ministers have preached about the importance of mutually beneficial relationships but, in practice, they have appeared willing to turn a blind eye.

The presumption of May’s government was that Britain could maintain a trading relationship where it imports raw materials from Africa and sells manufactured goods back to the continent. Unfortunately for Britain, these colonial-styled agreements are of an era long gone. Africa now demands more equitable trade agreements. One country which presented a favourable proposition was Germany. May’s Germanic counterpart, Angela Merkel, brokered a job-boosting agreement  between Volkswagen and the governments of Ghana and Nigeria. Volkswagen agreed to build an assembly plant in Ghana, whilst creating training academies in both West African countries. This partnership, unlike those proposed by May, and France’s Emmanuel Macron, redresses the idea that Africa is merely a prop to boost Western economies. 

African leaders must also take some responsibility for their predicament

With all these nations seeking a claim of the continent, its easy to view Africa as a helpless victim in a sea full of predators, but African leaders must also take some responsibility for their predicament. Corruption has proven a wildly destabilising force for many countries in Africa, as it not only misappropriates public funds, thus causing wider social problems, but also makes these nations reliant on foreign lenders in order to rid national debts. From the likes of Robert Mugabe and Omar Al-Bashir to the accused Jacob Zuma, modern Africa has never been far from corruption scandals. However, the tide is changing and opportunities for Africa’s prosperity are in abundance. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Let’s first look at the promising new generation of African leaders. Since poster-boy Abiy Ahmed began his premiership in Ethiopia, the country has rapidly transformed both politically and economically. Ahmed’s role in ending the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea captured the world’s attention, as it put an end to the long-fought border dispute which wreaked havoc for families caught in the middle of the communication ban. His other reforms have included liberalising the economy, ending autocratic practices and giving women and opposition leaders a greater voice in policymaking. Ethiopia has seemingly been electrified by ‘Abiymania’. This liberal form of leadership is one that Africa should expect to see in the near future.

African leaders have already seen the benefits of closer integration with its continental neighbours and have made steps towards such a goal. Regional organisations such as the East African Community and Southern Africa Customs Union have greatly invigorated the economies of member states and has encouraged political dialogue. West Africa made headlines in July after agreeing to adopt a single currency in 2020. This frequently-mooted plan hopes to integrate the economies of fifteen West African countries. Economists have expressed concern over how a single currency may impact the Eight counties which currently use the French-backed CFA franc. Another concern is that Nigeria, having the largest economy in the region, may abuse the power they will have over its regional counterparts. These plans are unlikely to crystallize by next year unless all fifteen nations meet the needed requirements.

The most promising opportunity of all? The African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA). One of Africa’s biggest problems has been its lack of intracontinental trade. In 2014, the African Development Bank reported that Africa’s internal trade stood at just 16%, this is in stark comparison to other continents, such as Europe with 70% and Asia with 51%. Signatories of the ACFTA pledge to drastically reduce tariffs of goods from other African countries and facilitate more trade between members. This agreement has been seen as a step towards an ever-closer union in the continent. After stalling plans last year Nigeria finally signed the agreement in July. Their finance and trade union leaders had expressed their concern that the ACFTA could create greater competition for Nigeria in terms of job opportunities and markets for goods. Eritrea is the only African nation outside this trading area but since reconciling with Ethiopia, they have expressed greater interest in the trading bloc. 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. Photo Credit: US Government

It’s easy to view the ACFTA as offering a pan-African utopia, but observers need to remain pragmatic. Comparing Africa to the European Union would be grossly unfair. Much of the continent gained formal independence as recently as the 1960s, meaning most countries are still in the process of reforming and experimenting with different political, economic and judicial systems. This differs greatly from European nations who have had centuries to establish their institutions. Even after the collapse of European empires, the continent was subjected to neo-imperialism programs such as Structural Adjustment by Western organisations. The European Union (EU), unlike the ACFTA, has only 28 member states. The ACFTA has over 50. The EU took over 50 years to organise itself. The ACFTA has only just come into effect. What Africa needs more than ever is time and space to grow. African leaders must establish common goals for the ACFTA and build the infrastructure needed for intracontinental trade.

With closer integration, Africa is better able to fight against the insatiable greed of international powers

African nations are in a prime position to determine the trajectory of their future. The continent has an abundance of resources, land and skilled labourers. The money entering the continent from the African diaspora far outstrips international aid by $9 billion; this provides Africa with both capital and a global network. African innovation, such as Kenya’s M-Pesa has become the envy of the world. With closer integration, Africa is better able to fight against the insatiable greed of international powers.

The continent now finds itself is in unchartered waters and must decide whether to wade through its challenges together or risk the dangers of proceeding alone. Africa must take inspiration from Ernest Henley, and find a way to be the master of its fate and the captain of its soul.

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