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USA and China: Re-Colonising Africa? June 13, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Politics, Society, South Africa.

Another story I wrote for the Big Issue:

Re-Colonising Africa

David Bullard’s opinion notwithstanding, much of Africa’s history has been detrimentally affected by people from outside its shores. It’s nearly impossible today to imagine the brutal hardships centuries of slave trading inflicted on the continent’s population and we are still living with the legacy of the colonial era, when empire-building Europeans carved up the land to better facilitate the extraction of its riches for the benefit of elites from Lisbon and London to Brussels and Paris, all under the pretence of delivering civilisation and Christianity.

Things didn’t improve a whole lot once most of Africa’s countries had nominally liberated themselves from their European masters. The United States and the USSR found the continent a suitable terrain – sufficiently remote from their domestic populations and press – to stage their sometimes overt, but often secret Cold War machinations, propping up agreeable dictators here, deposing of less cooperative ones there and all the while fuelling bloody civil wars with weapons and military aid. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the industrialised world with the US at its helm has continued to treat Africa as both a developmental basket case and a valuable source of raw materials.

None of this is to deny that Africa hasn’t been plagued by many internal problems or that all of its woes can simply be blamed on outsiders. Far from it, but it does make one wonder what the rest of the world has in store for us in the 21st century.

Many observers believe that the stage is set for a massive period of geopolitical posturing between the USA, currently the planet’s only fully-fledged super power, and the not-so-new kid on the block, China. It seems inevitable that Africa with its wealth of natural resources and continuing trouble spots will play a strategic role in this showdown.

Both countries have upped their involvement in the continent’s affairs in recent times and although their methods and motivations often appear literally worlds apart, the end results may not be all that different. Are we witnessing the beginning of a new era of political and economic colonialism in Africa? Will Africans benefit or suffer from the fallout of the looming power shuffle?

In 2007 the USA caused some controversy in diplomatic circles when it announced that all of its African military interests (with the exception of Egypt) would in future be consolidated under a single new control centre called Africa Command, or AFRICOM. In the past, US military matters in Africa where steered from three separate units: the European, Central and Pacific Commands.

Officially, the main function of the new body is to help Africa “achieve a more stable environment in which political and economic growth can take place” and according to US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Africa, Theresa Whalen, AFRICOM’s mission is to promote economic, humanitarian and diplomatic aid for African countries.

There are, however, several other reasons for establishing AFRICOM which the US government is less vocal about. The new command will help to safeguard continued American access to African natural resources, most crucially oil – Africa is forecast to supply a quarter of all US petroleum imports by 2015. It will also facilitate the continent’s incorporation into America’s “War on Terror” and put the US in a strong position to compete with China in the new scramble for Africa.

Opponents of AFRICOM insist that it needs to be seen within the context of what they call the “militarisation of US policy in Africa”. According to Beth Tuckey, Associate Director of Africa Faith and Justice Network (www.afjn.org), “developments like AFRICOM reveal that the Bush Administration’s national security strategy relies on putting soldiers at the front of nearly all foreign operations”.

In recent years, the USA has established, financed and enlarged military, intelligence and counter-terrorism bases and programs in several African countries, including Djibouti, Mali, Chad, Niger, Mauritania, Ghana, Gabon and Senegal and trained and equipped local troops for peacekeeping activities in numerous others. In 2008, legal commercial sales of military weapons and equipment by US companies in Africa are projected to reach $92 million, an increase of 80 percent from 2006. The oil rich Gulf of Guinea is reported to be under nearly continuous US naval patrol from Angola to Guinea.

That AFRICOM is more than simply a military entity is evident from the fact that it will coordinate the activities carried out by all US governmental agencies, including for example the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which previously operated independently of the army. Marie Clarke, Deputy Director for Africa Action (www.africaaction.org), a Washington-based African affairs organisation, points out that “the projected structure [of AFRICOM] would place humanitarian work under the auspices of the Department of Defense”.

Perhaps the most scathing criticism of AFRICOM has come from the US National Conference of Black Lawyers, which believes that it “infringes on the sovereignty of African States”, is “designed to violate international law standards” and “is also likely to become a device for the foreign domination and exploitation of Africa’s natural resources”. A number of African countries and regional bodies, including South Africa and the Southern African Development Community have expressed concern about AFRICOM and the United States’ growing military footprint on the continent. Despite considerable diplomatic manoeuvring, only Liberia has thus far publicly expressed a willingness to support AFRICOM which is expected to have its temporary headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany for the foreseeable future.

