The new scramble for Africa

by Simon Korner

The major powers are once again competing over Africa. Like the earlier Scramble for Africa between 1881 and 1914 – when the European imperialists divided up 90% of the continent between them – this is about gaining valuable resources and controlling them against rivals.


Despite promises from Trump to reduce the US military presence – along with claims of a “light footprint” in Africa – the US is increasing its military presence there. AFRICOM, the US Africa Command, has 7,500 American troops active in all but one African country, up from 6,000 in 2017. The main concentration is in the Horn of Africa, where its huge Djibouti base, Camp Lemonnier, houses 4,000 troops. 

Djibouti’s strategic position on the narrow Bab-el-Mandeb strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden gives it control over the vital chokepoint through which all shipping using the Suez Canal has to pass – most importantly (for the Americans) Chinese shipping. 20% of total global exports and 10% of total oil exports pass through Bab-el-Mandeb. In 2014, the US signed a new 20-year lease on its base and is spending over $1.4 billion on expanding it.

China has also recently built a base there, almost next door to Camp Lemonnier. And France, with 1,500 troops. And Japan. And Italy. And Russia will build its first base in nearby Somaliland, where the UAE and Saudi Arabia also have bases, along with Turkey, which has bases in Somalia and Sudan.

Former US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter called Camp Lemonnier “a hub with lots of spokes out there on the continent and in the region.” It is where attacks on Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria are coordinated. The US has other east African bases – such as the world’s biggest drone base, also in Djibouti, five bases in Somalia including a special forces base, four bases in Kenya, and Camp Gilbert in Ethiopia. To connect them up it has built a sophisticated transport system dubbed the “new spice route”.

In west Africa, another massive drone base is being built in Agadez, Niger, with 800 military personnel. The Hill journal called it “the largest US Air Force-led construction project of all time.” Hundreds more US troops are active elsewhere throughout Niger, operating from five bases there, as well as across Mali and Nigeria. Over 60 smaller bases have been built. Agreements known as SOFAs (Status of Forces Agreements) made with African states allow the US to deploy troops at short notice to these small flexible bases called lily pads – some active, some dormant. Each lily pad can house 200 personnel, with stores of weapons and vehicles, and a runway for transport planes.

Commentator David Vine, in his book Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, says this lily pad strategy allows the US to conceal the true extent of its military power in Africa, pretending the bases are merely temporary, whereas in aggregate they “signify an enduring and imperial-scale military presence” (Eric Schewe, Jstor Daily, 11/4/18). Africom’s commander, General Waldhauser says openly that the aim is a strong US military capability “without creating the optic that US Africa Command is militarizing Africa.” Overall, the US now conducts 3,500 exercises and military engagements in Africa every year, according to VICE journal, a figure confirmed in 2017 by Waldhauser.

Although during the Cold War the US backed African dictators to the tune of over $1.5 billion, US boots on the ground were relatively few – until AFRICOM’s establishment in 2007. The policy of militarisation represents a shift away from soft power. All US diplomatic business in Africa now goes through AFRICOM. Military attachés outnumber diplomats at most US embassies and officials from civilian US government departments operate within AFRICOM.

What is driving this US military expansion? The official explanation is to help weak African states deal with terrorist threats. But US policy changed markedly from 2001 onwards after the discovery of massive new oil and gas reserves. “West Africa’s oil has become of national strategic interest to us,” the then US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Walter Kansteiner stated in 2002. Under George W. Bush, US oil companies invested heavily in Angola, Nigeria, Guinea, Gabon and Cameroon. ExxonMobil for instance has invested over $24bn in the region. Such investment required military protection.

The west side of Africa now has five of the top thirty oil-producing countries in the world. And recently, Mozambique and Tanzania have also discovered major gas fields. In 2013, six out of the top ten global energy discoveries were in Africa, with over 500 oil companies involved.

