The scramble for Africa, involving the division and colonization of the African continent by European powers began in 1881. Many of the ills, including civil wars, as well as the pillaging of the continent’s resources, have been blamed on colonial and neo-colonial tendencies perpetrated by Western and Eastern countries. But a new fight for political influence and African resources appears to be brewing, if not widening, between China, the U.S., and Russia.
Chinese involvement in Africa is not new. In the 1970s, for example, the governments of China, Zambia, and Tanzania built the TAZARA railway to eliminate Zambia’s economic dependence on apartheid Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa.
At the recent Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged an estimated $60 billion in financial support for African nations. A similar amount was pledged in 2015, and even larger amounts in years past.
These recent dealings between China and African nations have been under considerable scrutiny by Western and African politicians. The media have also been paying attention to this new “Scramble for Africa.” This is why many accusations have been thrown around, with some calling the transactions “Debt-trap Diplomacy,” land grabs, and aggressive underselling.
On its part, Russia plays a considerably lesser role in this new scramble for resources and business in Africa. But Russia has moved quickly in the last year to carve out its own sphere of influence with the announcement of a logistics base in Eritrea, and the more secretive military-deals and mining concessions in Central African Republic.
With this backdrop, the United States appears to have been left behind. Now comes the big news that the U.S., through the administration of President Donald Trump, will be pivoting its attention back towards the continent.
Recent U.S. interest in African affairs has been limited to counter-terrorism operations, and after the deaths of American service members in Niger, U.S. engagement became even more limited, with the Pentagon announcing in August a reduction of U.S. military personnel in Africa.
As for President Trump, his communication regarding Africa has ranged from vulgar to nonexistent. The announcement of the Prosper Africa plan presented by National Security Advisor John Bolton appears to be an attempt to correct many missteps made by the administration.
Analysts at the Wall Street Journal have posited that the reason they think this is happening now is that the plan fits with Trump’s populist “America First” policies and the administration’s neo-conservative interest in military and economic competition with China and Russia
The administration appears to consider African investment and influence as a zero-sum game, with clear demands for African states to choose between the U.S., Russian, and China. Which sounds like “you are either with us, or you are with them”
Bolton stated that the Prosper Africa plan would focus economic efforts “on African governments that act with us as strategic partners, and, which are striving toward improved governance and transparent business practices,” with the additional offer of military support.
African nations being considered serious investment partners is a welcome change of language from the Trump administration. While Bolton referenced the importance of transparency, efficiency, and good governance, anti-Chinese rhetoric seemed to be the main theme of the announcement, with little in the way of concrete policies and priorities.
In his statements, Bolton said nothing about the historical and political reasons African states have chosen to work so closely with China. He sounded like the typical Western colonial master that the United States wants to be to African nations.
Having said all of this, there is a real opportunity for the U.S. to dramatically shift the status quo of economic exploitation in Africa.