07 August 2012
Africa has increasingly played a pivotal role in shaping not only the economics but also the politics of the world. However, the only area in which it has largely been on the receiving end is in the cultural aspect. Africa’s historic role has not been fully highlighted; probably because the continent has been considered to be more global prey than a global player. Whenever a colonial power wanted copper, it could strike Zambia at will and take as much copper as it wished. At this stage, Africa was a subject of the colonial powers. My own country, Uganda, was a British Protectorate, not a Republic, as it is known today.
The continent’s significance dates back to the 16th century, during which millions of Africans were rounded up and shipped to Europe and the Americas to provide free and later cheap labour on the plantations and factories that allowed ‘master nations’ to prosper into economic powers.
During the ‘scramble for Africa’ (1880 to 1900), European nations—better known as imperial or colonial powers—stormed Africa “with a bible in one hand and a gun in the other.” After dividing it among themselves, they exploited the continent’s natural resources to develop their own countries.
On a political front, Africans were instrumental during the two world wars and the Cold War—events that largely influenced today’s international relations. Without Africa, the world could not boast today’s economic and political progress.
It was only after African nations regained autonomy from the colonialists that the continent was able to rightfully acquire a global player or partner status alongside its former colonial masters.
As the second most populous of the seven continents by 2050 it is predicted that Africa will be home to almost twenty five percent of the world’s population.
While some African countries remain beset by poverty and instability, others are thriving economically and playing a major role in international diplomacy. For example, as members of the UN Security Council; by hosting major international conferences; by providing peacekeepers via the African Union.
The continent is not only home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and democracies, but it is also becoming a huge and growing market for European, American, and recently Asian manufacturers.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) forecasts suggest that seven African countries will be among the top ten fastest-growing economies from 2011 to 2015: Ethiopia at 8.1 percent growth; Mozambique at 7.7 percent; Tanzania at 7.2 percent; Congo at 7 percent; Ghana at 7 percent; Zambia at 6.9 percent; and, Nigeria at 6.8 percent. It is anticipated that during the next five years, the average African economy is likely to outpace its Asian counterpart. Africa’s economy will grow at an average annual rate of 7 percent over the next 20 years, slightly faster than China.
Thirteen African countries already have a higher GDP per capita than China, and 22 countries have a GDP per capita higher than India. By 2040, Africa will have a larger working age population than any other continent.
In the past decade, sub-Saharan Africa was the third fastest growing region in the world, after China and India.
South Africa, which recently won the right to host two of the three major components of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) telescope (planned to be the world's biggest and most sensitive radio telescope) has been rated among the BRIICS – Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China, and South Africa. If it were not for the terrorism threat, massive corruption, and violent clashes in different parts of the country, Nigeria would probably change the group to the BRIINCS.
Africa has attracted partners from the West and the East, sparking off a new form of ‘scramble for Africa’. The EU and the U.S., which have been branded the traditional or old partners, are trying to push off the growing influence of the emerging or new partners led by China.
Unlike in the previous scramble, during which African resources were forcefully plundered by the colonial powers, the current scramble is largely based on understanding and competition.
In the last decade, China, driven by its fast-growing economy, has managed to establish a strong economic presence on the continent, especially in the area of infrastructure. Chinese companies have engulfed almost all the key sectors, ranging from oil extraction in the Great Lakes Region to copper mining in the SADEC Region. They are constructing soccer stadiums, roads, schools, hospitals, and other structures both for African governments and African institutions like the African Union Headquarters in Ethiopia.
In 2006, China unveiled its policy on Africa and launched the massive China-Africa Development Fund aimed at promoting Chinese investment on the continent. Over the past three years, China has given more loans to developing countries, mainly in Africa, than the World Bank. During the past decade, trade between China and the continent has increased more than six-fold to $120 billion in 2011, making Africa China's largest trade partner. Today, China is investing huge sums in African infrastructure.
However, the growing influence of China in Africa is a source of concern to the West, which feels it might lose out on some key contracts and a significant market area. Ideologically, the west is suspicious of China, which they fear has put economic gains ahead of Africa’s democratisation process. China insists it is simply sticking to its policy of non-interference.
This has sparked of a debate internationally, the most current being the May edition of BBC Africa Debate which focused on the role of China in Africa. The major questions that keep coming up in the China-Africa relationship include: is China a genuine partner or just a consumer—or as some say, plunderer—of Africa’s resources? Who is benefiting from China's growth in Africa?
All Africa’s partners claim to be investing in sectors that improve the livelihoods of the local populations. For the traditional partners like the U.S. and the UK, the investments are largely in form of aid/development grants and clearly aimed at not only empowering the local communities, but also fulfilling the national strategic interests of the donor countries.
The U.S., which happens to be the number one donor country to Africa, has made it clear that its activities are based on the policy of diplomacy, defence, and development. That is why it has USAID, the CDC, AFRICOM, and diplomatic missions on the ground.
To boost its development component on the continent, the U.S. government initiated the Africa Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA) under which over ten years ago the U.S. government opened an US$11 trillion market to duty-free and quota-free access for more than 4,500 textile products from 48 sub-Saharan African countries.
The European Union, on the other hand, focuses more on development, business, and diplomacy on the African continent. The UK, for instance, is the third largest donor to the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa.
EU-based aid and development agencies like Oxfam, DFID, DANIDA, SIDA, and NORAD have had a great impact when it comes to supporting people empowerment initiatives. On the business front, EU companies like Tallow Oil, Shell, and TOTAL maintain a large presence on the continent.
China is indeed Africa’s largest trading partner and unlike its competitors from the West who say they are investing more in the people, the People’s Republic is investing more in business. However, this investment has come under fire and prompted debate. In Uganda for instance, Chinese investors are not only involved in large construction contracts, but also small business enterprises like garment shops and super-markets. The Ugandan business community does not see the Chinese as investors but competitors. There is also a general feeling among Africans that Chinese products are largely counterfeits.
In other African countries like Zambia, there are reports of unprofessional or anti-African behaviours by some investors, and poor working conditions in some of the mines and companies run by these investors.
These concerns have widened the debate to include what African governments are doing to protect their populations and resources from fake investors.
The issue of the rule of law or good governance therefore arises and remains key if Africa’s march forward is to hold. As long as African governments do not abandon corruption, dictatorship, and wars, while ignoring investment in the people by adhering to international democratic principles, agricultural investment, education for all, and health and economic empowerment, Africa’s role as a global player will remain minimal, and the people of Africa will remain vulnerable. The western and eastern powers should stop the game of double standards in their dealings with Africa.
Umar Weswala is Ugandan journalist writing on peace and social development, and was a Fellow in the 2011 Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists.
This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.
Photo: UNDP | www.hdptcar.net