Other valuable resources include gold, diamonds, copper and, more recently, rare earth elements. China currently controls most of the world’s supply of rare earth metals used for military equipment and superconductors, leading to a race by western powers for alternative sources. With electric car production rising, conflict over cobalt in particular, used to produce lithium-ion batteries, is set to intensify, with the Congo’s vast cobalt production, employing 100,000 miners, the main target. Meanwhile, Niger’s massive uranium deposits also make it a predatory target – particularly for France, which needs uranium for its large-scale nuclear power production.

Overall, competition for control over vital resources lies at the heart of the new “Scramble for Africa”.

The World Defense Review outlined AFRICOM’s objectives a decade ago as “protecting access to hydrocarbons and other strategic resources which Africa has in abundance, a task which includes ensuring against the vulnerability of those natural riches and ensuring that no other interested third parties, such as China, India, Japan, or Russia, obtain monopolies or preferential treatment.” As Third World Quarterly put it in 2006: “Washington has become deeply concerned by China's growing interest in African oil, provoking an intense competitive contest between the two, with growing military overtones.”

Over a decade on, in spite of the growth of domestic fracking, the US still wants to dominate African energy, worried that “China is gaining near-monopolistic control of extractive resources such as oil and minerals,” according to the Defense One website. Chinese control of rare earth elements likewise exposes “vulnerabilities and gaps in America’s manufacturing and defense industrial base” (Breaking Defense). A recent report from a NATO-aligned think-tank the Atlantic Council also pointed to fears of China’s military presence in Africa – supplying more peacekeeping troops than other UN permanent Security Council members.

With US-sub-Saharan trade falling from $100 billion in 2008 to $39bn in 2017, partly due to the decreasing US demand for African oil, there is a growing fear that the US is losing economic influence on the continent. US senators recently accused Beijing of “weaponising capital” in Africa, using debt to create a Chinese economic order. Hence Trump’s decision to boost the US’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation, whose lending limit is to be more than doubled to $60 billion. More recently, John Bolton, National Security Adviser, unveiled the new US Africa strategy called the Prosper Africa initiative, whose stated aim is to challenge “great power competitors, namely China and Russia.” These powers, he says, “pose a significant threat to US national security interests.”

Effects of US militarisation include AFRICOM-orchestrated military coups, such as the 2009 assassination attempt on Guinea's President Camara, after he’d agreed for China to take over bauxite mining from US and French companies, with refining done domestically rather than abroad. Toppling Gadaffi in 2011, alongside France and Britain, marked a further stage in military interference. More recently, in 2016, the US supported Islamist attacks in Cameroon and Burkina Faso – giving the lie to its claim of protecting Africa from extremists. Currently, the main American campaign is bombing al-Shabab in Somalia – to ensure control over the Bab-el-Mandeb strait rather than to defend democracy.


Meanwhile, France, which has long been the dominant neo-colonial power in north and west Africa, is also expanding its activity. Macron made clear his intention to break into anglophone Africa by visiting Ghana in 2017 and Nigeria in 2018 – alongside consolidating French dominance over francophone territories.  Stating that “the future of the world will largely be played out in Africa", he has set up a new Presidential Council for Africa. On a visit to Senegal in February 2018, he promised €200 million to fund schoolchildren in developing countries – expanding French soft power. He also promised a 65 million Euro fund to promote digital startups in Africa. Macron is fighting on behalf of French oil giant Total, which lost out in the oil free-for-all after the Iraq war which France had not supported, and instead invested in Cameroon, Chad and Gabon.

Other French businesses include supermarket chain Carrefour; Orange; infrastructure group Bouygues; and nuclear and renewable energy company Areva. French EU Commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, summed up French interests: “Africa is booming. Sub-Saharan Africa will have the second highest regional growth after Asia in 2012 with a rate of 5.5 percent... African growth has the potential to stimulate growth in France.”

Meanwhile, France is, like America, increasingly wary of China’s presence. Here’s Moscovici again: “It’s evident that China is more and more present in Africa...[French] companies that have the means must go on the offensive… They have to fight.” Macron recently echoed this, saying France must now allow global competitors to “encroach on our historical partners’ sovereignty”.

