We hear of a new Scramble for Africa. But what was the original one like and what does it have in common with the latest one?
By Koki Muthoka
With near-catatonic economic growth in the world’s more advanced economies and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for natural resources in emerging ones, Africa finds itself at the centre of renewed attentions from the world’s great powers. The range of countries seeking to stake out African “spheres of influence” is much larger than in the 19th century, when the first major rush for Africa’s resources occurred. Much has changed on the continent since then. However, much of the latest competition for Africa’s markets and resources echo the past.
In 1884, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck gathered the representatives of Europe’s feuding powers to Berlin, the capital of a newly unified Germany, to agree on the ground rules for a less-attritional sharing-out of Africa, its peoples and especially its resources.
The Germans had finally entered the imperial game (New Imperialism would become the term for this particular adventure) under Kaiser Willem I. The Kaiser wanted to make good time and catch up to the British, the French and the Portuguese. It’s important to mention that before the Berlin conference, 80% of Africa remained under traditional and local control.
Thus, Bismarck gathered together in Berlin the representatives of Denmark, Sweden-Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, Italy, Portugal, Spain, France and Great Britain to agree the seven-point ground rules that they called the General Act. Under the General Act, slavery, which continued to be practiced by some African and Middle Eastern powers, would no longer be tolerated. This apparent humanitarianism put a nice gloss on the true intentions of the colonialists. Second, the Congo Free State, the precursor of today’s DRCongo, was confirmed essentially as the personal property of Belgium’s King Léopold II. Third, a free trade area encompassing the basin of the Congo River, today’s Lake Malawi and a demarcated area in their environs was agreed. Fourth, the Congo and Niger rivers were made open to free ship traffic. Fifth, it was agreed that any of the signatories would need to effectively occupy a territory before they could stake a claim to it. Sixth, forthwith, any of the signatory powers moving to take possession of new territory would need to notify the others. Finally, the signatories agreed on a definition of regions of territorial exclusivity, creating for the first time an international act recognizing “spheres of influence”.
The Portuguese had been the first to stake out territory in Africa, carving for their own taking what would later become Guinea-Bissau, Angola, Mozambique and Africa’s Lusophone Atlantic island nations. As with their British counter-parts, whose substantial initial territories were the Cape Colony in the south and Egypt in the north (Sudan was an Egyptian dependency), their initial preoccupation was to establish ports of call for their ships as they went to and from the Indian sub-continent. The Portuguese, along with the Spanish the leading powers of Europe’s Age of Discovery, also had ports on what would later become countries such as Ghana, South Africa and Kenya but would be forced to give them up in the course of time.
Initially the European powers had kept to the coasts. But the advent of the Industrial Revolution meant that Europe had the need for large quantities of raw materials as well as markets, and Africa’s gold, diamonds, timber, rubber, arable land, manpower, etc., began to fully concentrate European minds by the 1800’s. European powers had trade imbalances that needed urgent redressing. They also needed reliable sources of raw materials for their new factories. This was an important reason for the exploratory journeys of the likes of Henry Morton Stanley, John Speke, Cecil Rhodes, Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza and, perhaps to a lesser extent, David Livingstone. By the time of the Berlin conference at the behest of Portugal, colonial possessions had become a status symbol and “balance of power” pawns for European powers, which added to the combustive nature of competition for every inch of Africa. European public soon came to buy into the arguments advanced by the colonial lobby and the more reticent leaders, such as Great Britain’s Prime Minister William Gladstone and France’s Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, would soon cave in to the pressure.
The French got marginally the larger territory, albeit in the mostly arid lands of the Sahel. The Germans, Europe’s second military power, got the third largest share of the territory in the shape of today’s Angola, Cameroon, continental Tanzania, Cameroon, Togo, eastern Ghana, Rwanda and Burundi. These territories would later be forfeited as the young Kaiser Willem II, Willem I’s heir, finally threw off the restraining influence of Bismarck and plunged Europe and the world into World War I. In the aftermath, the Kaiser would lose his empire and Germany its African possessions, mostly to Great Britain. Portugal kept its existing possessions while Fascist Italy laid claim to what would later become present-day Libya, Eritrea, and a large swathe of Somalia. For a brief period, Italy also took control of Ethiopia, but the Ethiopians defeated the invader. Along with Liberia, Ethiopia became the only African country never to be colonized. Spain acquired the territories that are now Equatorial Guinea, the still-disputed Western Sahara, and the tiny enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast that remain in its hands.
