In the 19th century, Europe’s great powers were caught up in what historians have dubbed “the scramble for Africa,” as Britain, France, Germany, and Italy competed with one other to establish colonies and control over the so-called Dark Continent — a competition that increased international tensions and ultimately helped to set the stage for the First World War.
Today a new scramble is underway, pitting the United States and China and, to a lesser degree, Russia against one other as they try to coax into their respective camps the new Africa that’s emerging in the 21st century.
At stake are Africa’s rich natural resources, rapidly growing markets, and political and military influence over the planet’s Southern Hemisphere — and a major portion of the world’s population. This scramble will do much to shape the 21st century, just as the earlier scramble shaped the 19th. It will also become a major epicenter for the ongoing competition between the U.S. and China for economic and strategic leadership.
Fortunately, the Trump administration understands the stakes involved. Last week National Security Adviser John Bolton gave a speech unveiling the administration’s new Africa strategy. Unfortunately for the U.S., China has a big lead in this competition, and making up the difference won’t be easy, even though it will have to be a critical part of America’s 21st-century agenda.
But America has one clear advantage going forward. Unlike the last scramble for Africa, in the 19th century, when all the participants wound up being imperialist bad actors, this scramble has two very bad actors, Russia and China, and one clearly good guy ready to ride to the rescue — namely, the U.S. While China’s efforts in Africa have been brutal and neo-colonialist in the extreme, we can, as Bolton indicated in his speech, show sub-Saharan Africa’s 49 countries how to preserve their independence and autonomy and become part of the modern economic order in ways that benefit their people and increase their prosperity and security — as well as the prosperity and security of the United States.
Underlying all this is a fundamental reality: Africa in the 21st century is going to be the next frontier of globalization. It contains more than 30 percent of world’s hydrocarbon reserves and minerals, including rare earths essential for defense needs, and is experiencing the world’s biggest population explosion.
The United Nations estimates that Nigeria by 2050 will be the third-most populous country, after China and India, and that Africa’s population as a whole will surpass China’s by 2100. Of the world’s 21 most “high fertility” nations — i.e., with the highest potential for fast population growth — 19 are in Africa.
Nor is Africa the economic basket case it once was. According to the African Development Bank, sub-Saharan Africa is poised to be the second-fastest-growing economy in the world, with a growth rate of 3.1 percent in 2018 and a projected growth rate of 3.6 percent in 2019–20. All this adds up to a continent ready and eager to join the world’s economic order.
Still, it’s easy to see why Africa slipped off America’s strategic radar screen. Decades of poverty and corruption have made Africa seem like the world’s incurable basket case, an impression that the unfolding AIDS crisis in the 1990s only reinforced. The Obama years were wasted in terms of engagement in Africa. While Obama made highly publicized trips to Africa and paid lip service to the idea of helping sub-Saharan Africa escape from poverty and join the modern world, two predators took advantage of U.S. passivity to plant themselves on the continent. The first was radical Islam and Boko Haram. The other was China.
While the U.S. and the rest of the West have largely ignored Africa during the past two decades, China has made it an economic and strategic priority. Beijing sees it as the perfect hunting ground for securing raw materials, for overseas business investment, and above all for expanding China’s geopolitical influence, as part of a grand strategy for replacing the U.S. as the leading global hegemon.
By 2015 trade between China and Africa was close to $300 billion. It now tops half a trillion dollars. (By contrast, U.S. trade with Arica is barely $5 billion, and has been declining since 2011.) Right now China has more than 3,000 infrastructure projects underway across the continent and has handed out more than $60 billion in commercial loans. But none of it, especially the loans, comes without strings attached.
Hungry for economic opportunity, and hungry for cash, one African country after another has willingly turned itself into a Chinese dependency. Dictatorships including those in Ethiopia and Ghana have accepted Chinese help in erecting their own versions of the Great Firewall, in order to gain control of the Internet inside their borders, while adopting the technologies of China’s high-tech police state. Others fell for China’s offer of loans to support those infrastructure projects and soon found themselves in debt traps that they couldn’t escape — and that China is able to use to wield political influence.
Zambia is a perfect example. Today it finds itself in debt to China in the amount of $6–10 billion — nearly a third of its total GPD. Chinese control over the country’s economy has put Zambia in a stranglehold. As one former Zambian prime minister put it, “European colonial exploitation in comparison with Chinese exploitation appears benign,” the latter being “focused on taking out of Africa as much as can be taken out, without any regard for the welfare of the local people.” Several other African countries, including Rwanda and Ghana, could make the same claim.
China’s growing influence has its military side as well. China’s decision in 2017 to build a military and naval base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa has been a geopolitical game-changer, given its proximity to the U.S. base at Camp Lemonnier. The Djibouti base location gives China’s new aircraft carriers a place to rest and refit — and to project Chinese power where no one ten or 20 years ago imagined it possible.
Bolton in his speech mentioned both Zambia and Djibouti, in explaining why America needs a new proactive policy toward Africa, one that emphasizes democracy, economic prosperity, and, above all, political autonomy in face of China’s neo-colonialist ambitions. While not forgetting the importance of the war on radical Islam in Africa — which, we should remember, the Obamas chose to fight largely with hashtags — Bolton and the Trump administration recognize that the top priority there is to counter Russian and Chinese influence across the continent. (China’s predatory practices get plenty of mention, but Bolton also pointed out that Russia “continues to sell arms and energy in exchange for votes at the United Nations — votes that keep strongmen in power, undermine peace and security, and run counter to the best interests of the African people.”)
One component of the new American strategy is to look for ways to increase investment by U.S. companies in a broad range of industries, from energy and minerals to telecommunications and health care. Another component, just as important, of the the new U.S. strategy is to cut and eliminate U.S. aid that only strengthens corruption and economic dependence. Between 1995 and 2006, for example, U.S. government aid to Africa was roughly equal to the amount of assistance provided by all other donors combined — with little or no benefit for the intended recipients, or for the U.S. The new Trump policy will aim to ensure, instead, according to Bolton, “that ALL aid to the region — whether for security, humanitarian, or development needs — advances US interests.”
Finally, the new U.S. policy will stress engagement through bilateral ties with individual African states instead of reliance on multilateral bodies such as the World Bank and the U.N. The U.N.’s human-rights record in its African peacekeeping missions, for example, has been horrendous and has only played into China’s pose as Africa’s last best hope.
All this represents a breath of fresh air in America’s policy toward Africa and gives us an important, benign and active role in the coming scramble for Africa that will dominate much of the 21st century. Will that competition lead to great-power tensions like those of the 19th century? Not if the U.S., unlike China, which treats African countries as neo-colonial dependents, invites African countries to be partners in a new order for the sub-Saharan region — and for the United States.
In end, how ironic will it be that while President Obama, who proudly touted his African heritage, allowed Russian and Chinese malign influence — as well as that of ISIS and Boko Haram — to grow in Africa. Donald Trump, the man whom the media and liberals and some conservatives paint as a racist, is the one on course to become the liberator of Africa from Chinese neo-colonialism and to set the continent on the path to peace and prosperity at long last.