Africa has been called “the continent of the future” and “the cursed continent” and both phrases reflect a facet of the truth. The continent possesses a cornucopia of riches that have long lured great powers.
Their rivalries sowed tensions and strife that wrought misery for the peoples of the continent.
Comprising an area larger than Russia, the US and China together, Africa sits atop 12 per cent of the world’s oil reserves, 10 per cent of its natural gas and 10 per cent of its renewable fresh water.
It produces 80 per cent of the world’s platinum, 40 per cent of its diamonds, 25 per cent of its gold and 27 per cent of its cobalt. It has the largest expanse of agricultural land in the world and inestimable animal wealth.
European powers fought for control of Africa from the dawn of the colonial era to the age of national independence which reached its peak in the 1960s.
Since then Africa has been torn by conflict, fuelled by the polarisation engendered by the Cold War the activities of multinational companies. A major change would come with the end of the Cold War when Africa began to turn to China for economic assistance.
There were several reasons African countries preferred China over former colonial powers and the US. The most important was that, unlike Western countries, Beijing is not interested in linking assistance to issues such as human rights and the fight against corruption.
Chinese projects are, in addition, often less costly, and banks in Beijing and Shanghai offer start-up capital and loans on easier terms than their counterparts in London and Paris.
There is a mutually beneficial relationship between China and Africa. The Chinese get the raw materials they need for their factories at reasonable prices while African countries get the infrastructure projects they need for their emergent middle classes which, in turn, work to secure African governments.
China has contributed to building a large number of African dams, most of them small. Many countries are not interested in dams for irrigation purposes because they are costly and it takes decades to recover their costs.
While the main purpose of most of the Chinese-constructed dams is to generate electricity they also serve as reservoirs and help control flooding.
Beyond dams, China is heavily involved in infrastructure in Africa: roads, railroads, electricity stations, wastewater projects, government buildings, etc.
The first Chinese railway in Africa was built in 1974. It connects copper mines in Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Today there are plans to extend the line westward to Lobito, Angola, on the Atlantic coast, passing through the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
China is also developing the old British colonial railway line between Kenya and Uganda which it plans to extend to Juba, South Sudan, and Kigali, Rwanda.
Of the billions of dollars that China has invested in Africa Nigeria has obtained the largest share: $32 billion. It is followed by Algeria ($19 billion), Ethiopia ($17 billion), Angola ($16.5 billion), Egypt ($12 billion) and South Africa ($9.5 billion), according to the Mercator Institute for China Studies.
But China is not the only foreign power investing in Africa. Russia and the US are primary sources of weapons and the US is the largest investor in oil and gas in Africa.
Though most African countries are unwilling to host US military bases nearly all of them obtain military assistance from Washington in the form of training, intelligence or arms.
Neither Washington nor Moscow has become involved in major development projects in Africa in the 21st century. This contrasts sharply the height of the Soviet Union when Moscow contributed heavily to the development of countries in its “socialist” orbit.
For some African countries, former colonising powers still hold appeal. France has intervened with large forces of its own to help Francophone countries fight terrorism, especially in the Sahel (Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania).
The French also maintain a military presence. Two of France’s largest military bases abroad are in Chad and Mali.
France is keen to retain a cultural and political presence on the continent through the Francophone Organisation or French cultural organisations.
Rwanda is one country that rejects the connections France seeks to promote. It amended its constitution to replace French with English as the official language on the grounds that French forces were complicit in the 1994 massacres that claimed the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Elsewhere on the continent French firms are completing a railway line linking Benin, Togo, Niger, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, all five countries former French colonies. The UK, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent given its colonial past.
India, for its part, has yet to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the relatively well-to-do and educated Indian communities in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa.
The Portuguese and Brazilian presence in Africa is restricted to Portugal’s former colonies, particularly oil-rich Angola and Mozambique. Lisbon is primarily involved in agricultural and mining projects in these countries.
A couple of relative newcomers south of the Sahara are South Korea and Turkey. Both are involved in construction activities though neither country has an extensive presence.
Nor does Israel have a particularly significant presence on the continent. Its arms sales of $400 million are dwarfed by the billions of dollars of military hardware exported to India and China. Israeli agricultural projects in Africa are rarely larger than small enterprises or experimental labs.
The primary reason for the relatively limited Israeli presence in Africa is economic. Tel Aviv may have developed into something of an IT hub but Chinese computer parts and programmes are cheaper.
Russian weapons are more abundant than Israeli ones, and Chinese, Indian and Brazilian agricultural enterprises are less costly to get off the ground than their Israeli counterparts.
Still, Tel Aviv is making a go of it, primarily because it wants to break the majority support that the Palestinian cause has in the UN thanks to the African bloc.
African votes were instrumental in Ramallah’s admission to the UN. Yet, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visits to Africa, the most important being during the Great Lakes summit which brought together the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi, and his recent visit to Chad, he has not managed to alter Africa’s voting pattern in the UN.
Ultimately, in the 21st century race for Africa, China is in the lead though the US remains the number one investor in the petroleum sector while London and Paris retain their cultural appeal for African elites despite competition from Chinese universities which offer generous grants.
As for smaller players such as Turkey, Brazil, India, Portugal, Norway, Egypt and South Africa, their overall impact is to dilute the Western presence and augment Africa’s independence from former colonial powers.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The race for Africa