Nearly one hundred years ago in one of the most obvious displays of imperialism in human history, the European great powers conquered and enticed the continent of Africa into its dominion.
For years Europe invested and exploited many areas of Africa until the powers simply could not afford to keep control of their claimed possessions. For the past fifty years many of these former protectorates have thrived, some have descended into war and others have attracted the leadership of oppressive dictators. All this has lead to an interesting phenomenon in which the powers of the world have looked to gain influence in Africa again. However, it has not been through people on the ground but rather through financial and diplomatic firepower. Furthermore, as opposed to just European players we are now seeing the Chinese and Americans being major players in this new scramble.
Having spent the past three months in Zambia it is hard to miss the signs proclaiming that this project is funded by US Aid or that this piece of infrastructure is a gift from the people of Japan. I myself have been sent out by the British government to work in local enterprises and am actively encouraged to tell the locals this. The roles of foreign countries in many African countries’ affairs are not hidden away. Rather, they are shouted from the rooftops. The reason for this is to garner public favour to a certain country and thereby have preferential treatment.
This raises two questions. Firstly, why do they want preferential treatment? Secondly, who is the most favoured country?
The answer to the first question is very similar to the reason European powers carved up Africa in the first place. The population in many African countries is growing at an exponential rate and with plenty of gaps in the market there has never been a better time to sale your wares in an African country. To put some example to this, The Financial Times recently worked out that the best long term investment to be made is purchasing beach houses in Somalia due to increase population density. Furthermore, Africa has an abundance of natural resources. If many of the great powers of today can make friends with some countries in Africa and sort out trade deals, domestic companies will have access to low-cost natural resources due to low labour costs.
The second answer may be surprising for some. A BBC poll in 2014 showed that in two of Africa’s fastest growing economies, Nigeria and Kenya, people are less negative about Chinese influence than American influence. China are not just popular with the people of various African countries but are also participating in what has been dubbed ‘informal colonialism’. This is due to the large amount of Chinese expats who have come to work for Chinese firms across countries in Africa. Three-quarters of a million Chinese are predicted to be living across Africa. Back to Zambia again and it is startling to see Chinese restaurants and Chinese shops scattered across the main streets. It is also rather easy to notice that the casinos are dominated with businessmen or well-to-do Chinese men and women spending large amounts of money on card games.
But this is not good enough on its own. China have also played a bigger role in the economies of many African countries. In 2011, China exported more than double the worth of American exports. Back to my experience in Zambia where Chinese brands prevail where it matters. A prime example of this is Huawei who have dominated the phone market in different African countries by providing them with cheap and advanced phones. China have also endeared themselves to the government of many countries, having cancelled $10 billion worth of loans to various governments. They also have a policy of trying not to meddle in the internal affairs of countries. They refuse to denounce any sort of action and by doing so have built themselves a good reputation. This means they are a lot less controversial than the Americans within many countries.
Now we must question where other countries are going wrong. The only other country that can compete with China is the US. So why aren’t they? The key here is the difference in approach. America have insisted on an aid based approach with their aid spending in Africa triple the amount of the Chinese budget. Robert Sichinga, the former Minister for Commerce, Trade and Industry of Zambia, got the situation spot on when he stated that the Americans were lagging behind the “race to in tap investment opportunities.”
America does not see African countries as a place to do business whereas the Chinese do. Nearly eight hundred Chinese firms are doing business in forty-nine different African countries whereas American firms are nowhere near that amount. The Chinese do not view Africa as a country that they must attempt to improve but rather a country which they can work alongside. America, on the other hand, still see themselves as a sort of civilizer who must make these countries a better place.
As to whether this is a better approach or not is to be decided by each person. However, you will always be more loyal to the friend who treats you as an equal than to the one who thinks they are superior. The biggest example of this is the Chinese relationship with South Africa.
China identified South Africa as the key player in the region. As a result, the Chinese have developed a special relationship of sorts with the South Africans. On the Chinese invitation, South Africa joined the BRIC group in 2010. This signalled a new alignment between the South African government and the Chinese. Since then, South Africa is China’s biggest trade partner in Africa and China is South Africa’s biggest trade partner in general. This relationship was reciprocated in 2011 and 2014 when South Africa rejected a visa for the Dalai Lama, a powerful figure who the Chinese government distrusts. China has also taken special steps for South Africa by agreeing to limit Chinese cotton and textiles in the country amid fears of undercutting local production. This is very surprising considering President Xi simply refused to do anything about the dumping of cheap steel in the UK during a state visit.
The Chinese relationship with South Africa further proves that they are interested in being equals. Together they have invested heavy amounts in other countries such as Zambia and have made themselves popular in the area. An interesting situation to think about is the scenario in which a war were to break out between China and the US. Would South Africa support China or would they stick with their historical ties with the US and UK and join the other side? While there is no definitive answer to that question, it is definitely worth contemplating.
The new scramble for Africa is far from over. The only time it will end is when countries in Africa can find their feet and start competing for influence abroad. Until then, China and America will continue to fight it out. While it seems like a very unfair fight at this moment with China figuratively hitting the US out the park, there is no reason they can’t turn it around. The problem with influence is that it ebbs and flows. However, for now, America and the other secondary powers remain firmly behind the Chinese, thus losing in the new scramble for Africa.