The scramble for Africa continues. Shall we lose out again?

26 Jul

In 1884-5 the Berlin Conference formalised the partition of Africa among European nations following an intense scramble for the continent. More than a century and a quarter later, the scramble still goes on with the same intensity.

And the motives have remained largely the same. In the nineteenth century, the reasons for the often savage and brutal scramble for Africa were essentially these: Africa was seen as a source of (at the time free) raw materials for European industries, a market for manufactured products from the same industries and a market for jobs for Europeans.

Today the same motives still obtain.

Similarly, the methods for acquiring territory or influence, raw materials or markets have not changed either.

In the days of the Berlin Conference all these were got for a few colourful; beads or a bottle of whiskey. Where Africans proved stubborn and unwilling to give away their land for useless trinkets, they were bludgeoned into submission and their assets forcibly taken.

We saw this played out, with slight variations, in the post-colonial period in Africa. The beads were replaced by other, more expensive, toys that kept some of the puerile leaders happy as resources of their countries freely taken. In other cases, the mighty and powerful in the developed world played on the bloated egos of the over-grown boys in power in Africa. They convinced them that they were their equal and friends. Pleased, the big boys joined in or turned a blind eye to the plunder of their countries’ resources.

Of course, just as there had been people who had earlier resisted the takeover of their territory, there were leaders who refused to be distracted by toys and flattery. Like in previous times, they were hit on the head for being naughty. Often the stick with which they were hit was aid.

The immediate post-colonial period was intensely ideological and many countries were caught in an ideological conflict between socialism and capitalism. Many became victims of sticking to ideological purity or blindly applying ideology-based models of development designed elsewhere. Or where they developed their own development strategies, they sometimes suffered from ideologically-motivated sabotage if they did not follow a particular model.

In the twenty-first century, there is another excuse to escalate the scramble for African resources. It is China. British Prime Minister David Cameron was candid about this during last week’s visit to South Africa and Nigeria. He said that they had to keep up with China in Africa.

This also is not new. In the nineteenth century the reason for intensifying the scramble was to keep up (or away) with France, Germany, Portugal, Britain as the case might be. Today it is China that is accused of hotting up the scramble for Africa’s resources.

Will Africa’s response to today’s scramble be the same as in the past? I think there is reason to be optimistic.

Over the last fifty years, Africans have learnt their lesson and want to succeed where their predecessors failed.

There are those which have learnt that being pragmatic is the way to go. They are not concerned about ideological correctness or niceties. In any case, we are living in a period where opposing ideologies no longer plays a crucial role in decisions countries have to make. As a result politicians are not mired in ideological debate or conflict. It is only that which works best for them that counts.

Rwanda falls in this category.

Increasingly, what works best means doing business, not depending on aid or debt relief as Prime Minister Cameron noted. For them also, meaningful trade means larger markets, which in turn means regional economic integration.

Rwanda and like-minded countries are not alone in seeing the advantages of larger markets and freer trade. David Cameron’s visit was about the same thing. He said he had come to promote African Free Trade Area and had figures to back it. “An African Free Trade Area could increase GDP across the continent by $62 billion a year. That’s $20 billion more than the world gives Sub-Saharan Africa” he said.

That is probably true. Africa certainly stands to gain from removal of trade barriers and increased intra-African trade. It is also true that Britain would immensely benefit from the Free Trade Area. No guessing why Davis Cameron came, not with politicians, but a group of business executives from Britain’s blue chip companies, private equity and SMEs. It was primarily to promote British business.

Again, countries that want to succeed in the renewed scramble are those prepared to draw lessons about models that have worked elsewhere. For instance, Rwanda’s admiration for Singapore’s development is well-known.

In Rwanda’s particular case, governance and development initiatives have been drawn from the country’s history. Today, for instance, Provincial Governors will present their development targets (imihigo) for the next twelve months to the nation. For the last five years this model of setting and evaluating targets, and being held accountable has worked very well for Rwanda.

So, is the continuing scramble for African resources still a threat? Certainly. But it can also be turned to advantage. The pragmatic, the innovative and those who know what is best for them and are willing to adapt should not be unduly worried. As long as they are resources others need, the scramble will be there. It only has to be managed.


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