The Hidden Scramble for Africa’s Resources

“Hidden”, because if it hadn’t been for the ugly media controversy on October 4th 2017 surrounding President Trump’s alleged disrespectful conversation with the widow of Sgt La David Johnson, one of the four US special forces troops in Niger who had been ambushed and killed by Islamist militants, few would even know the US had a military presence there, or indeed in dozens of other countries all over Africa. In all the media controversy over what Trump is supposed to have said, questions about what US troops are doing in Niger were ignored.

The US Presence in Africa

In fact, the US has a military presence not just in Niger but in 49 out of 54 African countries. According to US army data, there are thousands of special forces and other military personnel carrying out up to 100 missions at any given time in some 24 African states, nearly half of all the countries comprising the African continent. [1] US special forces and surveillance drone operations are deployed in Niger, Chad, Mali and Sudan which all run along the southern Sahara desert. Further south in sub-Saharan Africa, the US military is operating in Nigeria, Central African Republic, Uganda, Ethiopia and, of course, Somalia, where they are involved in a state of war against Islamist al Shabab militants.

The Pentagon set up Africa Command (AFRICOM) [2] under GW Bush in 2007, to step up the deployment of US troops in Africa up. Under Obama, the deployment of US troops increased still further but under Trump, the US military presence is thought to be at its highest level yet. Although it was reported in June 2007 that African countries were competing to host the headquarters of AFRICOM because it would bring money for the recipient country, only Liberia has publicly expressed a willingness to host it. Nigeria announced it will not allow its country to host a base and opposed the creation of any base on the continent. South Africa and Libya also expressed reservations about the establishment of a headquarters in Africa. The U.S. thus declared in February 2008 that AFRICOM would be headquartered in Stuttgart for the "foreseeable future".[3] Despite this setback the US has, according to TomDispatch, 24 Military Bases, Forward Operating Sites (FOSes), Contingency Security Locations (CSLs), Contingency Locations (CLs) and airports with fueling agreements and various shared facilities. The same report says that the US military are saying behind closed doors that “Africa is the battlefield of tomorrow, today.”

Why has the US been mobilising in Africa?

The pretext of course is that the US is conducting the war on terror. US soldiers, Navy and air power, as well as CIA clandestine operations are there, according to the US State Department, to counter terror groups, who could plan and mount strikes on Europe and North America. This US support is also meant to help the region’s governments counteract well-established criminal networks, including trafficking routes that carry guns, drugs and people across the Sahara, but most especially to fight the militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and now Islamic State (IS). Those challenges have intensified since the US and the West in general helped in the collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s regime in 2011, which has seen the region flooded with weapons. It could be argued however, that the problem of these terror groups has actually grown more rapidly since US troops first started to be deployed in larger numbers in Africa under Bush. There are echoes of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria here.

But the real reason for the presence of the US military in Africa, is that Africa has prodigious and still largely untapped resources, including diamonds, gold, iron, cobalt, uranium, copper, bauxite, silver, gas and oil. Former US President Bill Clinton declared, during a panel discussion with chief executives, that the US has "only barely scratched the surface" of Africa's economic potential.

Which is why the US is very concerned that China will gain a monopoly of the wealth of natural resources that Africa possesses. The essential problem for the US is that China has stolen a march on it in terms of cultivating investments and harnessing resources across Africa. Under Xi Jinping, China has investment projects worth an estimated $60 billion in dozens of African countries.[4] This is way beyond what the US or European powers have invested.

China has, over the last decade, risen to become the single largest trade partner for many African countries. [5] It has educated 15,000 Africans in China and in 2006 wrote off $1 billion in debts. It has also become a major source of financial support for various development projects being undertaken on the continent. Infrastructure development is a key pillar of the China-Africa relationship. Infrastructure projects awarded to Chinese companies are financed through Chinese loans and grants to African countries. An important example is the Nigerian Coastal Railway, which is the largest ever contract awarded to a Chinese company in Africa worth $12 billion. The deal was signed between the Federal Republic of Nigeria and China Railway Construction Corp (CRCC) in 2014. The 1,402 km long railway will ultimately link Lagos, the nation’s economic capital, with the eastern city of Calabar, passing through 10 other states, including the oil rich state of Niger Delta. Other important projects include the Chad/Sudan railway, the Port Sudan-Khartoum railway, the Dangote Cement plc expansion, the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam project, the Bag Amoyo Port project in Tanzania, and there are many more.[6]

Africa’s population totals 1.2bn and is forecast to more than double to 2.45bn by 2050.[7] Population growth and urbanisation are key drivers in the development of housing, offices, schools and hospitals across Africa. Chinese developers are stepping in to help build the houses and amenities Africa’s growing cities will require. Today there are thought to be over a million Chinese working and trading in Africa.

