Something has certainly changed in the intervening years in Africa, and in its relations with the outside world, even if excessive pessimism or optimism is unwarranted. What accounts for these changes, and what does this mean for African politics and economic development into the future?
The lead story of a recent Eco-nomist magazine was entitled “Africa Rising”. This is in sharp contrast to a previous cover a little over a decade ago which described the continent as “hopeless”. Something has certainly changed in the intervening years in Africa, and in its relations with the outside world, even if excessive pessimism or optimism is unwarranted. According to the International Monetary Fund, Africa hosted six of the top ten fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. The continent also has the fastest growing mobile phone penetration rate in the world, and wide scale armed conflict has substantially reduced, as has poverty, according to some studies, although the statistics are disputed. What accounts for these changes, and what does this mean for African politics and economic development into the future?
High levels of economic growth across much of Africa have been largely driven by demand for the continent’s natural resources and raw materials. About three quarters of what the continent exports is unprocessed primary commodities, and prices for many of these again hit record highs in 2011; the global economic crisis notwithstanding. There are a number of factors driving global demand for primary commodities operating at different levels. At a broad scale the globalized economy exerts ever increasing demand for finite natural resources as it grows, creating problems of scarcity and putting pressure on prices. By some estimates the global economy was growing at 4% during 2011, despite economic problems in the euro zone and elsewhere. The main drivers of global growth have been the so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The rate and scale of Chinese economic expansion has been particularly notable, and in recent years that country has accounted for 40% of growth in global oil demand, by itself. Despite being admonished for not consuming enough by Western powers, there are now twenty times more cars on the roads in China than there were ten years ago. The need to find natural resources to fuel its booming economy is one of the reasons the Chinese govern-ment has a so-called “going out” policy; to encourage its companies to invest overseas. However, this is different from the “Washington Consensus” model of globalization as many of the biggest Chinese companies investing in Africa, and elsewhere, are state, or partially state-owned.
The old Western powers have also recently taken a much more keen interest in African resources and affairs. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the wars in the Middle East, the United States, in particular, was eager to diversify its oil supplies to other world regions, such as Africa. Nigeria is now the fifth, and Angola the ninth largest source of US oil imports. As the oil price rose, Angola had the world’s fastest growing economy in the decade from 2000. And while there have been some improvements in social indicators, 16% of children still die before their fifth birthday, while “special Angolans” “evaporate” oil revenues. There are thought to be several politicians, or former politicians, in Angola worth more that US $100m each. In some recent years Angola has been China’s largest single source of oil imports.
The Western powers have also taken a close interest in African security issues – to ensure the continued outflow of oil and other resources, and to contain potential terrorist threats to these. This has led to new strategies in Africa. For example French political elites have often regarded Africa as a chasse gardée, or private hunting ground. The former French President François Mitterrand once said that France without Africa would have no history in the twenty first century; partly explaining his support for the former genocidal regime in Rwanda. However, in part to counter the Eastern challenge, and as part of a broader realignment of it foreign policy, France has been making space for the United States in Africa, by transferring one of its military bases in Djibouti, for example. However, according the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, China is now the most influential country in Africa.
Chinese economic and political engagement has been very successful, and multifold. China realizes that it cannot effectively compete with the United States militarily, at least in the immediate future, given vast differences in capabilities, and it consequently engages in “asymmetric power projection.” China does not carry the colonial baggage of the Western powers in Africa, giving it a “soft power” advantage in its relations with the continent. Also the Chinese government has largely eschewed aid to Africa in favor of resource-for-infrastructure deals and construction of six special economic zones -potentially worth billions of dollars – across the continent. The former President of Botswana, Festus Mogae, said he preferred to deal with the Chinese as they treated Africans as equals.
With the end of the Cold War, the US and European Union attempted to tell African political elites what to do – liberalize their economies and hold elections. They attempted to promote a hegemonic vision for societies around the world of “free market democracies”. In contrast the Chinese have worked “with the grain,” adopting a policy of “flexige-mony,” where they work with both democratic and authoritarian regimes in order to secure resource and market access. However, in certain cases the Chinese strategy has partially backfired; in Zambia in particular.
Zambia is a poor country in Southern Africa, whose major export is copper; which China is now the world’s largest consumer of. Partly as a consequence, Zambia is the third largest recipient of Chinese investment in Africa, hosting the first overseas Chinese mine in 1998, and the first state-owned Bank of China branch on the continent from 1997. However, labor relations at Chinese mines in Zambia have been highly contentious, with workers often not given safety equipment and being paid exploitative poverty wages. Fifty workers were killed in an explosion at a Chinese explosives plant in the country in 2005, and Chinese managers shot striking workers
at another site in 2010. Incidents such as these fed into anti-Chinese riots and strikes in the country, and the eventual election of the populist Michael Sata in 2011. He had previously stated that the country needed “investors not infesters.” In a visit to Zambia a few months before the election, US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, said she did not want to see a “new colonialism” in Africa.
