The annual World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss town of Davos brings together during January of each year those in command of politics and economy in this world and those “celebrities” who like to be close to them. They represent a world, in which Africa remains at the receiving end of the global power structures and is increasingly again the object of external interests. But while so far those in favor of globalization had accepted the continent’s marginalization rather unscrupulously, the 2007 WEF emerged as a forum expressing concern over negative side effects of a globalization, which unleashes new competitors. These not only have negative impacts on the industrial production and labor markets at home, but also turn hitherto secured “backyards” into contested territories. The African continent is, these days, among the more prominent examples which illustrate this point.
It is anything but new that Africa’s human and other natural resources are the object of more or less systematic looting from the outside world. Whoever still believes that “globalization” is a very recent phenomenon simply needs to look in an African perspective on the devastating impact of the slave trade to understand, “How Europe underdeveloped Africa” – the title of a seminal book published by the late Walter Rodney (1972).
Karl Marx had already observed (though in rather insensitive language) in his Critique of the Political Economy that the hunt for black skins signaled the dawn of capitalism. Since the days of the transatlantic human resource transfer various subsequent forms of brutal exploitation through colonialism and imperialism were ultimately by means of formal decolonization processes at least modified. But the “winds of change” created sovereign African states, whose societies remain to a large extent characterized by the structural legacy of an externally oriented dependency. Beneficiaries of such limited so-called development are still mainly externally based, with the limited participation of – all too often parasitic – small local elites, who exploit their political control over national wealth for their own gain. They collaborate with those operating from the outside offering them the most convenient (and unashamed) access to the small slice of the cake they are able to keep for themselves in such sellout deals.
Seen in this light, some (if not most) of the recent critical accounts of the aggressive expansion of Chinese interests into African countries and societies and their collaboration with local autocratic elites and despots have a hypocritical taste or at least bear traces of amnesia. After all, the Chinese penetration only presents the ugly face of predatory capitalism, which for far too long has already abused the dependency of the majority on the continent. One therefore is tempted to wonder, if the concern expressed is actually not more about the Western interests than about the welfare of the African people, given that what we witness today is anything but new with regard to its forms and effects. While this critical observation does not exonerate the, at times, appallingly imperialist nature of the Chinese expansion into Africa, it does undermine the credibility of those critics, who find no similar words for the other forms of imperialism, which for far too long had (and continues to have) crucial responsibilities for contributing to the state of misery many of the African people are in.
Africa since the end of the bipolar world, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of a more than forty year period of bloc confrontation was by no means “the end of history” (as suggested by Francis Fukuyama). It was the beginning of a new global order for hegemonic rule with far-reaching consequences also for African governments. Gone were the days, where in the midst of a
Cold War some maneuvering space for limited opportunistic bargaining existed, which allowed for a bit of strategic positioning. Not that this was necessarily for the best of the African people: all too often, this constellation encouraged and protected self-enrichment schemes for dictators and/or small local elites through forms of rent seeking or sinecure capitalism, as examples from A (as in Angola) to Z (as in Zaire) document. The bi-polar world order was in no way a suitable breeding ground for development “from below”, but offered parasitic agents the opportunity to position themselves as satellites in return for their own gain within the East–West polarization.
The consolidation of the USA’s dominance during the 1990s and its impact on the global order resulted in several changes for the African continent too. A regionally inter-linked “appeasement” strategy (with the Russian retreat from Afghanistan and the Cuban withdrawal from Angola) secured in Southern Africa the final decolonization of Namibia (1990) and paved the way for an end to Apartheid and democratic elections in South Africa (1994). During this period the economic paradigms represented by the international financial institutions (World Bank and IMF) resumed the only power of definition. The World Trade Organization (WTO) emerged as the broker to regulate the comprehensively binding global exchange relations of goods. The most to say in these regulating processes with far reaching implications for not only “classic” trade relations but wider defined exchanges has the club of the G8 members, which defines the rather one-sided rules of “global governance”.
Significant inner-African dynamics complemented at the beginning of this century the global re-arrangements. With the democratically elected and legitimized new governments in South Africa and Nigeria the two economic powerhouses on the continent South of the Sahara left behind their pariah status. Based on internal and international acceptance, they resumed leadership roles in international policy arenas. At the turn of the millennium presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo emerged (with active support from Senegal, Algeria and Egypt) as new figureheads representing the collective interests of the South and in particular Africa vis-à-vis the industrialized Western countries. Originally tasked to negotiate debt cancellation arrangements in direct communication with the West, the two leaders moved on to seek new forms of interaction based on the acknowledged socio-economic premises as defined by the WTO. As kind of junior partners in the global market they became the architects of what was finally termed the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). After some incubation period and presumably intensive political negotiations behind closed doors this blueprint was upgraded to the status of an official economic program and institution of the African Union (AU).
The AU itself was a parallel transformation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In the course of its change it undertook some significant corrections to the hitherto established continental policy pillars. Most importantly it moved away from the erstwhile almost holy principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of member states. With a lot of confidence and trust and substantive political support offered by the G8 since its 2001 summit in Genoa the NEPAD-architects could bring back home the reassuring message that the industrial West was on board and willing to support the initiative. This contributed to its acceptance both in Africa as well as by the United Nations system, which in a General Assembly resolution officially recognized NEPAD as the economic program for Africa.
