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Africa must safeguard its sovereignty from superpower rivalries

Sunday October 21 2018


Chinese President Xi Jinping leads the way for Angola's President Joao Lourenco during a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People, in Beijing on October 9, 2018. China supported Africa's liberation struggle. PHOTO | GREG BAKER | AFP 

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As Kenyans marked Mashujaa Day (Heroes' Day) yesterday, Africa’s freedom is at risk.

Experts are fretting a "new scramble for Africa" poised to roll back the gains of sovereignty.

The new scramble brings to mind the dark days between 1881 and 1914 when powerful European nations divided, occupied and colonised the continent.

In different and nuanced ways, the new scramble and its impact on Africa’s peace and security was the subject of two high-profile events this week.

First, on October 14-17, 2018, the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC) organised a high-level conference under the banner of “Achieving Victory in the War Against Al Qaeda Groups”, which highlighted the impact of the recent seismic geopolitical shifts in the Horn of Africa on security.


A salutary development discussed is the rise of Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, ending the protracted hostilities with Eritrea as well as proxy wars and support for terrorist groups.

However, geopolitical rivalries among Middle East countries scrambling to have a foothold in Africa is causing ripples across the region, undermining regional security and stability of fragile States like Somalia, and emboldening terrorist groups such as the Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

Far from being a priority, the Horn of Africa is a pawn in a deepening rivalry over the Red Sea, the Nile Waters (Egypt) and a disastrous war in Yemen by the Gulf States.

Three Middle East blocs are vying for influence in the Horn of Africa: the Arab Axis led by Saudi Arabia and including the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain; the Iran Axis; and the Qatar-Turkey Axis.


Significantly, having a foothold in the territories occupied by the defunct “Zanj Empire” established by the Omani sultanate on the Indian Ocean seaboard seems to be the geopolitical aim of the Arab Axis.

And terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) are strategically clawing back on this slave-trading Arab empire (Caliphate), which at its peak stretched as far south as Mozambique and deep inside into Eastern Congo before it was eclipsed and absorbed into Europe’s African empire.

Similarly, Turkey is also trying to recreate the Ottoman Empire, whose influence once reached as far south as Mombasa.

The impact of geopolitics on regional security also featured prominently in an experts’ seminar on “Securing Development: China-Africa Cooperation in Governance, Peace and Security” organised by the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi on October 18, 2018.

Participants observed that in the wake of the Africa-China Summit in Beijing on September 3-4, growing influence in Africa has ignited a new raft of Sinophobia.

Despite this, the forum noted, a “clean history” is giving China a moral edge over its former slave-trading and colonial competitors to extend its influence in the region.


Notably, China did not participate in slave trade. It has no colonial past in Africa and supported Africa's liberation struggle.

Indeed, like Africa, China has a history of humiliation, conquest and loss of territories and sovereignty, now driving its foreign policy.

The establishment of FOCAC in 2000 was a game changer. China has evolved into Africa's most influential development partner.

Beijing’s business portfolio is eclipsing rival Western powers. In 2015, it pledged $60 billion to finance projects under a 10-point agenda, including industrialisation and security.

In September, China shocked the world when it pledged an additional $60 billion to cover projects under an eight-points agenda, including industrial promotion, peace and security.

This flow of massive resources has attracted perhaps the most virulent wave of anti-Chinese campaign in African history, characterised by accusations of pursuing a "new form of colonialism", “debt trap diplomacy” and even racism.


Even more worrying is the forceful re-entry of resurgent Russia and China’s ally, pushing for a slice of African market and reviving its Soviet-era prestige, influence and capacity to extract natural resources.

Its new African diplomacy is weaved around the African Union (AU) and former allies of the defunct Soviet Empire.

This logic informed the African tour of Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in early October 2018 where he attended a joint ministerial committee established to advance bilateral relations between Moscow and Ethiopia, a Soviet ally, and met the AU Chairperson.

Moscow sees Africa as a counter to the sanctions that US and Europe have imposed on it, eyeing natural resources such as oil, uranium, copper, gold and cobalt in Southern African countries of Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia and Mozambique, which he visited.

As the world’s second-largest arms exporter after the US, Russia is already selling billions of dollars in weapons in Africa annually.

Moscow signed a defence cooperation agreement with Mozambique, another of Soviet-era ally.


The United States is playing a catch-up game having lost some ground to China.

In October, the US Congress adopted the $60 billion Build Act (Better Utilisation of Investments Leading to Development Act), strategically designed to match Chinese funding and as an “alternative to Chinese state investments" in the sub-Saharan region.

Despite the West’s hyped criticism of China’s “debt trap diplomacy”, America is pushing Kenya to take a Sh380 billion loan where American construction and engineering giant Bechtel International Inc is seeking to build a 466-kilometre, six-lane Mombasa-Nairobi expressway to rival the Sh327 billion Standard Gauge Railway by China.

Despite the new plans, the Trump administration is more enigmatic and bizarre than ever before.

It continues to focus on the Middle East and to pursue narrow national interests mainly counter-terrorism efforts and extraction of resources.

Africa needs a serious, unified strategy and institutional capacity to effectively counter the new scramble and safeguard its sovereignty.

Professor Peter Kagwanja is former Government Adviser and currently the Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute (Kenya).