19 September 2018

The New Scramble for Africa

Between 1881 and 1914, European states who were at the height of their global power launched a race to occupy, divide and colonize the much of the territory of Africa, a race that became known as the Scramble for Africa.  Eventually, seven European powers (the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Belgium) would gain control over the entire continent, with the exception of modern-day Ethiopia, Liberia and parts of Somalia.  These powers conquered Africa for a variety of reasons, including prestige, nationalism, a desire to seize control of strategic locations before their rivals and a perceived need to enhance their economic position in Europe and the world.  As European power collapsed in the decades after the Second World War, these African colonies gained their independence, but Europe’s colonial legacy is still evident today in the use of English, French, Portuguese and other European languages across Africa, as well as the lingering ties between many present-day African countries and their former colonizers. 

Today, while Africa consists of 54 independent countries, there is a sense that a new scramble for Africa is underway.  Earlier, in the decades after African countries gained their independence, former colonial powers were able to retain their influence as the world’s two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had little interest in the region.  However, as the Cold War intensified, both the US and the USSR spread their ideological showdown to Africa, with many African leaders playing the two rivals off one another, typically to line their own pockets.  Since the end of the Cold War, US interest in Africa waned considerable.  Instead, it is the US’ new superpower rival, China, that has dramatically expanded its presence in the region in recent decades.  China, along with other Asian powers such as Japan and India, have made major investments in Africa, seeing the region as a valuable source of the resources they need to fuel their economies, as well as a large, relatively-untapped market for their products.  With Asia’s presence in Africa rising, the United States and some of Africa’s former colonial powers from Europe are rekindling their interest in this region.

As in the late 19th century when European powers viewed the race to control Africa as a zero-sum game, so too do today’s leading powers.  Increasingly, the view from Beijing, New Delhi, Washington and other capitals is that, if one power is able to expand its economic, military or political presence in Africa, it will weaken the position of the other outside powers active in that region.  First and foremost, access to Africa’s strategic resources, such as oil, minerals and arable land, is seen as an essential component in the efforts to secure the future economic growth of countries investing in the region, and this has been the driving force behind China’s growing presence in Africa.  At the same time, no region in the world is experiencing a higher rate of population growth than Africa, and at a time when global population growth is slowing, this makes the region a market with significant long-term potential growth.  In fact, Africa’s population is forecast to rise from 1.1 billion today to as much as 2.5 billion in the year 2050.  For major economies seeking export growth markets, Africa appears to offer many opportunities for such long-term growth.

Today, there are seven large- and mid-sized outside powers that are seeking to expand or protect their positions in Africa.  These are: 

  • China: No country has received more attention for their expansion into Africa than China.  In particular, China’s investments in African infrastructure holds the promise of transforming the region’s economy.  However, China’s focus remains on securing access to African natural resources, and its investments have left many African countries deep in debt.
  • India: After a late start, India has followed China’s lead and sought to expand its presence in Africa and to secure access to the region’s vital energy and mineral resources.  However, Indian trade with Africa remains less than one-quarter of that of China’s trade with the region.
  • Japan: Japan too has trailed behind China in terms of its presence in Africa, but in recent months, Tokyo has announced plans for a major expansion of Japanese investments in the region.  Japan’s giant manufacturing firms view Africa as both a source of natural resources as well as a long-term growth market for their products.
  • Russia: While Russia’s economic presence in Africa is severely limited by Russia’s own economic woes, it has moved to significantly expand its political and defense presence in the region in recent years.  This includes plans for a series of new logistics and security bases in strategic locations around Africa.
  • France: No former colonial European power has tried to retain as much influence in its former African colonies as France.  For France, it views close ties to French-speaking parts of Africa as essential in its drive to retain some degree of global influence.  Also, security concerns are resulting in France expanding its military presence in some areas of West Africa.
  • United Kingdom: While the English language is the leading European language in modern-day Africa, the United Kingdom has done less to retain a presence in its former African colonials than most other colonial powers.  However, a renewed focus on the Commonwealth in London could lead to stronger Anglo-African ties in the coming years.
  • United States: Despite being the world’s leading power, the United States has played a relatively secondary role in African affairs.  However, that is changing as the United States is now the leading foreign investor in Africa, and its armed forces are expanding their presence in many areas of the region.  As China’s presence in the region grows, the US is likely to counter this with a greater presence of its own.

It is important to remember that that original Scramble for Africa almost led to a war between the two leading colonial powers of that era, the United Kingdom and France.  Had there been a full-scale battle at Fashoda in 1898 between British and French forces in the Sudan, the history of the 20th century would have probably turned out much differently.  Today, the potential for a military clash between rival outside powers in Africa seems remote, but a continued expansion of these countries’ presence in the region makes it difficult to preclude such an eventuality in the future.  Most notably, a clash of US and Chinese interests in the region could exacerbate tensions between the 21st century’s two dominant powers.  While the US has few direct interests in Africa, it is unlikely to allow China to emerge as the dominant outside power in the region. 

Of course, this discussion ignores any of the interests or wishes of African states themselves.  Unfortunately, few African states have reached a level of stability or prosperity that enables them to withstand outside economic or military pressure, leaving them at the mercy of outside powers.  Worse, this situation appears unlikely to change anytime soon, as African economic growth has failed to reach expectations, and as security and stability remain as elusive as ever for too many countries in the region.  Despite these troubles, many outside powers will remain attracted to the region’s natural resources and its long-term potential as an export market.  As a result, this will keep outsiders scrambling for the region for the foreseeable future.