Understanding Africa’s Global Relations
March 6, 2014
Africa’s global relationships are complex. They reflect historical, geographic, cultural and linguistic diversity and can be understood against a backdrop of imperialism and its sister, global capitalism. Consequently, there is no master narrative for understanding Africa’s global relationships – both past and present.
Africa on the Margins of the World Constitutive Process
It is still helpful, however, to contextualize Africa’s global relationships into broad, artificial time periods – artificial, much like the nation-states in Africa themselves: 1) the Scramble for Africa and consolidation of colonial power vis-à-vis the creation of nation-states from 1879-1905; 2) the interwar years to the emergence of national movements and decolonization 1906-1961; 3) Africa as Cold War proxy, independence and civil wars 1961-1991; 4) post-Cold War state reconfiguration and regional conflict and; 5) the second scramble for Africa and the construction of the contemporary African state.
European imperial leaders at the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) – led by the UK, France, Portugal, Belgium and Germany – partitioned Africa as arbitrarily as the above historical divisions. Borders were drawn with little to no regard for socio-cultural reality. Unsurprisingly, European leaders claimed that the partition of Africa was largely an altruistic enterprise to improve the welfare of people on the continent. However, like schoolboys with shiny new sneakers, European nations were more concerned with flaunting their colonial trophies to each other than developing infrastructure and economic markets for the future.
King Leopold II was likely the most egregious of European leaders during this period. Leopold, blinded by the mythology of rubber abundance in the Congo basin, effectively turned the region into a corporation ironically labelled the Congo Free State. As rubber and ivory resources dwindled and profit margins fell, Leopold – who had never visited the Congo basin himself – instituted horrifically violent means of extraction. Although the term “resource curse” was not coined until 1993, during this period it certainly applied to the Congo basin and other African nations that were blessed with an abundance of natural resources yet trapped in the tragic irony of poverty and forced labour as a result. It is likely that Leopold’s influence in the Belgian Congo set in motion patterns of practice that would be repeated in many other African countries over the next century – by nations and multinationals alike.
Between the two World Wars, Africa reflected global politics on a regional scale. At the end of the First World War, France and the UK carved mandate states out of the former Ottoman Empire that were not unlike the fictitious nation-states created in Africa only decades earlier. By 1922, almost a quarter of the world was subject to the British crown. The world was largely governed by empires with Africa, Latin America, and most of Asia on the margins.
Western European global dominance was short-lived. The First World War stretched the UK and France beyond their means. As France felt its geopolitical power slipping in the 1930s it increased its investments in North Africa by building infrastructure and training military. The Popular Front government, economic depression, and the onset of the Spanish Civil War informed colonial policy in North Africa. Increased militarization in North and West Africa was also a response to emerging nationalist movements, for example, the creation of one of the earliest nationalist independence parties, Parti du Peuple Algérien in Algeria in 1937.
It was clear by the end of the Second World War that the British Empire had reached its pinnacle. The toll of the war extended the UK beyond its means. The independence of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 represented the tipping point for the collapse of 19th century conceptions of empire. The monopoly of trade from India, up the Eastern coast of Africa and through the Suez Canal was now a fading dream. Riddled with debt, the UK’s presence in Africa slowly dwindled. Western imperial powers were further weakened and fractured as their priorities shifted around the ideological divisions of the Cold War.
Unlike the UK, France viewed its colonies, particularly those in North Africa, as an extension of France itself. Independence movements were met with military suppression and protracted wars – the Algerian conflict (1945-1962) being the most violent example. Britain, in contrast, generally relinquished control of its colonies peacefully (Kenya being an exception) – largely in response to its own economic fragility and dwindled resources.
Prior to the rise of nationalist movements, most African economies were based on artificially low-wages and resource exploitation that fuelled Western growth at the expense of domestic prosperity. The colonial export-based primary commodity economies led to the stagnation of economic growth in the post-colonial context. Britain and France failed to build requisite infrastructure to support economic sustainability.
Postcolonial Regional Politics
From 1956 to 1968, thirty-seven African countries declared independence from colonial rule. Regional African cooperation formally began in 1963 with the creation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – since 2002 the African Union. As the name indicates, the organization was designed to promote African integration and unity as countries embarked upon self-determination. Concurrently, regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC) also emerged to encourage regional trade and fiscal cooperation.
African democratic movements were often marked by single-party dominance. Ebullient heads of state such as Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sekou Touré and Habib Bourguiba captured the imagination of the world as representatives of African self-determination on the global stage. The future was certain to hold promise internationally and domestically.
Africa’s newly independent nations often formed their international relationships in the ideological context of the Cold War and faced post-colonial depression as a result. Portugal’s rapid collapse after the death of Salazar led to overnight decolonization in Angola and Mozambique. Transit, trade and industry suffered. Cold War ideologies flourished. Rapid decolonization and relocation of Portuguese settlers opened political vacuums leading to civil war. Those states became proxy conflicts for Cold War politics with Cuba and the USSR supplying capital and material for the socialist-led MPLA and the United States and Western European nations funding the FNLA. These conflicts also had regional ramifications involving countries as far away as Tanzania (in the case of Mozambique) as well as proximate nations such as South Africa (supporting UNITA), Zaire, Zimbabwe and Malawi.
