Power Politics on the Continent
Mohamad Al Kawatli
Arabic Translation Available here.
Africa, often referred to as the continent of the future –characterized by a large youthful population, untapped mineral resources and conflict– is increasingly acting as an intersection of European and Gulf interests. Currently, the great and an assortment of other world powers, such as Italy, are increasingly focused on Africa in pursuit of their national interests. Periodically, this brings Europeans and Arab Gulf states directly into the military relations of African counties such as Libya, Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria and the wider Sahel region.
On 18 July 2019, the Euro-Gulf Information Centre (EGIC) hosted Andrea Spinelli Barrile (journalist and Head of Communication at the Italia Africa Business Week and Co-Founder of Slow News) and Natalia Piskunova (Senior Lecturer at Moscow State University and an expert on Russian foreign policy). Spinelli Barrile began by discussing trade and investments as a fundamental component to understanding Africa’s current economic importance. For instance, China-Africa trade reached $170 billion (USD), Russia-Africa trade $17.4 billion (USD), US-Africa trade hit $39 billion (USD) and the intra-African trade is sitting at some $77 billion (USD). In Africa, the US dollar is still used in Zimbabwe and in Liberia and Spinelli Barrile deeply examined the US involvement on the continent. In terms of influence, the US has specific engagement methods with African powers, such as Nigeria and Ethiopia and, a more comprehensive approach to the African Union (AU). Nevertheless, over the years, African leaders became increasingly reluctant to accept US aid as it often came linked to political conditions. This may help explain Africa’s interest in engaging with new partners.
While the West worries about China and Russia –the latter is often underestimated in terms of its involvement in Africa– both the European Union (EU) and African countries struggle to fully exploit the diaspora communities which European countries host. Evidence of this formed the bulk of the speech by Nana Akufo-Addo, the President of the Republic of Ghana, which he gave in Paris when hosted by the French President, Emmanuel Macron. Akufo-Addo explained how people from the Ghanaian diaspora in France are the best resource that Ghana has.
In terms of political influence in Africa, France still retains an abundance of capital. Other countries are now joining the race for influence in Africa. Russia is certainly among them and is exploiting its Soviet past to rekindle relations with those African leaders who studied in the USSR. Meanwhile, China is deployed throughout Africa; building motorways and railroads in Ethiopia and Eritrea and developing industrial-sized farms throughout the continent. Interestingly, Africans are also self-investing; they significantly expanded their financial ties to other African counties over the past decade. For instance, Moroccan investments marks the country as the number one African investor on the continent and the third overall global investor in Africa.
Additionally, there is a growing interest in establishing companies and private institutions for investment in Africa; for example, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) has found fertile ground for development especially in Congo and Rwanda. However, while Africa might attract several external investors interested in its resources, Spinelli Barrile underlined the different approaches pursued by the various investors. He designated four distinct approaches towards the continent: an EU/US approach, a China/India/Russia approach, an Italian approach and the African approach. While the EU and US aim to create an economic, political, and military partnership, this method is conditional to democratic transition. The China/India/Russia approach, relies solely on economic and military means of engagement with no interest in the political sphere. The Italian approach is carried out through partnerships for cooperation and development. Finally, the African approach is considered the most effective method and depends upon cooperation, development and a partnership based on a future common market, currency, resources, passports and a political agenda.
Piskunova, shed light on what followed the pre-1989 Soviet strategy of supporting decolonization across the continent and explained what is next for Russia in Africa. Piskunova analysed the long history of engagement between Russia and the African continent in order to contextualize their current relationship. Historically, during the 1990s, Russia was isolated from Africa by its own economic conditions and political instability. Piskunova remarked that ‘In 1993, Africa was not one of the priorities of the newly created Russian Federation, which changed ten years later when Africa became one of Russia's top foreign policy priorities.’ After 2010, both the Middle East and Africa saw a surge in Russia’s interest which resulted in increased influence from Moscow.
Although the EGIC conference did not primarily focus on the Arab Gulf involvement in Africa, it is important to note that the Arab Gulf countries have heavily invested projects across the continent. Saudi Arabia brokered a landmark peace deal in the Horn of Africa on 17th of September 2018 in which both Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and Eritrean President, Isaias Afwerki, signed a peace agreement in Jeddah. The agreement formally concluded the war which the two countries fought between 1998 and 2000, and paved the way to end tensions. Furthermore, the UAE has a long-track record of engagement across the Red Sea, where it hosts large diasporas from Horn countries some of which were integral to its founding in 1971 –the Arabic-speaking Sudanese civil servants helped build nascent ministries. Moreover, the UAE military presence in the Horn of Africa aims to ensure freedom of maritime navigation and to secure Bab al-Mandab, which is the narrow passage connecting the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. It has joined the anti-piracy mission in the region. The Saudi-Eritrean agreement allows Riyadh to use Assab port as a support base for operations in Yemen. As a result, African countries are developing into major players in international politics, especially byway of cooperative arrangements. The Euro-Gulf Information Centre will continue to monitor Euro-Gulf as well as Gulf-African relations to best understand the developments of their mutual interests.