Differing Imperialist Approaches to Carving up Africa

Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and a billionaire businessman has said of Africa, "We realise we have some catching up to do". "We are letting Europe and China go faster than the US". It wasn’t until 2014 that the US government announced $14 billion in commitments from US businesses to invest in Africa. The business commitments announced by the Obama government included a $2 billion investment by GE by 2018, $200 million in investments across Africa by Marriott, and a $66 million commitment by IBM to provide technology services to Ghana's Fidelity Bank.[8] It may well be too little too late for the US. China surpassed the US as Africa's largest trading partner in 2009.

Chinese propaganda has played on its previous past as a country dominated by European colonialism to assure the African bourgeoisie that its investment and import of workers is not “imperialist”. They can contrast this with the way in which China has devoted much of its resources to developing trade and industry with African states. By contrast the US continues to act as the world’s policeman and puts much greater emphasis on military relations. China is bringing capital and technology to Africa and gaining access to natural resources of oil and gas, metals and other minerals. This has been how Chinese soft power has operated for the last decade and a half at least. In return for access to raw materials, the Chinese have built schools, universities, telecommunications and transport networks, which they claim will drag the continent out of poverty. They contrast this with the way the US and Europe have bled Africa dry for decades using the World Bank, the WTO and the IMF. [9] But Chinese motives are not altruistic and their practices exclude many Africans from decision-making. The Chinese negotiate only with governments and largely in secret. However the real cost of Chinese imperialism is yet to be counted although the more savvy African bourgeois have realised that the Chinese alternative to the IMF etc gives them a greater freedom for manoeuvre.

The US has today become the leading proponent of a financialised form of capitalism and its military is paid for through the dollar’s privileged position as world reserve currency. Recognising the rich resources found in Africa's earth and its people, US capital sees the prospect of making huge profits. But its investment is short-term and solely in the extractive industry. If they cannot “turn a quick buck” then investment is not worth it. It is the same argument inside the US itself where it won't even invest in the decaying infrastructure of its own nation never mind Africa.[10] This is where US military might comes into play. In place of long-term economic investment, diplomacy and political partnership, the US is using its overwhelming military superiority to encroach on Africa under the guise of "fighting terrorism". But the real purpose for increasing US military strength in Africa is about securing strategic economic interests cheaply, using military power as opposed to committing financial investment in the way that China is doing.

The aim of AFRICOM is to have military firepower in place across Africa in the event of a sharp confrontation with China, which is seen as the global rival to the relative decline in US economic power. If relations turn really sour, as they could over any number of issues, from North Korea to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the US wants to have the military capacity to cut China off in Africa. Echoing the European powers in a previous century, the US is in a "scramble for Africa". This time the scramble is all about prising away countries and resources from China's expanding bilateral interests with African nations.

The real danger is that this militarism will lead to another point of confrontation with China if the latter's economic interests are threatened, as they were when US and NATO forces bombed Libya in 2011 to bring about “regime change”. [11] Chinese citizens were also killed by Islamists in Mali and Chinese oil interests have been militarily threatened by war in the Sudan. For all these reasons China has given up a non-interference policy that it had formally adhered to for more than 50 years. President Xi has established a naval base on the Horn of Africa in Djibouti, passed a law allowing the stationing of soldiers abroad and strengthened China’s influence in the East China and South China Seas. For many decades, China insisted that one of its differences from foreign military powers was that it did not base its forces on foreign soil. However, China has recognised that in order to protect its interests abroad it, like other major world powers, needs forward deployed forces to react to contingencies. In July 2017, China sent troops to its new military and naval base in Djibouti.[12] The number of troops deployed has not been revealed.

China is the world’s largest exporter of capital by far and is now the imperialist power providing the strongest challenge to US supremacy in terms of foreign investment not just in Africa but in Asia and Europe as well. It is an indication of the decline of the US as an imperialist power that it is unable or unwilling to compete with China in long term foreign capital investment in Africa. This does not, of course, prevent the US remaining the world’s major imperialist power. Through its control of the dollar, the US is able to extort surplus value on a global scale to pay for its own deficits in a way that would have seemed impossible when Lenin was writing Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1916. This will remain the case as long as the dollar enjoys the status of the currency of commodity trading, especially in oil, and the world’s reserve currency, backed by US military force. However, even here China has been working behind the scenes to challenge the dollar’s supremacy. [13] China, of course, cannot challenge US military might head-on but in the long term its new policy of backing up its interests in Africa could lead to local conflict. Chinese arms are already going to many African states to contribute to their destabilisation and dysfunction. Africa looks set to become the next deadly playing field of capitalism in its imperialist phase.

Ergosum

7 November 2017

Footnotes

1 tomdispatch.com

2 en.wikipedia.org

3 en.wikipedia.org

“Selection of the Headquarters”

4 forbes.com

5 un.org

6 afkinsider.com

7 worldpopulationreview.com

8 aljazeera.com

9 africaw.com

10 usnews.com

11 Chinese companies had $18bn of infrastructure projects damaged in the fighting and were cut out of post-Gaddafi business deals.

12 telegraph.co.uk

13 See leftcom.org “Dollar Hegemony”

Tuesday, November 14, 2017