France still controls the economies of its 14 former African colonies, using its Central Africa Franc (CFA), a position it won’t relinquish without a struggle. Militarily, France, with its array of bases, housing 4,000 troops in West Africa alone, has long acted as the regional gendarme for all western forces, intervening more than 30 times since 1960, leading the destruction of Libya and operations in Mali, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast and Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Macron has praised US military support against jihadists (in Mali and elsewhere), yet the US presence also represents a challenge – how to keep “American hard power as far as possible from… France's exclusive sphere of influence,” as Niagala Bagayoko puts it in Contemporary Security Policy journal (2009). Franco-US rivalry saw the two powers backing different sides in Rwanda in 1994 – at a terrible human cost. France’s lead in the Libya campaign – and the continuing aftermath across the Sahel – demonstrated its determination to preserve a key military role.

A recent Franco-Italian diplomatic spat can be viewed in part as a tussle for control over Libyan energy, with each power backing different militias.


Britain is also targeting Africa. In 2018 Theresa May visited former colonies South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, calling them “key partners”. May said she wants Britain to overtake the US as the biggest G7 investor in Africa. The current ranking (2015) is the US at $57 billion, Britain at $54 billion, and France at $52 billion. China leads, with $66.6 billion of investment. British investment will be channeled through the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which has been criticised for building hotels and shopping centres in Kenya, lining the pockets of British business rather than providing aid.

May also plans to “radically expand” Britain’s diplomatic presence in Africa, especially in francophone west Africa, with the first-ever British ambassador to Mauritania and the first British mission in Chad. High commissions will be opened in the south too, in Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). At the moment Britain lags behind its rivals, with only 31 missions compared to the France’s 61, the US’s 49, China’s 46, and Germany’s 39 – part of the huge boom in new African embassies over the past decade. May also plans greater military involvement, on top of the training it already provides Nigeria and Kenya.


Germany too has growing African interests, with 900 troops in Mali and Niger, and hundreds of others deployed elsewhere. Merkel visited Africa last year, accompanying various German CEOs and investors to Senegal and to Ghana and Nigeria in the old British sphere. In Ghana, VW is setting up a factory, joining others in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa – as well as Rwanda. Germany’s former colony Burundi is now being exploited by ThyssenKrupp after the discovery of rare earth minerals there in 2017.


As for the EU as a whole, Jean-Claude Juncker has declared it is in the EU’s interest to “engage with Africa on a more significant basis, with other global powers – particularly China – having already made their imprint there”.

The EU’s free trade deals such as its Everything but Arms deals, made with Least Developed Countries, purportedly allow African agricultural produce into Europe tariff-free. But the Common Agricultural Policy in effect cancels out most benefits to Africa – by giving subsidies to EU farmers and imposing food standards designed to exclude African produce. The EU’s real aim is to gain preferential access to African markets and to ease European exports.


What about China? China is now Africa's biggest economic partner with total trade worth $215 billion. It issued $86 billion worth of commercial loans to Africa between 2000-2014, with President Xi pledging a further $60 billion in 2015. This makes China the region’s biggest creditor. In Kenya, for instance, Chinese loans to the government are six times higher than the second biggest creditor, France. China has so far financed over 3,000 major infrastructure projects, such as the Mombassa-Nairobi high-speed railway. Africa is China’s second-biggest source of oil. Sudan alone provides 8% of China’s oil – the majority of Sudan’s production. Much of the Congo’s cobalt production is Chinese owned.

But China’s relationship with Africa is not neo-colonial. Unlike the IMF and World Bank, which impose conditions on borrowers such as privatisation, welfare cuts and cuts to subsidies, China imposes no such strictures.  “Many African governments like to work with the Chinese because it’s traditionally been a strictly business-to-business relationship,” according to Richard Downie, Center for Strategic and International Studies. A report from John Hopkins University found that of 17 African countries in debt distress, eight had either no debt or barely any debt to China. Ghana, for example, has debts of $25 billion, but less than $4 billion of that is owed to China. Most Chinese investments are made by state-owned enterprises seeking a long-lasting connection – very different from western short-termism.