While the United States is significantly beefing up its military activities in Africa, its economic and developmental programme for the continent has been in place without major modifications for some time. On his 2008 state visit of Benin, Ghana, Liberia, Rwanda and Tanzania, President Bush reiterated his country’s commitment to help Africa promote literacy, fight HIV/AIDS, malaria, corruption and “radicals and extremists associated with groups like al-Qaeda” and grow its economy through foreign direct investment, trade, and aid.

For the most part, however, this help has only come within the framework of what has been called the Washington Consensus, an economic doctrine largely administered via international institutions including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation that have been disproportionately influenced by US policymakers. In exchange for financial and material developmental assistance, the governments of African (and other Third World) countries have been required to open their fragile economies to global markets, stop subsidies to domestic industries and agriculture, reduce social spending and privatise public assets. Many believe that rather than predominantly resulting in positive effects, these measures have contributed to the impoverishment of Africa.

Although the USA spends billions of dollars in support of African countries it also stands accused of supporting illegitimate and corrupt regimes that are willing to provide preferential access to resources or support for the unpopular “War on Terror”. Examples include military aid supplied to Rwanda, a country that has been involved in armed conflict in the DRC and is alleged to have committed human rights violations directed at Hutus, as well as Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, whom US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described as a “good friend”, but who observers claim is guilty of electoral fraud, torture and corruption.

China’s activities in Africa are still frequently portrayed in “Yellow Peril” terms by the western media, although the country has long stopped attempting to export its brand of revolutionary communism to the developing world. Even though recent arms shipments to Zimbabwe have reinforced many people’s negative image of Chinese Africa policy, the country’s dealings on the continent, be they in military assistance, trade, investment or aid are still dwarfed by the involvement of the US and Europe.

What clearly has the Americans worried though is the rate at which China has been expanding its influence in Africa. As a relatively resource-poor nation, China is increasingly looking to Africa to supply its burgeoning manufacturing sectors with raw materials and also for new markets for its cheap consumer goods.

Africa already provides 25 percent of China’s oil requirements and overall trade between China and Africa quadrupled to $39 billion from 2000 to 2005. It is expected to reach the $100 billion mark by 2010. Among other projects, China is smelting copper in Zambia, logging rainforest in Gabon, building roads in Kenya, farming in Zimbabwe, mining cobalt in the DRC and producing oil in Sudan, Angola and Nigeria. Unlike the US, however, it has not as yet sought to establish any military footholds on the African continent.

Chinese aid to African countries comes in the form of infrastructure projects such as building schools and hospitals, loans, investment, debt cancellation, trade agreements and scholarships to Chinese universities. Like the United States, China claims that its assistance is aimed at improving human rights and economic development as well as alleviating poverty.

The Chinese government claims to have a strict policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs and its aid comes without requirements such as economic reforms or commitments to improving human rights, democracy or environmental affairs. In juxtaposition to the Washington Consensus, these aspects of China’s foreign policy are frequently described as the Beijing Consensus.

Although its hands-off approach is favoured by many African governments, development assistance from China doesn’t come without any strings attached. Chinese aid is often tied to trade and investment agreements and frequently used to negotiate favourable access to natural resources such as fishing rights in Sierra Leone and Gabon, or oil concessions in Sudan and Angola.

Like the USA, China has been strongly criticised for maintaining friendly ties with discredited and authoritarian African leaders such as Mugabe and for not putting enough pressure on the Sudanese government to work towards peace in Darfur. In addition, Chinese construction projects in Africa are often carried out by imported Chinese workers, resulting in neither a transfer of much needed skills or job creation. Chinese logging and mining operations are often accused of showing scant regard for workers’ rights or environmental concerns and in a number of cases cheap Chinese imports have all but destroyed local industries, something the South African clothing and textile industry can attest to.

Clearly both the United States and China are ramping up their involvement in Africa and the continent with its wealth of strategic resources is bound to be caught up in the political brouhaha that will undoubtedly ensue as China challenges the USA’s status as the single dominant global power and the Americans prepare to defend their turf.

The threat of increasingly colonial relationships becoming entrenched between China and the USA on the one hand and African countries on the other is certainly real. Is there any merit in African countries backing either one of the two participants in this contest? Unless they can negotiate truly equitable and mutually beneficial relationships for the first time in history, past experiences and current evidence suggest the choice would merely be one for the better of two evils.


1. Peter Quinn - June 13, 2008

Hi. I am a long time reader. I wanted to say that I like your blog and the layout.

Peter Quinn

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