Africa: Why So Much International Attention?

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

There is a sudden rush by outside countries to Africa and the last few months saw the powerful · China, Russia and United States - competing for entrance to the continent.

Not only the three most influential nations, but also India, the European Union, South Korea, Turkey and Brazil see Africa as important. This sudden scramble for Africa is meant to access its economic resources, writes Tom Wheeler.

Africa has recently been visited by the presidents of three of the world’s major powers, China, Russia and the United States. Chinese President Hu Jintao visited four African countries, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania and Mauritius, between 12 and 17 Febru­ary. Next to arrive was Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who spent four days, 22 – 26 June, visiting Egypt, Angola, Na­mibia and Nigeria.

And finally, President Barack Obama made two separate visits to African countries, Egypt and Ghana. He was followed shortly thereafter by his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who visited seven countries in the first week of August to reinforce his mes­sage and develop themes in his speech that are important to the Americans.

Was there a common theme and purpose for these visits?

Each was dressed up differently. The Chi­nese declared that their president’s visit was being aimed at enhancing China’s friendship with developing countries in the region and in preparation for the second meeting of the China Africa Co-operation Forum, known by the acronym FOCAC, later this year.

Russia made no bones about the purpose of the Medvedev visit. It was to promote trade. The President was accompanied by a large delegation of top Russian bankers and business people, and a number of im­portant contracts were signed in each of the four states visited.

These included loan agreements to fi­nance the provision of Russian technol­ogy, in particular nuclear power stations.

While the two Obama visits had a more overtly political purpose – the promotion of US relations with the Muslim world (Cairo) and recognition of good governance and the promotion of anti-corruption measures, African self-help in agriculture and food security and also reduction of aid de­pendency on the continent (Accra) – there was no doubt that trade and economic issues were an important component of the carefully choreographed Clinton visit. Why this sudden importance given to Afri­ca, not only by the three major powers, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, but also by India, the European Union, and even South Korea, Turkey and Brazil?

The short answer is Africa’s resources.

For all their on-going calls for access to the markets of the developed world, few African countries make full use of these trade opportunities, some citing their in­ability to compete with lower priced Chi­nese goods in America.

The continent has vast and sometimes barely tapped oil and gas resources. Base metals, copper, coal, platinum and gold and others are important to the developed world’s industry and Africa has them. Tim­ber and fisheries make up the quartet of resources that African countries have to offer. And the competition to access them is on.

The strong entrance of China into many African countries has been watched with interest and even concern outside the continent.

Not only has China secured access to oil, but it has offered African countries in­frastructure, debt forgiveness and loans without the conditionalities, such as good governance, required by western donors. In addition, African countries provide a growing market for Chinese manufac­tured goods, especially in the lower price ranges.

Medvedev noted that Russia was late re­turning to Africa. The residual sympathy among Africans that may have existed as a result of Soviet help in their liberation struggles was fast ebbing, but rather than concentrate on political issues, Medvedev, like Putin before him in 2006, focussed on business and resource issues.

Russia, one of the world’s largest sources of oil and gas. has sought to strengthen ties with two of Africa’s largest oil produc­ers, Nigeria and Angola, the current chair of OPEC. If his delega­tion succeeded in creating a strong link with Nigeria’s gas producing parastatal, that would give Russia another lever in its aim of controlling access of the gas that heats western and central Europe.

There was no hiding the economic and trade elements of the Clinton visit. Her first appointment was to participate in the so-called AGOA Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The United States has by unilateral legis­lation, the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, provided duty-free access to US mar­kets of over 6000 listed commodities.

Yet, for all their on-going calls for access to the markets of the developed world, few African countries make full use of these trade opportunities, some citing their in­ability to compete with lower priced Chi­nese goods in America.

Her visit to South Africa also included a mix of political and trade messages. She met with South African business, in addition to her appointments with the South African presi­dent, Jacob Zuma, and international rela­tions minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. She participated in the celebrations for Women’s Day and echoed the enthusi­asm of the Zuma government for the re-­establishment of a bi-national commission between the two countries, heralding the return of warmer ties on all levels,

Three of the other countries she visited after South Africa, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria, are also rich in resources and two are important suppliers of oil to the US.

Again the messages conveyed were po­litical – good governance and attention to women’s issues – but trade and resources were also matters that received attention.

Let us not overlook the fact that in Sep­tember South Africa will host an EU-Africa Summit near Cape Town.

Europe is just as interested in access to African resources and markets. It also has a vested interest in the stability and growth of African countries, to reduce the illegal migrant flow to the north and to re­duce the financial burden of aid over the longer term. And around the same time the second Africa-South America summit will take place in Venezuela.

Is all this attention to Africa and the rivalry between countries outside of the continent in the interest of Africans?

That is for each country to decide. It is important that governance structures and legislation be put in place which will en­able African governments to judge wheth­er proffered co-operation and contracts are truly to the benefit of their countries and their populations.

Africans must control their own destinies and their leaders must ensure that the poor and hungry also enjoy the advantag­es that can flow from the exploitation of the natural resources their countries have been endowed with.