AFRICA: OUR NEXT SUPERPOWER?
By Neel Shah
Africa. The very name is synonymous with a plethora of ideas, ranging from slavery and corruption to potential emergence and rich culture. Yet, the rest of the world have only began to understand the threat, or potential, created by the continent. Much of Africa is misunderstood by the world, evident throughout history.
Africa is pivotal to the human race, from the cradle of humanity (disputed between East Africa and South Africa) to the Wonders of the World by Egypt, Africa has certainly been important in ancient history. However, the continent had been forgotten in the likes of Europe, until the age of discovery. The Portuguese, followed by the Spanish, British, French and Germans destroyed the continent through slavery, colonialism and arbitrary borders, which have left behind a resource-less shell of a former power. Or at least this is what many academics believed until the turn of the millennium.
Yet, a quick look at ‘The Economist’ illustrates the sudden change in attitude. The images shown below depict the sudden, radical change in Western views of the continent, from ‘the hopeless continent’ to ‘aspiring Africa’ it is clear that the continent is garnering increased strength.
Developed economies, notably China and Turkey, have identified the potential created by Africa, and have invested heavily into the continent, in what The Economist has deemed ‘the new scramble for Africa’. The rapid levels of investment have been criticised however by journalists in Kenya, who claim that the governments of Africa have sold off vital infrastructure, such as ports, in return for investment.
One question arises; with increasing FDI into Africa from the likes of China, Turkey and France, could Africa be falling into another trap of dependence and deprivation?
Currently, the answer is yes. Africa deals as 54 different entities, creating bilateral trade deals and investment deals with regional powers, such as India, China and the US (NB. the US under the Trump administration is one of the few nations reducing investment in Africa). This has enabled the powers to dominate talks with African nations, as can be seen in the Forum on China Africa Co-operation alone, in which China promoted military bases in Djibouti and overcharged on a Kenyan rail project, with Kenya paying China three-times more than the industry standard. Fuelled by corruption, these trade deals have been proven to benefit the elite few in Kenyan nations, breeding inequality and poverty. These unique strategic challenges faced by the continent require solutions in order to prevent destitution.
Several solutions have been suggested by academics in both Africa and the West, which aim to strengthen the continent against the bilateral partners it regularly trades with, including:
The grouping of regional trade blocs; Africa has a plethora of trade groups from the East African Community (EAC – a group of nations moving towards unity) to the African Economic Community (AEC – the common economic group of Africa). However, these subgroups have not been strengthened or unified, limiting their influence in negotiations. This could be solved through the formation of a customs union, which would expand the current African Free Trade Zone (made up of SADC, COMESA & EAC), and provide a united voice in trade negotiations.
Exploitation of the value of Africa; it is important that African leaders understand the potential power of their nations and the continent as a whole. This is important as it can be used to persuade investors to trade technology and other capital, which can help improve domestic firms and reduce reliance on trade partners.
Promoting the free-market, capitalist society; it is clear that the West has grown on the waves of capitalism and a free-market, as have China (who has experienced rapid economic growth following economic liberalisation in the 1980s). Therefore, many suggest that Africa should turn away from authoritarian leaders with corrupt governments (made of oligopolists who control domestic markets) towards market-led economies.
However, Africa will face several challenges before being able to implement any of these strategies. Firstly, it is important to note that Africa is a diverse continent, constructed from a range of tribes and cultures. Forcing several groups together, as occurred under arbitrary colonial boundaries, will inevitably lead to conflict, from the Rwandan genocide to the troubles faced in Sudan. Therefore, it is important for care to be placed within the system, to ensure each minority has a voice.
In addition, the continent is too diverse to face the prospect of immediate unification, with nations such as the DRC and Somalia still in a state of civil war. Although groups, such as the East African Community, are at similar levels of development, there is too much conflict between certain nations to enable unity. This is because a common trade policy will inevitably harm some nations in order to benefit others. As a result, it is likely that a continent-wide trade policy will be dominated by the likes on Egypt, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria, to name a few.
Therefore, the continent will likely take it one step at a time, with regional groups such as the EAC lining individual nations up for success. Although there is a lot of time before Africa can become a superpower, in order to deal with the problems of inequality and corruption faced in China and India today, Africa must take control from now to promote sustainable growth in the interest of the African people.
As a Kenyan myself, and thus by extension an African, I believe it is important for Africa to set off on the right foothold should it wish to escape from its infamous nature as a continent of corruption, depletion and conflict, and develop into a leading continental power, rivalling the BRICS, the US and the EU.