While this looks like a success story, the critical policy issues were to some extent at the same time aborted or at best watered down. The good governance discourse in line with the new unipolar world system and to some extent imposed by the Western-capitalist hegemony was after all not only cosmetic rhetoric, but in some parts indeed a meaningful deviation from past practices of unquestioned autocratic rule by African despots and oligarchies. The AU Constitution was adopted at the same summit in Durban when NEPAD was incorporated. It introduced a collective responsibility so far absent, justifying joint intervention for specified reasons. This has in the meantime provided several results, as cases like Darfur, the DRC, the Ivory Coast, Liberia and Togo among others have shown in different ways (and varying degrees of success), all seeking to contribute to conflict reduction or enhanced legitimacy of the political systems. In contrast to this new responsibility, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), conceptualized by NEPAD as a cornerstone for enhancing the notion of good governance, did not meet expectations.
The disappointment over non-delivery was maybe biggest when it came to the absence of any determined policy action by the NEPAD initiators in the case of Zimbabwe (where the South African president preferred his so-called silent diplomacy to any meaningful political intervention). Nonetheless, the demand for democracy, human rights and respect for constitutional principles articulated by the NEPAD blueprint as a prerequisite for sustainable socio-economic development might have been a contributing factor to the new phenomenon of an increasing number of African heads of state more or less voluntarily (and peacefully) vacating their offices.
Systematic new efforts to access African markets and tap into the local resources became visible with the adoption of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by the out-going Clinton administration. Through this initiative the USA openly underlined the relevance of the African dimension for its external trade relations (Africa ranks higher than Eastern Europe in the US trade balance). The breakdown of the AGOA trade volume, however, also discloses that with the exception of a few smaller niches (e.g. the temporary opportunities created for a locally based – though not owned – African textile industry with preferential access to the US market) the trade volume is mainly composed of exporting US-manufactured high tech goods and machinery and importing oil, strategic minerals and other natural resources for meeting the demands of US-based industries.
Soon after AGOA was enacted, the trade department of the EU headquarters in Brussels initiated negotiations for a re-arrangement of its relations with the ACP countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific through so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The declared aim was to enter a post-Cotonou agreement phase meeting the demands for WTO compatibility. The EPA negotiations have since then entered critical stages meeting the resistance of many among the ACP countries. They are afraid of drawing the map of regional configurations in Africa to comply with EU expectations. Both initiatives, AGOA and the EPA negotiations, seem to reflect less the genuine desire for fairer trade than securing access to relevant markets not least in the own interest of the USA and the EU.
The competition for preferential trade agreements with South Africa successfully negotiated by the EU during the late 1990s and currently facing an impasse with regard to the USA illustrates at the same time the point, that the industrialized states anything but share the same interests when it comes to securing their individual links with other countries. The new offensive pursued by China, which is expanding aggressively into African markets and seeks access to the fossil energy resources and other minerals and metals it urgently needs to fuel its own further rapid industrialization process, adds to the rivalry and conflicting interests. In a matter of time, India, Brazil and Russia (as well as a number of other actors such as Malaysia and Mexico) are likely to add further pressure on the scramble for limited markets and resources. This new stage of competing forces on the continent has resulted in a plethora of recent analyses dealing mainly if not exclusively with the Chinese impact and practices. Interestingly enough, the EU and – much more so – the US policies seem almost to fade away from the picture.
The current type of Cassandra-prophecies present at times a rather one-sided story. Such selected narrative tends to downplay if not ignore the damaging external effects, which the existing socio-economic imbalances and power structures have long created and consolidated. It appears at times, that the criticism raised towards China is more an indicator of an increasing fear of losing out on one’s own interests than motivated by a genuine concern for the African people.
This critical observation does of course not whitewash the current Chinese offensive and its potentially damaging impact. At the same time, however, with new imperialist rivals such as China, India, Brazil, Russia [BRIC] and a series of further countries on the threshold to their own meaningful industrial production with export orientation and growing demands for imports to feed their further industrialization process, the competition for entering into favorable relations with African countries will increase. But it requires that the tiny elites benefiting from the currently existing unequal structures put their own interest in transnationally linked self-enrichment schemes behind the public interest to create investment and exchange patterns, which provide in the first place benefits for the majority of the people. Admittedly, the chances for this might not be the best.
The Chinese emerging track record is not an indicator of a new trajectory, which would benefit the majority of the African people. More so, the Chinese foreign policy gospel of non-interference is an attractive tune for the autocratic leaders and oligarchies still in power, be it in Angola, the Democraqtic Republic of Congo, the Sudan, Zimbabwe or similar societies still run to a large extent like private property of cliques.
Transparency and accountability are certainly not among the core values cultivated in African-Chinese links. Instead, these seem to increasingly offer another exit option from demands concerning the notion of so-called good governance.
Henning Melber is Senior Advisor and Director Emeritus of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation. He directed the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation from 2006 to 2012. Henning has served as Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Kassel University, Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit in Windhoek, and Research Director of the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. Henning is an Extraordinary Professor at the University of Pretoria and at the Centre for Africa Studies of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. He is also a member of the Civil Society Reflection Group on Global Development Perspectives. He holds a PhD in Political Sciences and Development Studies.