On 3rd June 2015, an official of the Foreign Policy Advisory Group of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wu Jianmin, appeared on BBC Hardtalk. He identified three global epicenters, as he called them. The Middle East and North Africa as the epicenter of military conflict; Europe as the epicenter of financial crisis and East Asia as the epicenter of growth and, therefore, markets. In all these, of course, the US is interested and involved, perhaps the main player. And China, which he described as still a developing country, is interested although, he was quick to add, it would be ludicrous to think that China could replace the US; it would be as ludicrous to think that China is not interested, even if not involved. China’s interest, he asserted, is essentially for stability and peace. Only with peace and stability in the world China could grow.
What does this portend for Africa, or, Africa south of the Sahara, which the Chinese official did not touch? I would suggest that the contestations of each of these epicenters find their most concentrated expression in sub-Saharan Africa once you leave the phenomenal expressions, or epiphenomena, and go to the substratum, that is, the sphere of production, the site of accumulation, which lies at the heart of the capitalist system.
At the end of the day, military, money and markets are the observable manifestations of the system, the system that underlies the epiphenomenon and ultimately defines the character and movement of the determining forces. The centers of the capitalist system are in crisis, whether this is the crisis of over-accumulation (as Harvey would have it) or the exhaustion of the sites of accumulation (as others would assert) or both. Either way, it is in the periphery that the capital from the center seeks to give itself further lease of life. And within the periphery, I would submit, Africa is the target.
Africa’s wealth of natural resources, as yet not fully exploited, is now well known and highly coveted. Massive land grabs are becoming legendary. Fossil and non-fossil fuels are thought to be in abundance and so are the more traditionally known minerals. Water, environment, agro fuels and bio-resources are the newly discovered sites of primitive accumulation. Leading agribusiness companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Cargill and Syngenta, supported by Gates foundation are capturing African lands and bio-resources with a vengeance while lobbying heavily for introduction of GMO foods and seeds on the continent. Libya’s invasion by NATO was in no small measure motivated by Gadhafi’s plans to exploit Sahelian aquifers.
The US has turned its full attention to the continent and China is both interested and involved. The unusual military interest in Africa dramatically came to the fore with the creation of Africom and the controversy surrounding it. Initial resistance from African countries has more or less been subdued. Installation of the US drones base in Mali was the turning point. Europe is actively exporting its financial crisis to Africa as its financial houses seek opportunities south of the Sahara. Addition of services (including of course finance, insurance etc) in the commodity trade agreement EPA, is new, and is likely to be soon finalized. EPA, as many have observed, would further accelerate the deindustrialization of African countries which was set in train with SAPs of the 1980s.
What about African markets? In spite of the Africa rising narrative and the impending spawning of the so-called middle class, the African market is minuscule. African trade is only two per cent of the world trade. The so-called African middle class – defined ridiculously by some as those earning between two and twenty dollars a day – is minute. Unlike the West, China doesn’t wait for the African market to develop – it is actually creating it. It has found a formidable niche in motorbike transport. All over Africa Chinese motorbikes, costing less than 1000 dollars apiece, have become the dominant means of public transport. Curiously, the only significant market that Western transnational corporations have been able to exploit is in telecommunications, cellular phones in particular. Chinese have tried to put stiff competition with its cheap cell phones but so far has not succeeded, partly because of its low quality but mainly because of manipulation of regulatory laws of host countries by Western countries.
What does all this mean for us in Africa? Where do we stand and what stand should we take? In my view, for the first time in the last three decades, we have space in the international arena to pursue our agenda. The rivalry between the two poles – China and the US – opens up a possibility. The Chinese of course have their interest but it is interesting that, for the first time in our history of the last five centuries, we have a rising power entering Africa without being accompanied by the bible and the bullets. No doubt, this may not remain so for very long. A kind of “soft cultural bible” is there in the form of the proliferation of Confucius institutes. This does not present itself as a superior civilization out to civilize heathens, though. It is presented more in terms of language skills which is welcome both by African students who aspire to go to Chinese institutions of higher education and also by traders who trade with China.
