The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

One hopes the new ‘Scramble for Africa’ is more civilized. The bottom line is no one’s motives are pure.

In the 1880s, the resource-rich continent of Africa became the target of the “Scramble for Africa.” This period was marked by a delicate interplay of power, intense rivalry, and a calculated desire for dominance among the world’s superpowers. The 19th century gave way to the 20th, bringing a new phase of imperial ambition that unfolded across the vast African landscape rather than in far-off battlefields.

The appetite for territorial expansion, riches, and geopolitical advantage unleashed a frenzy of colonialism that indelibly altered both Africa’s fate and world history. The evident drivers were control over Africa’s immense resources, key sea connections, and potential for economic exploitation, luring superpowers to the continent’s diversity of people and wealth. The repercussions of these decisions, often made with stark disregard for existing tribal and cultural boundaries, linger to this day.

Since the 1950s, China’s alliance with anti-colonial and anti-Apartheid organizations has been instrumental in advancing the “One-China” policy throughout Africa. The goodwill mission, spearheaded by then-Premier Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s, underlines China’s growing focus on the continent. China sees strengthening its African position as a way to offset production losses, especially in light of Africa’s anticipated emergence as a global player. Though many African nations lack the resources or influence to ascend to superpower status, this situation may evolve in decades.

By 2030, Africa will be home to 42% of the world’s youth, potentially benefiting from a demographic dividend. Furthermore, it is projected that by 2050, 25% of the global population will hail from Africa. This contrasts sharply with birth rates in developed nations, which in many cases are flat or falling.

The struggle for African dominance has current superpowers pitted against each other, with the possibility of Africa being buoyed by economic progress similar to China’s in recent decades. Abundant human resources could pave the way for an export-oriented economy, as seen in China in 1978. With rising wages in China, global corporations are now seeking more cost-effective locations, like Mexico for the U.S., and potentially Africa. Despite lacking significant industrial zones in many countries, Africa’s huge agricultural sector and reasonable wages make it attractive to the world’s largest companies.

Billions are being invested in Africa, despite a lack of a solid institutional framework or robust economy. China alone has invested about $300 billion in constructing infrastructure without questioning democracy or human rights. India, too, is increasing investment to compete with China, while Turkey collaborates with African Muslim nations, and Russia expands its influence.

While raising concerns about its intentions, a resurgent Russia follows a pattern reminiscent of resource exploitation rather than sustainable development. Connections with various governments and non-state actors, like its involvement in Niger and links with the private military organization Wagner Group, illustrate Russia’s willingness to align with regimes that meet Moscow’s resource demands.

President Vladimir Putin’s portrayal of Russia as Africa’s new partner obscures underlying strategic interests. From a military perspective, Africa’s geographical position, raw material availability, potential for military manpower, and role in the distribution of military armaments are all noteworthy. America’s history with Africa during World War II and its efforts to establish strong connections with North African nations underscore its interest in maintaining close ties for military and economic advantages.

Europe’s former colonial powers are still remembered for their extraction of African resources, leaving lingering scars. The European Union is increasingly focusing on Africa, pledging over €300 billion for healthcare, education, and stability, in part to regain credibility amid China and Russia’s persistent influence.

The superpowers’ multifaceted competition for dominance in Africa paints a complex picture of global politics. The ebb and flow of influence and power demonstrate that their impact on the African continent will be subject to geopolitical shifts, as seen in India’s recent investment in Afghanistan. Navigating the unpredictable nature of geopolitical dynamics requires acknowledging the potential for swift changes while forecasting the future of superpower hegemony in Africa. African nations’ efforts towards self-determination will likely influence the continued success of external powers in the region, contingent upon their ability to adapt to the ever-shifting geopolitical landscape.

S.M. Sayem is a Dhaka-based foreign policy analyst studying Economics at the University of Chittagong.