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How resource-rich Africa has become the new battleground

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Centre) gives a speech at the opening session of the 3rd Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit in Istanbul on December 18. Photo: Turkish Presidential Press Service via AFP

Africa’s abundant natural resources, rapidly increasing population and free markets are now a battleground for countries seeking opportunities, influence, and geostrategic positioning.
While most of the world is focused on geopolitics in Asia and Europe there is a quiet struggle for influence going on in Africa. At the forefront is China, but this race includes Russia, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Qatar. These countries have employed private entities and state-run companies to push their agenda with African governments. Some like China, to some extent India, adopt financial loans and diplomacy to secure economic and political power across the continent.
We often hear about China reach and influence across Africa, but other countries are doing their utmost to entrench themselves, consolidating their spheres of influence with African governments.

Turkey makes its move

Since 2003, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has visited 28 African countries 38 times, making him the most frequent visiting foreign leader to the continent.
From just 12 embassies across Africa in 2002 Turkey now has 43 on the continent.
Turkey has become a significant donor and investor in Somalia, where it has its largest foreign military base.
Sudan, Niger, Chad has also benefited from Turkey’s assistance.
Turkish contract projects include the largest indoor arena in Rwanda; a national mosque in Ghana; 400km railway line from Ethiopia and Djibouti; international airport in Niamey, Niger.
Turkey is wooing African countries with infrastructure and education opportunities for a new generation of Africans. Since 1992 it has offered approximately 13,000 scholarships.
From building mosque in French speaking Africa, to building embassies, establishing direct flights to African countries, deploying commercial attaches, and setting up of trade offices, Erdogan has made it possible for Turkish businesses to penetrate new markets across Africa.
Trade increased from US$5.4 bln in 2005 to US$25 bln in 2020, with Turkish investments at US$19.5 bln. With their proximity to West Africa, direct flights connecting Istanbul to African capitals, with China facing its own economic challenges, along with skyrocketing shipping cost from Asia, this may give Turkish businesses a chance to compete and fill in the gap left by Asian exporters.
What sets Turkey apart from other nations vying for a slice of the African market is 2 key factors – firstly it doesn’t carry the baggage of a colonial power like France and secondly it shares a common religion with francophone African countries who are more receptive to a partnership.

China’s aggressive punt

The so call superpowers of the world acknowledge Africa is the world’s next engine of growth, but few have seriously acted upon it as China has.
China is Africa’s largest trading and development partner. It’s likely that China will remain Africa’s development partner for decades ahead as this relationship benefits African governments when little is offered by Western powers in return.
The first Forum on China–Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) – an official forum between the China and Africa was held on November 2006. Since several other summits followed, most recently in Dakar, Senegal between 29-30 November, themed building “a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era.”
At the Dec 2015 summit China pledged to invest US$60 billion in Africa, and prioritised African security as part of its long-term initiatives. This amount was tripled what it pledged in 2012. Africa has also become the primary target for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in September 2013.
Africa’s own priorities of economic development and job creation fits with China’s own expansion plans of setting up manufacturing bases closer to the markets they export to. China’s is now Africa’s largest investor. Contrary to popular believe it’s not the Chinese government investing in China but Chinese companies. 90% of investment across Africa is led by Chinese private own companies, while China state own companies are the largest investors in energy, transportation, and resource sector.
China has shifted from loans to Africa to trade and investment. According to a 2017 McKinsey report, Chinese companies in Africa generated $180 billion a year in revenues and could reach $250 billion by as early as 2025.
As US-China geopolitical tensions intensify, China is increasingly diversifying its agri-imports from the US to other economies. Africa’s agricultural trade with China, and China’s agritech investment in Africa, serves both commercial and strategic purposes.
Over the years a series of Africa-themed summits has been held around the world, often advertised as win-win for participating countries with the hosting country.
The first Russia-Africa Summit was held on 23–24 October 2019 in Sochi, Russia, hosted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 43 African leaders attended the summit.
Putin first visited Africa in 2006, at the time promising US$1 billion investment and in 2007 Russia wrote off US$20 billion in debts incurred by African countries during the cold war. The next forum is targeted for 2022.
Some would say that Russia’s renewed engagement of Africa was in part due to economic sanctions imposed on it since 2014 by the West due to the Ukraine conflict. Like China, Russia also has economic motives related to Africa’s natural resources. Russia is also the largest export of military arms to Africa.
“We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa. We have a lot to offer our African friends,” – President Vladimir Putin said at the summit.

So, where’s the US in this battleground?

Whilst it’s possible that China Africa policy is in part based on the African Union’s principle of “supporting African solutions to African problems”, the US policy is pushing American solutions to African problems, focused on democracy, human rights, and good governance. This is all good, but one would think the US would draw lessons from its unsuccessful 20-year reign in Afghanistan and engage Africa differently, but time will tell. For the US to succeed in Africa what must change is it’s smug and condescending relations with governments. It should stop underestimating African’s determination to chart their own future.
In contrast Singapore, by no means a superpower but some would say an economic power whose postcolonial transformation has been admired by global leaders, had its inaugural Africa Singapore Business Forum in July 2020 and recently in Aug 2021. Singapore offers IT solutions for government entities, industrial park development, training of civil servants, town planning etc, basically sharing its experience on best practices in nation building. One beneficiary of Singapore’s services is Rwanda. There are no loans to offer but rather far more valuable transfer of knowledge and skills.
Each country has its own agenda in courting African countries, be it for its rich mineral resources, vast luscious agricultural land, 54 votes at the UN, mutual economic growth, its burgeoning population. Whatever the reasons African countries can pick and choose which elements of cooperation they want from these nations that will secure her own future.
This may well be a battleground but the only way to win is for countries to have a long-term strategy in Africa that better coordinates its parallel political and economic goals along with that of African countries. It should all start with winning the hearts of Africans, add to that honesty and transparency along with mutual gains, all else will fall in place.

Shaun Jayaratnam

Shaun Jayaratnam is an alum of Stanford Graduate School of Business with over 25 years of sales, business development and operations management experience across various industries in Russia, East Europe, Africa and APAC.

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