Nairobi: Africa is in the middle of stormy competition among the world’s powerhouses angling for supremacy, natural resources, and to a lesser extent, the continent’s expanding market that now stands at 1.1 billion people. How the “new scramble for Africa” in the 21st century is shaping Africa’s future was high on the agenda of the World Forum on Politics held in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday and Friday.
Because of its wealth of natural resources and recent discoveries of huge energy resources, Africa has widely been viewed as the “energy source of the future”.
But the big question that world leaders, policymakers and professionals who converged for the forum grappled with was what Africa should do to harness the benefits of the intervention by the powerhouses.
Unequal and unjust
For centuries, Africa has haemorrhaged from supremacy struggles over its human and natural resources in the era of slavery, colonialism and the Cold War. Today, the continent is no more than the Cinderella of the unequal and unjust world economic system.
In his masterwork, Capitalism and Slavery (1944), the renowned Caribbean historian and the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Eric Williams, convincingly argues that the gains from slave trade and servile labour underwrote the rise of capitalism and Western dominance.
Colonial-era European powerhouses — Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain — tightened their grip on African resources following the scramble and partition of Africa during the infamous 1884 Berlin Conference.
Despite the demise of colonialism from the late 1950s, Africa continued to serve as a source of underpriced raw materials, cheap labour and markets for the erstwhile Western powerhouses.
Kwame Nkrumah was wrong: “neo-Colonialism” was not the last stage of imperialism! Rather, Cold War geo-politics reinforced Africa’s status as an arena of competition for resources between the “capitalist West” and the “communist East”.
The “new scramble for Africa” in the 21st Century now pits the old trans-Atlantic powers of North America and Europe against new powerhouses such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and even South Africa, now popularly known as the BRICS.
Three factors put the spotlight on Africa at the Istanbul forum.
First is the recent unveiling of new deposits of fossil energy sources such as oil, coal and natural gas in non-mineral agrarian African economies from Angola to Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana to Kenya and Uganda.
Additionally, the global drive for “green energy” resources has refocused attention on Africa’s fertile agricultural land as a source of food and non-fossil energy. Africa is also rich in geo-thermal, wind, hydro-power and abundant solar power.
Moreover, large deposits of rare minerals such as titanium and cobalt, now driving the hi-tech industry — particularly nuclear and microchip technology, add to the continent’s strategic value internationally.
This status has been enhanced by the latest discovery of new deposits of Africa’s high-grade uranium ores in Mali, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Finally, political upheavals in the Middle East, recently deepened by the “Arab Spring”, has forced the world’s major economies to explore new frontiers of energy resources.
Participants at the Istanbul forum noted that today, Africa stands a better chance than in the past to exploit the new interest by the prime movers of the global economy to leverage its resources and unique status in the globalised world order and create wealth, propel its own socio-economic transformation, pull millions of its population out of poverty and improve the overall quality of life.
The rise of China, India and Brazil has effectively challenged the global hegemony of the West, provided alternative sources of capital and markets for African resources and products.
But participants cautioned Africa against swapping Western supremacy with a “new hegemony” of emerging global powerhouses such as China.
African countries now have access to new, affordable technology. Use of technology to add value to its products has the potential of increasing the exchange value of the continent’s goods, thus raising its income levels.
Value addition is necessary if Africa is to break the vicious cycle of being a producer and exporter of unrefined and under-priced raw materials.
This is particularly so in the energy sector, where green technology in geo-thermal, wind, water and non-fossil sources has a great potential of transforming Africa’s energy sector and powering its own industrial development.
The Kenyan delegation at the Istanbul forum was led by Energy minister Kiraitu Murungi, who delivered a keynote address on “Harnessing the Benefits of the New Scramble for Africa”.
Participants rightly observed that Africa can learn valuable lessons from China and India, which have harnessed their resources and opportunities in the world economic relations to lift millions of their people from poverty.
Over the last decade, China and India have redeemed over 400 million of their citizens from poverty, and are responsible for three-quarters of the reduction in the world’s poor expected between 2005 and 2015.
However, Africa’s future ultimately rests in the hands of its power elite. But the fragmentation, ethnic populism, impunity and intrigues of this political class have turned it into the most disruptive force and the deadliest threat to the stability and survival of the continent’s fragile states. Rededication to the politics of nationhood is key to Africa’s prosperity.
- Mr Kiraitu Murungi is Kenya’s Minister for Energy. He is currently heading the Kenyan delegation to the 2012 World Forum on Politics in Istanbul, Turkey. Prof Peter Kagwanja is a governance adviser and president of the Africa Policy Institute, Nairobi/Pretoria.