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New scramble for Africa and how Africans can win


As a child, my mother used to say, “My son, a hungry man is better than an over fed man.” I never quite understood what she meant. But growing up has thrown too many things at me, most I cannot explain but in parts I can now tell what mother meant.

A hungry man, most often, thinks better and is able to arrive at a logical conclusion. Whereas, an overfed man thinks less rightly due to debauchery, as the brain is full of excesses that make it slow in thought.

Most importantly, I have realised that when the purpose of a thing is not defined abuse becomes inevitable.

This is what I see with most African Heads of State – not having a personal term of reference to rule when they get to that political office they struggled for. I remember in 1993, a Presidential candidate, when asked his plans for Nigeria if he wins, said, “We will know what to do when we get there.” This shows clearly there was no specific blueprint to govern, the only thing was ‘just get the power first; every other thing will fall into place.’

This is why priorities are sacrificed on the altar of mediocrity. Even when there are helps, counterpart funding are not released, leading to the death of many legacy projects in Africa, and Nigeria in particular.


Let’s get to the business of the day. I recently watched a short documentary from The Economist with the above title, and I believe is worth reiterating. Below are sub-subject matters, and it runs thus:


The first scramble for Africa was when the European colonial power saw a continent that was vast, rich in mineral and land but was poorly defended and rushed in to carve it up and steal the land.


The second was during the Cold War when East and West were locked in a struggle for global dominance. That was when the Soviet Union backed the Marxist despots all over Africa and America backed any leader who said he was in favour of capitalism.


The third that is happening now is much more benign, it is much more about the voluntary exchange, is much more about trade, and about the spread of technology, it is a new kind of scramble for Africa, which if handled well, Africans can win.


What do foreigners hope to gain?


The old stereotypes of foreigners in Africa were those who were interested in their minerals and not the African people.


This is still sometimes true, as there are still some illegal mineral deals happening in Africa; the more important now is the African people. There will be much more African people than the Chinese people by 2025. It is a huge market and since they are now leaving in independent countries, they are in a better position to negotiate deals than they were in the past to negotiate better deals with the outside world.


And this has been great for Africans; greater openness to trade and investment with the outside world is one of the reasons why Africans are two feet richer than they were in the 2000s. Of course, the fact that there are fewer wars and better macro-economic policies has also helped.


Is it all good for Africans?


There is still a big problem with corruption. Unaccountable leaders in the less-transparent African countries have signed deals with the outside world that benefit them personally but perhaps not their countries; so much the things that Russia is doing in Central African Republic where you have private firms protecting diamond mines while the President of that war-torn country… are too many people reminiscing of what happened in the 19 Century at the height of imperialism.


Which foreigners are moving in?


The scale of foreign interest is unprecedented. Between 2010 and 2016, 320 new embassies were opened in Africa, probably the largest embassy-building boom anywhere ever.


Turkey alone opened 26. India last year announced it was going to open 18. Military links are spreading too. China alone has ties with at least 45 African countries. America and France are hoping to defeat terrorists in the Sahel. Oil-rich Arab nations are setting up a military base in the gulf. Russia has military deals with 19 African countries.


How can Africa come out on top?


African voters and watchdogs need to insist on transparency on the way these deals are done. The kind of work that Kenyan journalists have done to expose scandals connected to a Chinese railway project is very encouraging.

Secondly, African leaders have to think more strategically. China is one country. Africa is 54. It is going to be much harder to drive the right kind of bargain if they allow China to negotiate with them individually behind closed doors. Even if African unity is a bit of a far-off dream at the moment, at least you can see more regional unity, which is important in negotiating infrastructure project.


Is this a threat to democracy?


Finally, African should take what their new friends tell them with a pinch of salt. The Chinese government is very keen to tell Africans that democracy is a Western idea and this development needs a strong idea.


This may be music in the ears of strongmen in the continent, but African voters should not be fooled by it.


There is a lot of research out there suggesting that African countries that are more democratic, tend to grow faster and prosper better.

As the population gets more educated and moves into the city more, we are seeing that they are more critical of the government and giving the ruling party a lower share of the vote.


As African politics grows more competitive, voters will have more clout and will be able to insist on the right kind of globalisation that works for Africans and foreigners alike.


No matter how critical the narrator is about African romance with China, some basic facts are clear with some serious African nations with recent relationship with China.


In 2011, when Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was a Deputy prime minister, the Ethiopian Light-Rail system was inaugurated December of that year. When he became the Prime Minister in 2012, he logically followed the project through, and in November 2015 service began on the rail tracks.

With a final cost of $475 million to build, and construction taking three years, the Ethiopian light-rail has 39 stations with four vehicles carrying 15,000 passengers every hour across the length and breadth of Addis Ababa.

In this case I think Africa has won, as the narrator rightly said that Africa can win if it is careful about every negotiation.


But sadly, this happened the same time Lagos started its light-rail project, which conclusion date and final cost are yet unknown. I think Nigeria should learn from more smaller and serious minded African nations on the way forward.


Victor Obayagbona

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