OPINION: Limping West meets the Dragon on African soil in battle of the titans

Posted on Sep 18 2018 - 5:29pm by Editor

IOL BUSINESS REPORT

17 September 2018

SIYABONGA HADEBE

the IMF and World Bank had already left and also not concerned about the damaged they had caused. Photo: Reuters

PRETORIA – The face-off between global powers and their increasing interest on Africa require much more attention than before. Understandably this is a game played by fierce competitors in our backyard, and it is inevitable that there would be preferences on which one is a “better devil” of all of them.

However, what is frustrating and concerning at the same time is Africa’s silence and indecision on where it thinks it will end up.

Surely a person’s life isn’t wholly determined by the needs or desires of friends he or she keeps. There should some level of control. Africa needs to decide its destiny before it is too late. A choice of either China or Western countries, or even Russia, as a mutual friend is counter-productive since our nations are without a firm decision on what they need from these relationships.

But it looks like post-colonial Africa has never really learned anything from its gruesome and not-so-pleasant past. It is always torn between warring powers and suffers great losses as a result.

In the economic front, the African continent was badly bruised by structural adjustments imposed by the Brettonwoods. Many states went bust after selling off their assets after they’d been told that they will enjoy better prosperity from privatisation, among others. Unfortunately many countries plunged into serious debt and whatever remained of their economies was also eroded. States remained in name only and unable to provide for citizens. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank had already left and also not concerned about the damaged they had caused.

Politically, Africa was trapped in tight spaces when the two super powers USSR and the USA battled for control of the world. An ideological but violent warfare, also called the Cold War, meant that a number of proxy wars were fought across the continent. The proxy wars dispute the notion that super powers never fought after WII. These indirect wars however cushioned territories of the rivals, devastation and strife were passed on to the continent.

Consequently, our version of a red-hot ‘iron curtain’ split Mozambique into Frelimo and Renamo territories. Angola bears scars of the MPLA versus Unita shellings. The entire SADC region has never really recovered from the apartheid blitzkrieg. The whole continent stumbled from one coup d’etat to another, almost to no end.

There should have been serious lessons learned from these two experiences but it doesn’t look like that, judging from the way our continent is so trusting of friends. Almost all African leadership descended in China without Xi Jinping summoning anyone. Only six of the 54 heads of state showed up for the FOCAC meeting in Beijing. China promised Africa $60 billion in loans and other development financing. The game of international politics is on overdrive.

A week later, European rivals Germany and Britain visited the continent to tell us how beautiful their policies for Africa are. They also said that their investments will solve the continent’s problems in a whim. Almost telling our countries in the face that they will pay a huge price for siding with China, we had no response because we are not decided. All the time we are forced to choose between the yuan and a dancing Theresa May, as well as the ever serious queen of the Habsburg empire, Angela Merkel.

The situation isn’t as straightforward

But the situation isn’t as straightforward, the definition of the traditional West is no longer as it was a decade ago. Relations between Europe and the US are at an all time low; so the erstwhile “voluntarily subordinate European partners” understand that they have to go it alone in world affairs. Ever since the times of Barack Obama, the US has been reluctant to carry all the weight. So the African outreach by the two female leaders isn’t for altruistic reasons. Also France’s Emmanuel Macron was in several African states this year alone. European powers want to reposition themselves for the future, a future that could possibly set in without a retreating big brother.

Their ever quarrelling, reluctant ally in the USA, keeps on increasing the heat on anyone it perceives to be a threat to its interests. China is the obvious target in the ongoing global trade wars but the friendly fire also hits the former allies as seen in steel wars. As they say, when two elephant bulls fight the grass suffers. Africa stands on the sidelines witnessing a ping-pong like exchange, and never yells at any of them. One thing is certain, Africa continues to be a spectator in global affairs as it waits for a ‘friend’ with a brightest smile.

On the other hand, China’s money-driven foreign policy always promises political non-interference appeals to African countries. Unsettled leadership is at home with this rising power because it makes no friends with activists and anti-government forces that threaten to abruptly end their reign spanning decades. This non-interference comes with freebies and lollipop. However, the long-term implications of this yet-to-be-defined relationship unsettles.

Russia sees itself as a political phoenix, it wants to revive the former glory of the Soviet Union. At this moment it is still preoccupied with disrupting foreign powers entering its “traditional political sphere of influence.” Russia sees central Asia and the Caucuses as its space, but it has extended its wings to cover parts of the Middle East to the discomfort of the US and the European Union.

The Kremlin is yet to express a clear interest on Africa but it appears that it leaves it to China to disturb old powers in the continent. So possibilities that it may enter the global African rush.

Africa appears to appreciate visits by aliens. Rarely do our countries set an agenda that is completely independent of external influences. In an interview with Germany’s number one newspaper Der Spiegel, Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and an Atlantic Council board director, characterises the present global landscape, which excludes Africa, as an ‘epochal shift’ – “with a rising China, a disruptive Russia and an unfocused America.”

No wonder Africa will not wake up from its slumber soon as it wants to embrace all these very aggressive countries at the same time. There are just way too many bouncing balls to take care of at present. It is understandable that African countries want to tread carefully and not upset anyone of them. However, it is not clear how long this position will be maintained. Something is bound to give.

Robert Kagan of the Wall Street Journal reasons that “the liberal world order established by the United States a little over seven decades ago is collapsing.” He adds that America’s dominance “was always a historical anomaly.” Then he goes wayward to point out in disingenuous liberal-style that this was “the long period of prosperity, widespread democracy and peace…”

The global liberal order is in disarray like its chief exponent the US. It is not so much Donald Trump who is a problem but the American hegemony itself. Attacks on the multilateral system it helped create and senseless sanctions against some countries are good signs of mental disturbance. We could also be on the verge of a war, if say China decides to take its rival head on. The US is in a sad state of confusion.

The return of America to its senses, if ever, will complicate the situation for Africa nevertheless. Its freebie AGOA is destined for the trashcan as part of the ‘carrot and stick diplomacy’. The friendship between Africa and China irritates in Capitol Hill. It is unclear though if the US will allow its decline as a global power without throwing a heavy punch. Africa will emerge with a blue-eye, yet again.

China still has to decide if the use of force is necessary to show its might. It may have to unleash its power to protect its interests across the continent. The military base in Djibouti is an indication that Beijing could soon dump its pacifist strategy on the continent to scare off anyone who enters its space. As tectonic plates shift, former colonial powers fear being replaced so their interest in Africa is very logical.

With “the world in danger” (using the Ischinger’s words), the biggest question is: What is Africa’s collective strategy to deal with the rapidly changing and uncharacteristic global order?

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