The Scramble for Africa

As the industrial powers race to extract the continent’s natural resources to feed their own consumption, they are fostering environmental degradation, corruption and human rights abuses.

Africa Oil Week took place in Cape Town, late 2006. One of the conferences was even titled the Scramble for Africa.

As is often the case with oil, military involvement follows closely behind trade, and in February this year the US set up an Africa command (Africom). It has established bases in and signed access agreements with Senegal, Mali, Ghana, Gabon and Namibia. Africa is becoming strategically important to the US because of its oil production and China’s increasing influence in the region.
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The new entrant to the scramble is China. Despite its large land area, it is a resource-poor country and Africa offers the natural resources vital to fuel its rapidly growing economy.
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Beijing has charmed African rulers with a triple whammy of arms sales, cancelled debt and soft loans. Last year, president Hu Jintao and prime minister Wen Jiabao visited 10 African countries, and this increasingly intimate relationship was consummated at the China-Africa summit in October, when Beijing rolled out the red carpet to almost 50 African heads of state and ministers.
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“Unless properly managed, the windfall gains from resource extraction cause more problems. It reduces a state’s incentive to impose a free and just taxation system, and encourages corruption and acquisition of weaponry.”

Resource extraction has already caused severe environmental problems. And the competition for resources and profit fuels violent conflict and human rights abuses.

The clearing of forests for timber exports increases vulnerability to erosion, river silting, landslides, flooding and loss of habitat for plant and animal species. Gas flaring from oil production, where unusable waste gas is burned off, pumps large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So what can Africa do about this? b real kindly pointed out this article, which suggests a possible response. As someone who watched the blunderings of the Cold War in Africa, and the brutal pointless devastation that created, I strongly endorse the author’s opinion, that African governments must develop a collective response. We all know there is strength in numbers, and we need all the strength we can muster for dealing with the twin Goliaths, the US and China.

Africa: Scramble for a Response

Almost all of the world’s major economic actors have a presence on the continent. Yet it is two of them — the US and China — whose footprints could leave the most-lasting legacy. And this legacy is unlikely to be positive.
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Ultimately, it would be prudent for advocates of African development to recognise that both countries are on the continent to advance their own national interest, and harbouring illusions to the contrary will result only in future disappointment.

Moreover, such advocates should recognise that there is a great danger looming from this new scramble for Africa’s resources. The last time such a scramble took place, during the Cold War, the consequences were devastating. Both foreign powers, the US and Soviet Union, established client regimes, funded rebel armies, and engaged in proxy wars. The result was a continent wracked by civil wars, displacements of citizens, and cross-border refugee flows. How to avoid a repeat should be the overriding concern of Africa’s political elite.

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What then can be done? A collective African response can be the only solution . What form would it take? Some would argue for a pan-African solution in the form of a United States of Africa. But while such a development would be positive, it is not feasible in the short to medium term.

What about the possibility of a continental charter of rights governing investments and engagements on the continent? Such a charter, which would have to be negotiated in the African Union (AU), could supersede bilateral agreements and force all external powers to accord to a specific set of practices. Of course, the administrative weaknesses and the capacity constraints of the AU may hinder compliance.

But if such a charter were to be agreed to by the AU, it could be subsequently ratified in the United Nations, thereby strengthening its institutionalisation and enhancing the reach of its compliance.

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Is this likely? Probably not, given the divisions within the AU. But there is an urgent need to try to develop a continental African response. The failure to develop one would have serious consequences for Africa and undermine all of the significant achievements of the past decade. Given this, should this not be the principal focus of SA in the AU summit starting later this month ? Should we not use this opportunity to focus African minds in a realistic attempt to develop a collective African response to a developing continental threat?