On the military front, China has been assiduously avoiding to enter the arms race, which was partly responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. This does not mean the Chinese are not interested in the military balance. They are involved in training and supplying equipment to African military, including building and equipping defense colleges for them. On the global level too, with provocations from the US and its allies, China may have to reconsider its position. So far, though, the US remains the military super-power.
What should be Africa’s stand under these circumstances?
First, on the question of the military: During the Bandung period, developing countries, including Africa, adopted the policy of non-alignment. This was limited non-alignment meaning not getting involved in the military blocs of the then two super-powers. Not all African countries were consistent in their non-alignment. One country that was consistent was Nyerere’s Tanzania. Mwalimu avoided super-powers like plague. His military was trained and supported by Western and Eastern countries, from Canada to China, but only scantily by the US and the Soviet Union. He did not allow any single source to dominate the training of military personnel and supply of armaments.
With the collapse of the Soviet super-power, African countries lowered their guard believing that non-alignment was dated only to fall prey to the more aggressive military offensive of the US. They have no coherent defense to offer to the more explicit militarization of the continent by the US. They are being sucked in the military adventures of the super military power in the hotspots of conflicts in Africa (Somalia, Congo, Sudan) under the illusion of African solutions to African problems when, in fact, the solutions are designed and financed by the US (whether under the UN or not). African troops are being used as cannon fodders tearing the continent further apart. On this, no sane African government, under whatever pretext, should be drawn in the US military web. Alas! On this there is no common African stand and not a single critical voice. Instead, our rulers buy into the “terrorist” threat argument threatening the continent to become another explosive and volatile “middle east”.
Avoid the US-Israeli military bloc like plague, just as Mwalimu avoided the super-powers.
Secondly, even during the Bandung period, economically and politically African countries were very much aligned. Most, if not all, adopted some or the other variant of the capitalist system. The proto-bourgeoisies that had come to power on the morrow of independence labored under the illusion that they could build capitalism in their countries ending up being invariably compradorised. Then there were a few who declared marxism-leninism as their official policies for a combination of geo-political reasons, including for reasons of survival. Somalia and Ethiopia are two best examples. A few in-between showed greater relative independence in their foreign relations. Guided by radical nationalism they tried to pursue some form of homegrown socialism, the best example being Tanzania. Due to internal and external factors, that project failed. Neo-liberalism exposed the limits of the national project, even a radical one like Nyerere’s, just as it marked the end of Bandung. The Global South project is a poor substitute, hatched as it is in the womb of globalisation.
Can we evolve a new pan-African project that would address both the question of national liberation and social emancipation?
Last thirty years since the era of SAPs has enveloped the continent in the illusion of dazzling growth as manifested by its rising skyline on the cities. Growth rates of between 7-10 per cent are quoted to silence the critics, who themselves are becoming a rare species. But this growth has once again shown its fundamental limits – jobless growth, is one of its many epitaphs, undoubtedly a dramatic one as we witness hundreds of machinga (street hawkers) on the streets of African cities. The estimates in Tanzania show that every year between 800,000 to 1 million primary school leavers are put on the job market while available new jobs amount to less than a hundred thousand.
As the continent is being raped and pillaged of its natural resources, its so-called leaders boast a place among the top 10 or twenty percent of Forbes billionaires. Scandals of billions of dollars are uncovered every day. As societies are being polarized between the filthy rich and the abysmally poor, the masses fall back on parochial beliefs and solidarities bringing our nations to the brink of disintegration. Every diversity – religion, race, ethnicity, physical handicaps, even biological complexions – is turned into political division by power-hungry politicians and money mongers, with religious charlatans and traditional quacks throwing in their gimmicks dividing the people further. In situations of utter hopelessness, people look for messiahs and populist demagogues are always waiting in the wings to offer heaven on earth. Our own experience in Tanzania during the last election campaign is proof enough.
What of the African future? That is the question. Can the existing comprador bourgeoisies in utter subservience to imperialism deliver the continent or even put it on a different trajectory? What social forces and political configurations can, and will take advantage of the new international situation created by the rising Asian power? Those are concrete questions. And concrete questions call for concrete answers.
It is for the committed African intellectuals to dare to raise fundamental questions and help to crystallise an African Agenda from the standpoint of the working people. “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.”, said Fanon. What is the mission of the current, hopefully post-neoliberal generation?