The new scramble for Africa

By Bukar Usman*

“THE scramble for Africa” has been a continuous project since the era of the slave trade, although the phrase is usually used to refer to the 19th century partition of Africa among the great European powers. That partitioning of the continent, supervised by Britain and Germany at the Berlin Conference of 1885, was the culmination of their undisguised competition for Africa’s human and natural resources which European powers exploited as they liked in every African entity they had colonised. Even after Africa’s political independence, which for some countries was bloody and throughout the Cold War era – which saw the United States and the then Soviet Union leading distinct ideological blocs – the economic domination continued. But there is now a new race for Africa and it is hot and significantly different from the old race. This brief article is aimed at drawing attention to the nature and scope of this unfolding phenomenon.

Global awareness of this new race was stepped up by the publication in 2011 of Pádraig Carmody’s 256-page book, The New Scramble for Africa. Carmody traced the foundation of this new scramble for the resources of Africa to the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the World Bank and IMF, which essentially required African countries to privatise public enterprises and withdraw subsidies even from essential commodities before they could attract foreign loans and favourable trading conditions with the Western world. Many African countries fell into the trap, became indebted, devalued their currencies supposedly to stimulate exports, but ended up being poorer than they were before their SAP programmes.

It should be noted that during the SAP-regime era, the U.S. was the capitalist world’s superpower and had become interested in Africa mainly because of its mineral resources, especially crude oil, but partly for ideological reasons. So, a joint U.S.-Europe coalition, incorporating new powers like Japan, and operating under different protocols and conventions – such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD superintended the devastation of African economies, thereby making them even more vulnerable to external control and domination.

As Western countries were celebrating the collapse of the Soviet bloc and spinning the new ICT-driven ideology of “globalisation” as they moved into the former communist countries scouting for economic opportunities, new economic superpowers such as China, India and Brazil identified SAP-undermined Africa as an area of strategic interest and swooped on the continent. Before the West realised it, these countries had entrenched themselves and become formidable trading partners in many African countries. They also succeeded in cornering the plum contracts and playing leading roles in the exploitation of valuable mineral resources.

The case of South Africa illustrates the trend in many African countries. According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “Nearly a fifth (17.2 per cent) of goods imported by South Africa came from China. Germany is in second place (11.2 per cent) with the U.S. in third place on 7.4 per cent, according to figures from the CIA World Factbook, which does not register the figures for Britain. China heads the lists of South African exports – 10.3 per cent. Britain is fifth on 5.5 per cent behind the U.S. (9.2 per cent), Japan (7.6 per cent) and Germany on 7 per cent.”

These new non-Western economic superpowers are now believed to be Africa’s biggest trading partners at a time of global economic recession. The West is now playing second fiddle to these new players, and are racing to catch up with them, especially in the mining and control of critical minerals needed to power today’s technologies.

This new scramble for Africa’s resources is already engendering conflicts across the region. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where copper and diamonds have inspired wars and mayhem, there is currently intense competition and militia rivalries over the mining and sale of coltan, a critical raw material used in mobile phones and electronic devices. The battle over uranium, used in feeding nuclear reactors, continues to be at the root of conflicts in Niger. The connection between conflict and foreign exploitation of mineral resources can be drawn with respect to other countries, including Nigeria, Sudan, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Libya, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

Recent pronouncements by world economic and political leaders leave no one in doubt that Africa is greedily eyed as the land of opportunities. It is being extolled as place where the greatest economic return on investment is made. Some fear that with the recent successive discoveries of substantial reserves of oil in Ghana, Uganda, Niger, Zambia, Chad and Equatorial Guinea, Africa might experience new round of conflicts.

Most of these conflicts are provoked by the environmentally unfriendly exploitation of the oil resource by the International Oil Companies (IOCs), which are strongly supported by the big economic and political powers of the world. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and even OPEC, facilitate access to these resources through rules and regulations formulated to favour the global economic and political powers. They invented and floated the concept of “globalisation” to mask the exploitative and unbalanced nature of the current world economic structure.

Africa must be mindful of the disastrous effects of the old scramble for its resources in order to avoid the negative consequences of the current scramble. African leaders must ensure that these new “partners” coming to “promote trade in Africa” do not play one African country against another or one section against the other.

We should remember that during the “Partition of Africa”, communities and tribes were split across the imposed artificial borders, thus sowing the seeds of the festering wars, which have continued to cost the continent human lives and resources. Current conflicts in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi region as well as the Sudan and Uganda, easily come to mind. Conflicts over resource control across Africa is a major issue African leaders must proactively tackle before the new resource contenders promote conflicts to aid their unhindered exploitation of such resources.

The new scramble for Africa’s energy, natural resources, investment and contract opportunities, which has been heightened by the prevailing depressed global economy, might be reminiscent of the old scramble, but it does offer Africa a choice it didn’t have in the 19th century – a choice it misused during the late 20th century. African countries are today politically independent. Most of them have been experiencing self-rule since the late 1960s, long before SAP. Why did they fall into the SAP trap? African countries can lay the rules for the new scramble for their resources. The question is: will visionless leadership, corruption, and mass poverty allow troubled African countries to peacefully and confidently do so?

• Usman is a former Permanent Secretary in the Presidency of Nigeria, Abuja.Piece was originally published at


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