These events, by and large, set the international boundaries of contemporary Africa. The “international community” had put the seal of legality on its exploitation of Africa’s peoples and their resources under the guise of “civilising” and Christianising them. Many were the genocides committed by the invaders. Some of the more notorious ones are the millions of Congolese who died from disease, starvation and what one diplomat described as “indiscriminate war”. Many Congolese also had their hands chopped off when they did not meet rubber collection quotas.
In what would become today’s Namibia, the Germans committed what many have called the first genocide of the 20th century, killing 80 per cent of the native Herero people mainly through starvation, exposure to thirst, or forced labour. The same fate befell 50 per cent of the native Namaqua population. The Germans went as far as to poison wells. Long before Hitler and the Nazi German had established concentration camps and gassed millions of Jewish families across Europe, a united German had already built the “Shark Island Concentration Camp” in Namibia where natives were left to perish in starvation.
The new Scramble for Africa essentially has the same hallmarks as the first. Africa, which has yet to recover from the colonial irruption, may not be facing the wholesale military invasion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, unfavourable international trade regimes, which require the continent to open up its markets to foreign goods without genuine reciprocity, may as well be a mass invasion. Within the context of the Economic Partnership Agreements and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, African governments continue to complain of arm-twisting.
New global powers as well as old have once again moved to ensure that they have firm control of the continent’s natural resources for the foreseeable future. In this regard, China has often been cited, for instance with regards to gazumping Angolan oil futures. But China is not the only global power, whether old or new, quietly hoarding African commodity futures at the throw-away prices of today. Some have gone as far as to lease some of Africa’s finest arable land—in places, just to cite a few, such as Madagascar, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, DRCongo (at least half of its arable is in foreign lands or headed there), Ghana, and Liberia. The beggar-thy-neighbour lending practices of the post-independence years continue apace, meaning that many African economies remain in the control of old and new creditor nations. The transnational corporations that have become the heirs of the concession companies of the New Imperialism continue to cause serious concerns about their exploitation of local resources and labour through their (non-)payment of taxes and their disproportionate repatriation of profits (Africa loses US $192 billion in profit repatriation).
In this entire fracas, the great protagonists of the new rush for African resources are China and the United States. The Americans have finally joined the Chinese, the Indians, the Japanese and the Europeans in summoning Africa’s leaders en masse to their metropolis for reasons both opaque and disturbing (the paternalistic optics of this practice seem lost on those concerned).
The Chinese and their BRICS allies have also established their own version of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—the New Development Bank—to be headquartered in Shanghai. A few years back, when the Chinese assigned some 7bn dollars in investment capital to Africa, the Americans quickly moved in with some 14bn dollars of their own. In all this, however, the omnipotence and the motives of the corporate lobby in both camps—which inevitably recall the influence of the colonial lobby—are not lost on local observers.
The relative absence of hypocritical posturing on the part of the likes of Brazil, China and India has won the newcomers a measure of goodwill across the continent. So also has their apparent desire to show genuine respect in the way that they deal with an increasingly confident and disabused Africa. But Africa has learned that the intentions of the newcomers are no different from those of the would-be saviours of yore. African leaders—and more importantly its growing middle classes—approach their dealings with the whole lot of foreign partners with a clear-eyed sense of their own relative position of weakness, but also of the self-interested motives of their foreign interlocutors. Africa’s largest demographic—it’s (slowly) increasingly educated young people—understand the need to operate within the context of a globalising world, meaning the need to engage players both great and small. But there is now an understanding that only Africa itself is genuinely interested in solving Africa’s problems.