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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The new 'scramble for Africa'?

Yves Niyiragira

2010-02-11, Issue 469


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While the Peoples' Republic of China is building the new headquarters of the AU, which has already cost Beijing more than US$130 million a year until its completion, other powers did not want to miss the grand ball in Addis Ababa by demonstrating their 'solidarity' to the African people, writes Yves Niyiragira.

During the recently concluded 14th ordinary session of the heads of State and government of the African Union (AU) that took place between 25 January and 2 February 2010 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it became abundantly clear: world powers, whether developed or emerging powers, all want a presence in Africa.

While the Peoples' Republic of China is building the new headquarters of the AU, which has already cost Beijing more than US$130 million a year until its completion, other powers did not want to miss the grand ball in Addis Ababa by demonstrating their 'solidarity' to the African people. Here are some of the events worth noting that took place during the 14th AU summit:

-Michael A. Battle, USA Ambassador to the AU, officially launched and handed over the Peace Support Operation Centre to the African Union Commission (AUC);
- The chairperson of the AUC, Jean Ping, received Ambassador Jean Marc Hoscheit as the new representative of Luxembourg to the AU;
- Indian Minister of State for External Affairs inaugurated, with Jean Ping, the AU medical telemedicine centre;
- Tetsuro Fukuyama, State Secretary of Japan paid an official visit to the AUC to discuss about AU-Japan cooperation;
- Michael Zilmer-Johns, Secretary of State of Denmark also paid an official visit to the AUC;
Other expressions of 'solidarity' were recalled by Vuk Jeremić, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, who emphasised South-South cooperation while addressing the executive council of the AU:
'My country has stood firmly with Africa throughout its contemporary history.

Our capital, Belgrade, is a city generations of Africans recall with great fondness. It hosted the first Non-Aligned Movement summit in 1961, with a number of African countries in attendance.'

Paavo Matti Väyrynen, Minister for Foreign Trade and Development of Finland, complemented Vuk Jeremić's words by also claiming that Africa and Finland have many similarities:

'It might be astonishing to you, but my country, Finland, has many similarities with the African countries...we suffered a lot in the Second World War and after the war we were still a developing country...we have been able to develop into one of the leading well-fare societies. This should serve as an example for many African countries'.

This definitely forced me to ponder the following question: Who are Africa’s real allies, how can our leaders know what are these actors’ true intentions or who should they trust?

Not only is this a difficult question to answer, but one that is subject of most conference discussions and perplexes most civil society actors.

In a press conference that the vice chairperson of the AUC, Festus Mwencha, held at the sideline of the Summit, he told the media that 'it is important to report correctly about China in Africa. Whereas China needs resources, we should also look at the history', he said.

Mwencha reminded journalists of the Tanzania-Zambia Railway built between 1970 and 1975 by the Tanzania-Zambia Railway Authority and fully financed by the Peoples' Republic of China to the value of US$500 million, the largest foreign aid project to be undertaken by the Peoples' Republic of China.

According to Mwencha, one Chinese minister told him that the project cost Chinese peoples 30 per cent of their government's budget following its completion. The railway had a great significance as it was meant to eliminate Zambia's economic dependence on the minority regimes of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and apartheid South Africa during apartheid. It also signalled an important platform of people’s friendship and exchange between ordinary Chinese and Zambians.

In the same vein we must not forget Belgrade’s (in the former Yugoslavia) role in hosting the founding Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement where Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, India's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and President of Egypt Gamal Abdul Nasser initiated the movement. The Summit was based on the Havana Declaration of 1979, which was to ensure 'the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of non-aligned countries' in their 'struggle against imperialism, colonialism, neo-colonialism, racism, and all forms of foreign aggression, occupation, domination, interference or hegemony as well against great power and bloc politics'. It was a significant sign of support for Africa's struggle for independence, though the movement has subsequently lost its purpose due to numerous developments.

When José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, President of the Spanish Government and guest of honour at the 14th ordinary AU summit, made his address to the Summit, he highlighted that: 'Spain and the European Union know that the African Union is a partner...we have been always on the side of Africa, we are always on the side on Africa’. While these platitudes found warm applause amongst our continental leaders, I could not help but wonder whether Africa’s unpleasant history and now the illegal black African migrant issue had made any dent on our leaders as they were rejoicing President Zapatero’s words and our seemingly rejuvenated relations with Spain.

Whether it is about Spain, Serbia, India or China coming to Africa, we have to bear in mind that they have a clear objective of why they want to garner relations on the continent, especially with a population that has already reached a billion people and the abundance of natural resources. It is in our own interest as Africans to decide how to deal with new and old external actors.

There are some strategic partnerships that need to be capitalised on in order for civil society organisation (CSO) actors and African governments to become strong negotiators. This was the message from Ralph Gonzales, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, who led the Caribbean delegation: 'There is a strategic desire, need, necessity to build a far reaching, deeper PanAfrican movement…We are here in solidarity to reaffirm our love to Africa'.

The example of the Caribbeans organising a conference in the Dominican Republic, in the coming weeks, to discuss how to assist Haiti’s reconstruction and renewal in which all African states have been invited, could serve as a model of a 'far reaching South to South solidarity'.

Indeed, the Dominican conference would be about bringing back ownership of Haiti to Haitians to avoid a total foreign takeover, which was recently discussed at an international conference held on 26 January 2010 in Montreal, Canada where it asserted that there was a firm obligation ‘to remain committed to the Caribbean nation's reconstruction process for at least ten years'.

The first scramble of Africa happened when Africans had little power to resist, but we cannot watch the Second Scramble, if indeed it is, to also disempower and dispossess ordinary Africans. Here the capacity and capability of our leaders need to be reviewed. The lack of willingness to manage our affairs in a transparent and accountable manner is something that we as civil society must consistently monitor and bring to light where necessary. This is because the difference between the 19th Century Scramble and now is that our leaders are very much active agents in this new ‘scramble’.

Therefore as civil society we must also know who really is on our side, who has always been on our side, who has always stood by us and what is the endgame?
Deciphering this could be the starting point in distinguishing between what new and existing players on the continent want and know how to deal with them. But as we embark on this type of mobilisation, civil society would well remember that in international relations: there are no permanent friends; only permanent interests.


* Yves Niyiragira is fellow and co-editor of the AU Monitor, an initiative of Fahamu networks for social justice. He attended the AU Summit as part of the CSO engagement on the sidelines of the Summit.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

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