Africa is the most sought after place in our universe. The next is perhaps outer space. But this is for a very small elite. On the other hand, Africa is being courted by everyone like she was the most and beautiful girl in this wide neighbourhood. Which, of course, she is.
China has come calling. It has actually been doing that for quite a while, quietly, sometimes unnoticed so that some people were caught off guard when they noticed its real intentions. But now it is so determined that it won’t take no for an answer.
India, too, is a very serious suitor. In the past India left its huge expatriate population resident in many African countries do its work. Lately, it has become clear that delegated courting is no longer enough. The stakes are high and the rivalry so intense that India has decided to be more direct about its intentions.
Japan does not want to be left behind by these up and coming Asian neighbours flaunting their new wealth and power. It has also joined the fray and last week hosted a conference in Yokohama on Africa’s development that was attended by many of the continent’s bigwigs. The Japanese have been doing this for the last twenty years (this year’s conference was the fifth).
All these countries courting Africa claim that they want to be part of the continent’s growth. And they go about it the same way – organise huge conferences to which they invite African leaders to come and show off their countries’ attractions. The Japanese call theirs the Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD) that is held every five years. For the Chinese it is the Forum on China Africa Cooperation and it takes place every two years, which perhaps shows their urgency.
The increasing attention Africa is attracting has the west burning with jealousy. The west thought they had Africa in their tight embrace and all to themselves, well, until the new kids arrived. As so often happens where there are no rivals, the west had neglected and even mistreated her.
Now the appearance of serious rivals has rattled them out of their complacency and the fear of losing what they had always taken for granted has become real. And like someone who has been used to having things his way, the west initially responded predictably, with arrogance, abuse, threats, warnings – never an attempt to win her back. That is changing as they realise the competition is for real. That is one reason United States President Barrack Obama is going to Tanzania soon after China’s President Xi Jinping was there earlier this year.
This is not the first time that there has been such a rush for Africa’s fortunes. Nor are the reasons very different. The methods may have changed, but even then only slightly. The first time resulted in carving up the continent between various greedy and impatient suitors in order to avoid deadly blows over Africa’s bounteous beauty.
Today the story is very similar. The talk about being interested in Africa’s growth and wanting to be part of it is typical suitors’ talk – sweet, persuasive and sometimes even irresistible, but concealing the real desire of total conquest. In any case, no one will say their real intentions are to grab and own completely. The interest is Africa’s beauty, its resources, which are so dazzlingly inviting, they get those who eye them drooling.
Africa is getting wealthier, too, and that is another attraction. Who wants a poor person for a partner? The Indians know that very well. The poor bride, unable to stand the taunts of her in-laws, often douses and burns herself. Self-immolation is an Indian invention we certainly don’t want here.
In between, Africa was scarred by ideological fights by two distant rival bullies.
In all this rivalry, Africa has always come off worst. She has obviously failed to use her many charms to extract the best deal from rival suitors. Is it going to be any different this time?
One hopes that the presidents and their delegations (some of them incredibly and inexplicably large) use the opportunity at the meetings to learn about how the hosts got to where they are and come home and adapt the lessons to their countries.
Today’s African leaders, especially those sitting on newly found wealth, must surely have learnt from the folly of their ancestors who gave away Africa’s wealth in exchange for bottles of schnapps, cheap trinkets and other kids’ stuff. Many of them ceded entire countries to European adventurers and imperial agents by appending their signature – really an X mark – on agreements they could not read or understand. Sometimes this was done at the point of a gun, the promise of protection or after they were thoroughly inebriated.
Today, there are many agreements floating around seeking signatures for similar concessions. The guns have been replaced by the cheque books, but the schnapps, toys and other objects of vanity remain.
Still, Africa can play hard to get and extract the best deal from all these suitors. After all she holds what everyone wants. At this year’s TICAD Japanese Prime Minister pledged $32 billion, a fifth of which is to go to infrastructure development. In the last ten years, the Chinese have committed $75 billion, the United States $90 billion. What the Indians and Europeans are willing to offer can only match this.
This gives you an indication of Africa’s worth and why there is a veritable rush and competition to lay hands on her. This time, Africans must know the value of wealth of their continent and not give it away again for next to nothing.