While much of the recent competition in Africa has been between the US and China, there are also a number of other emerging powers involved, although they have often received less attention. India has a population of over a billion people and a rapidly growing economy. Its single largest export is cut and polished diamonds, and most of these come, in the first instance, from Africa. The country also has less than half a percent of the world’s proven oil reserves, making Africa of great strategic importance for this reason as well. The Indian government cannot offer the same kinds of incentives to African countries and political elites as China, as it does not have the same foreign exchange reserves. Consequently the Indians have concentrated attention directly on political elites by building a VVIP (very, very important people’s) telecom-munications network for African heads of state to keep in touch, for example. India is engaged in a kind of “globalization slipstreaming” behind China in Africa, where its companies still invest in “rogue” countries, such as North Sudan, without attracting the same level of attention. China received much more criticism of its support for Sudan because of its arms sales, the scale of its engagement and the fact that it wielded a veto in the UN Security Council to protect the regime.
Other emerging powers, such as Brazil, South Korea and Turkey have also been active in Africa in recent years. Brazilian, and also South Korean, companies have been particularly active around biofuels development on the continent. So-called ‘first generation’ biofuels are derived from sugar, veget-able oil, starch or animal fats, and the feedstocks for these are often grains, such as wheat, or maize. Biofuels are highly controversial in Africa because they may take land away from food-crop production, and in some cases are actually produced with staple food crops, such as cassava. Filling up a 25-gallon tank of a sport utility vehicle uses the equivalent of over 450 pounds of corn, containing enough calories to feed a person for a full year. Diversion of food to biofuels has also dramatically driven up the price of food around the world in recent years, affecting the extremely poor most adversely.
Sometimes biofuels development has been associated with political instability. When the South Korean company, Daewoo Logistics leased half of Madagascar’s cultivable land for maize and palm oil production for food and biofuel exports this was one of the factors which prompted a revolution in that country in 2009. This is understandable in a county where many people are malnourished and do not see the benefits of their country’s resources. However, as the rule of law broke down armed gangs took advantage, and pillaged the country’s tropical rain forests for timber. “Land grabbing” by foreign companies and powers, as they seek to secure food and energy supplies in the face of increasing scarcity, is increasingly controversial across much of the rest of Africa as well. Despite the country experiencing a food emergency, Gambella Province in Ethiopia offered 1.1 million hectares of land for lease to investors in 2011.
Competition over other resource has also generated en-vironmental and political controversy. For example, while the United States has criticized China for its support of dictatorial regimes in Africa, it has supported President Obiang in Equatorial Guinea for example, despite reported detention, torture and execution of tourists, missionaries and aid workers. It is illegal to disclose the extent of state oil revenues in Equatorial Guinea, much of which goes to the ruling family. The country does not have a single book shop.
The New Scramble for Africa has been a mixed blessing for the continent. It has brought higher levels of economic growth and tax revenues to finance some social and infrastructural investment. It seems to have strengthened states and generated incentives for institutionalization so that resources can be exported. However, it has also tended to strengthen international support for incumbent, often undemocratic, regimes and speeded up the pace of environmental degradation. The deforestation process in Mozambique is known locally as the “Chinese take away”. What will happen to Zambia’s eco-nomy when all of the copper is gone? Even the much vaunted mobile phone revolution in Africa, in which many foreign owned companies are involved, is problematic. When poor peasant farmers or traders buy airtime the profits often flow to people offshore, such as the majority shareholder in Bharti Airtel; reportedly the ninth richest person in India.
While there are similarities between the nineteenth and twenty first century scrambles for Africa, there are also differences. Both were driven by the desire to access natural resources and markets; however African countries are now juridically independent. This means that external powers and companies have to negotiate with African political elites, who act as gatekeepers. This has sometimes had progressive outcomes, with Liberia renegotiating what was widely regarded as a highly exploitative iron deal with ArcelorMittal, for example. Also Asian companies are increasingly investing in manufacturing activities across the continent, holding out the promise of some economic diversification, unlike during the First Scramble when manufacturing in Africa was sometimes forbidden by the European powers. Higher commodity prices could also provide resources for domestic investment and economic diversification, if revenues aren’t offshored by multinational companies and domestic elites. Whether or not this happens will largely depend on political mobilizations and struggles in African countries, and the use of greater bargaining power to achieve concessions from the international system for African countries to determine their own developmental priorities.
About the author
Pádraig Carmody is an Associate Professor of Geography, and coordinator of the TCD-UCD Masters in Development Practice at Trinity College Dublin. He is also an editor of the journal Geoforum. His most recent book is The New Scramble for Africa (Polity, 2011). He studied at Trinity College Dublin and the University of Minnesota, and has taught at the University of Vermont, Dublin City University and St. Patrick’s College. He has also worked as research and policy analyst at the Combat Poverty Agency in Dublin.