China’s relations with South Africa – its biggest trade partner on the continent – show the potential role of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) in offsetting the western scramble for Africa. A coordinated approach rather than “trampling each other” is how one South African official described it. For instance, a decade ago, China agreed to limit exports of cheap clothes and textiles that were damaging the South African industry. 

Yet the win-win model for the past 20 years that provides China with resources and African economies with infrastructure is inevitably subject to capitalist pressures. A country like Zambia – once the exemplar nation of ‘Africa Rising’ – is suffering due to the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the fall in copper prices.  Nevertheless, overall China is creating what Horace Campbell in Monthly Review calls an “imperfect alternative” to imperialist domination and is by and large seen in Africa as providing a “counterpoint” to it. As commentator Carlos Martinez (Invent the Future, October 2018) says: “China’s engagement with Africa… stimulates development rather than underdevelopment. In that crucial sense, it is profoundly different from the relationship that the US and the major European powers have had with Africa. China’s aid and investment packages promote host countries’ modernisation, technical knowhow and infrastructure.” Moreover, China represents a potential development model for African nations to follow.


Other BRICS countries are also active in Africa. Brazil’s two-way trade with Africa stands at $26 billion. India, is now Africa’s fourth biggest trading partner, and the second biggest importer of African oil after China. It is also building military bases in the Seychelles and on the Mauritius island of Agalega, alongside its existing intelligence-gathering base in Madagascar. 

Russia – which as the USSR provided solidarity aid to progressive governments and movements during the cold war – expanded trade and investment with Africa by 185% between 2005-2015, according to Comtrade. Apart from resources, it is focusing on arms – and is now sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest supplier, selling cheap weapons to the Central African Republic, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. It has recently concluded a $1billion arms deal with Angola, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s 2018 visit to southern Africa ended with a military co-operation agreement with Mozambique. Such a focus on arms – along with China, which outstrips the US in supplying weapons to Africa – ensures ongoing military influence in Africa, an important counterweight to the West, though there are also potentially negative effects.

Finally, trade between Turkey, a non-BRICS country, and Africa, has reached $17 billion – and Erdogan has visited the continent 30 times as president.


What has been Africa’s response to the Scramble? 14 countries – led by Libya – protested against AFRICOM’s formation, and popular protests forced then Nigerian president Yar’Adua to distance himself from the US Command. More recently, the South African Minister of Defence has expressed concern about the continent’s growing militarisation. A recent Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Ghana provoked “Ghana First” protests in Accra.

Facing African reluctance, the US hasn’t dared move its AFRICOM HQ from Stuttgart to Africa. Senator Jim Inhofe said: “It’s about perceived colonialism”. Interestingly France was early on active in deterring francophone countries from hosting AFRICOM. Dr Carl LeVan, in a study published in Africa Today (2010), concluded that the poorer and more dependent a country was, the greater its support for AFRICOM. Faster-growing countries less reliant on foreign aid – even US allies – felt more confident in taking a critical stance.  Yet overall, there is no clear, unified strategy, or even political will, evident among Africa’s leaders to resist imperialism. Many face Islamist insurgencies and look to the West to guarantee their rule.

Over the next 35 years, Africa will account for more than half of the world’s population growth. Yet more than 40% of sub-Saharan Africa still lives in poverty. The continent currently pays out over £32 billion annually to the world’s richest countries, according to Global Justice Now (Guardian, May 14, 2017). Clearly a new phase of development and decolonisation is needed.

In the meantime, Africa will continue to be a flashpoint for regional wars, and could become an arena for great power conflict.

Camp Lemmonier - US base in Djibouti

Africom's commander, General Waldhauser