There are two ways to look at international parties competing for Africa. One way is that international partners may promise opportunities for development in the continent. The foreign players’ different orientations provide an array of choices for African countries to equiponderate the effect of the competitors.
The other way, these international competitors may be seen as a threat to the continent’s gains in the past decades, specifically since achieving independence from colonialist powers.
Whichever way we look at international competition for Africa, there arises the need to assess the map of foreign players in the African arena at present, from an African perspective.
Changes on the Map of International Competition for Africa
Since the majority of African countries became independent in the early 1960s the map of international players in Africa has undergone several changes.
European colonialism maintained a strong presence even after the colonies gained independence, except for a number of African countries whose leaders kept pursuing national independence.
France and Britain continued to play an active role in the continent on the political and economic levels. Portugal left its African colonies only in the mid-1970s following the escalation of armed conflicts.
Africa was strongly affected by the global repercussions of the Cold War as European powers maintained their presence in the continent and as the American-Soviet rivalry ricocheted across Africa.
The presence of the traditional colonial powers waned as African states became divided between two international, eastern and western, camps. Moreover, African governments had engaged in the international competition between the two camps on the military, political and economic fronts.
The African countries were of course the biggest loser in this competition, which only depleted the resources of the continent.
Since the early 1990s, the United States and some European powers had been trying to fill the void – economically, in particular – created with the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
But that period also saw the rise of China that controlled many of Africa’s resources. This was evident in the partnerships with African countries that have taken a new dimension within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The recent years witnessed Russia’s return to the competition for Africa after regaining its international balance – lost three decades ago – and restoring strategic partnerships with African countries in the fields of energy and oil.
These transformations make of the current stage an important chapter in the history of Africa, where international powers are converging on its wealth of resources.
Many former colonial powers currently competing in the African arena still try to exercise their previous influence on African states that gained their independence decades ago. Other international forces attempt to imitate the practise, in what has become known as the “new colonialism”, based on unequal partnership, with the aim of establishing dominance and intervening in the affairs of African countries.
The Difficult African Barter
With this challenge, African countries are trying to strike a balance between their need for international partnerships that improve their economic and social conditions and the needs of their international partners. The latter, however, try to exercise guardianship that is incompatible with the sovereignty of the African countries on their resources and undermine the efforts of African states for independence.
Despite fluctuations in the performance of African countries regarding this conundrum, some incidents have given rise to hope.
The popular trend of the unfair exploitation of African resources on the part of international powers has had an impact on African decision-makers in recent years.
African countries have shown growing reluctance to link development programs from donor countries and institutions to political conditions.
This situation is very similar to the growing African sensitivity towards some aspects of partnership with China, which led the Asian power to become more careful to demonstrate that its policies in the African continent are different from those of Western powers and are part of cooperation efforts with the developing world that China still belong to.
African Efforts to Eliminate the Risks of International Competition
To ensure that African countries can gain the benefits resulting from international attention without undermining their sovereignty or being involved in unfair trade agreements, three parallel tracks must be followed:
1- Promoting African integration at the continental and sub-regional levels as the cornerstone for effective African confrontation against the projects of international forces competing for the continent’s resources.
There are many successful models on the economic level, such as COMESA, SADC and ECOWAS.
As far as security is concerned, CEN-SAD’s efforts to counter terrorism appear to be a successful African model. While the successes of the African sub-regional organizations are numerous, there is still a need for enhanced integration at the continental level through the African Union, which seeks to achieve a project similar to that of the European Union, that is a key factor for an effective African response to the attempts of international contenders to impose certain projects on the continent.
International forces are essentially moving to work with one or a limited group of countries, but dealing with a pan-African Union for all the nations of the continent will greatly enhance Africa’s negotiating position and further strengthen its resistance towards any attempt to penetrate it from outside.
2- The rapid and decisive settlement of African conflicts: These conflicts have often been the main entry point for foreign intervention in the affairs of the continent, whether for the establishment of peace between the conflicting African states or the internationalization of internal African conflicts.
International intervention has often resulted in the complexity and sustainability of conflicts, and the focus on conflicts has become the focus of the efforts of competing international forces. Therefore, it is important to enclose the African conflicts as narrowly as possible, and to avoid as much international intervention.
3- Relying on the leading role of African heads of state: In each of Africa’s regions, one or several countries have the ability to play the role of stabilizer and the leader of economic development and regional integration, whether in population, natural resources, or military capabilities.
Countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana can compensate for structural weaknesses in their neighbors, which are often exploited by international powers.
Egypt can make more progress in each of the previous three paths, with its positive impact on various African states, especially with its presidency of the African Union in 2019, and its close and balanced relations with world super powers.
This article was first published in: Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, Africa 2019… Equilibrium Severs … Promising Future, Cairo, March 2019.