Global economic recession and widespread drought compounded Africa’s problems in the 1970s. Energy-poor, import-dependent nations such as those in the Sahel, reliant on the sustainability of global oil prices, were adversely affected by the two oil crises of 1973-74 and 1979-80. Oil exporters such as Angola and Nigeria were equally affected. Many nations therefore resorted to external borrowing and liquidation of resources to multinational corporations.
Corporations, mirroring the behavior of imperial nations in the first half of the 20th century, acquired and implemented many of the exploitative practices derived from state instruments. The deleterious effect of the new “multinational colonialism” was felt in state treasuries and the working poor. In 1970, Africa’s external debt burden was just over $11 billion. By 1995, Africa’s external debt had ballooned to $340 billion while per capital incomes in sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 14% between 1980 and 1987.
A wave of democratization in most of Africa occurred with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of Apartheid, and the fall of dictatorial regimes (Sudan and Libya the exception). Notorious dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko and Idi Amin, who had capitalized on Cold War political divisions to secure international aid money to fund their corrupt and oppressive regimes, were dramatically overthrown by latent opposition.
In Western Africa, the post-Cold War fallout resulted in violent and protracted civil war in countries such as Sierra Leone, Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. Across the continent, other nations such as Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Malawi, Somalia, and Burundi similarly fell subject to devastating civil wars resulting from latent tribal and religious divisions that were exacerbated by artificial borders, widespread poverty, multinational exploitation, and macroeconomic mismanagement in the post-independence years.
The 1990s marked a general decline in Africa’s global relations. The widespread negative perception was that of a continent stricken with conflict, entrenched political corruption, resource wars and poverty.
The Rise of Africa
Over the last decade, Africa has rebounded greatly in terms of global perception and economic reality. Continental economic growth has tripled since 2002 with the continent averaging 5% GDP growth annually over that period. Intercontinental cooperation has also been integral to growth. According to the IMF, from 2001-2010, six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world were in Africa. The IMF also forecasts that by 2017, eleven of the world’s twenty fastest-growing economies will be in Africa. Countries as diverse as Botswana, Nigeria, Zambia, and Sudan have transitioned into middle-income nations in two short decades. Pundits have highlighted the parallels between Africa’s GDP growth over the last decade and the rise of the Asian Tigers in the 1990s. This comparison is not entirely erroneous but only captures a snapshot of the renewed promise, innovation, and diversity of international relationships that have developed between Africa and the global community in recent years.
BRICS Investment and Africa’s Century
Africa’s global relationships are increasingly collaborative thanks in large part to the development of commodity and manufacturing sectors on the continent. FDI from BRICS has spurred this development. BRICS investments in greenfield projects look to surpass those of developing countries as the top investors in Africa by the end of the decade. By 2010, BRICS represented 14% and 25% in flows and stock FDI investment in Africa respectively. Nevertheless, traditional Western powers – France, the United States, and the United Kingdom – still dominate FDI stock on the African continent.
According to a 2013 report co-authored by the World Bank and the Brazilian Institute for Applied Economic Research, Brazil’s trade with Southern Africa has increased from $2 billion (US) in 2000 to $12 billion (US) in 2010. Brazil has natural linguistic ties with the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, and possesses geographic similarities with sub-Saharan countries. To further encourage cross-Atlantic investments, the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) has offered incentives for potential investors. Sub-Saharan African countries have discussed cooperative partnerships in terms of tropical agriculture, tropical medicine, vocational training, energy and social protection.
China’s financial influence in sub-Saharan Africa has increased dramatically over the last decade. Some have dubbed Chinese interests in the continent as neo-colonial – designed to expropriate African resources to fuel Chinese growth. African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara recently expressed such concern:
The Chinese must come to Africa on African terms. The terms that will allow the Chinese to make money but the terms that will also allow Africa to develop, win-win.
However, other African leaders such as Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete have been less wary, welcoming Chinese investment by citing economic growth and development as the overarching priority in terms of international partnerships:
Why when we have relations with the others there is no problem? But when we have relations with China, oh boy! So many questions! Tanzania looks for investments, technology, markets, and development assistance. This is all we are getting from China. Our relationship with China is about that, with the U.S. is about that, with Europe is about that, with Japan is about that, with India is about that. So if the issue is neo-colonialism then it is with everybody.
Tracking real Chinese investment numbers is problematic and inaccurate due to China’s lack of fiscal transparency. Nevertheless, it is clear from both official and unofficial data that from 2000 to 200 6, China has quintupled in terms of the number of projects on the continent. At the end of 2011, Chinese investment stock in Africa stood at $16 billion with South Africa its leading recipient.
Although many regions of Africa still face widespread poverty, civil and military conflict, political corruption and a perceived lack of organization within the African Union, it is hard not to be struck by the optimistic prospects of what may turn out to be Africa’s century. African nations must allow the past to inform the present and proceed with cautious optimism as countries around the world vie for strategic economic position on the world’s fastest-growing continent.
Will Sapp is a contributor to Geopoliticalmonitor.com