In one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, three men venture to the mountains of Mexico searching for gold to make themselves a fortune. After several weeks, they each mine more than $100,000 worth of the precious metal. The venture is doing well until Fred C. Dobbs starts losing his mind, bandits swarm the mountains, and a man tries to get a share of the mine. Eventually, Dobbs is killed by the outlaws, and a windstorm wipes away their gold.
Could we see a similar threesome break down in Africa?
The world’s three largest economies are all making a play for Africa, a land rich in resources, people, and opportunity. China is spending billions on oil and gas, Japan is investing in infrastructure to erect Japanese businesses, and the US is planting a military presence. Russia is incrementally putting its head in the window, too. Will this result in riches for all? Or will everyone get the Fred C. Dobbs treatment?
Speaking to African leaders at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that the nation’s private sector would invest $20 billion over three years. Abe told leaders that his government is interested in building infrastructure to help advance the nation’s companies on the continent.
Another proposal is to train more than 3,000 people over the next six years, which would cultivate the Japanese-African relationship. This would build on its Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects, allocating money to training centers in Kenya to facilitate skill acquisition.
The prime minister said in his opening remarks:
“I make this pledge to you: The government of Japan will put forth every possible effort so that the power of Japanese private investment, of $20 billion in three years, should in the years to come to be surpassed anew from one day to the next.
We will do whatever it takes to assist the advancement of Japanese companies into Africa.”
The Japanese presence in Africa is nothing new; the country has contributed economic aid to the region for more than three decades. But Tokyo is now interested in establishing industry and advancing economies, whether it is in the developing market of Kenya or the war-torn nation of Nigeria.
The key question is: What’s in it for Japan?
Well, in addition to allowing Japanese companies to tap into new markets, Tokyo is interested in bolstering its historically solid relations at a time when there are changing political and security interests. Since rising to power, Abe has encouraged the African population to view Japan as a partner and not just a donor. While this might be great for a continent plagued by violence, corruption, and exploitation, China may not be too pleased by the interference.
Since 2005, China has invested about $300 billion in Africa, and President Xi Jinping has pledged to invest an additional $60 billion. Beijing has poured money into many aspects of the continent, resulting in close to $1 trillion in the value of trade. For the last 20 years, China has made a strategic investment in Africa, and not just in terms of humanitarian assistance either. Beijing has put money into massive infrastructural endeavors, including passenger rails, ports, and roads.
For instance, the Chinese government’s total investment in Nigeria’s crude oil sector has topped $16 billion. Through the China National Offshore Oil Corp., Beijing has supported the violence-stricken nation’s oil and gas industry since 2005. It may come as a surprise to observers that this has been a quid-pro-quo relationship. Nigeria aims to produce three million barrels per day within the next four years, while China’s domestic oil output has failed to meet demand because of natural depletion and other geological issues. Therefore, 80% of China’s crude supply will be imported by 2030, hence its investment in Africa’s energy sector and its transition to natural gas.
But while everyone seemingly wants a piece of Africa these days, China had first dibs. It had foresight into the eventual importance of Africa, and prioritized relations. The world’s second-largest economy viewed this part of the world as an opportunity for trade.
Today, hundreds of Chinese businesses and thousands of Chinese nationals have moved to Africa, concentrating on a whole host of industries, such as energy, manufacturing, health care, and technology. China also selected Djibouti, located in the continent’s northeast, for its first foreign military base.
Ostensibly, this is worrisome to the United States.
Recently, The Intercept obtained documents via Freedom of Information Act requests that suggested the Pentagon expressed concern about China’s growing influence in a dozen or so countries. But it isn’t just the Asian juggernaut that Washington is losing sleep over; officials are worried about Russia’s eventual presence in the region.
In December 2018, National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that both China and Russia are expanding their sway across Africa and this might “interfere with US military operations and pose a significant threat to US national security interests.”
China’s footprint has been well documented, but Russia is aiming to plant new roots, too. Between 2009 and 2017, Russia-Africa trade ballooned from $5.7 billion to just under $18 billion. The two sides are trying to forge partnerships in nuclear, oil, and gas infrastructure and technology. Moscow’s efforts to establish strong military ties with Africa are becoming more noticeable through greater arms sales and security agreements – several Russian private military firms are operating in 15 African countries.
Why should this matter to the US?
In the last couple of years, Washington has been expanding its security lens in Africa, particularly in the counterterrorism realm. The US is employing a series of strategies on the continent, including increasing lethal force, creating a “status-based targeting” system for suspected terrorists, and putting more boots on the ground.
Former Defense Secretary James Mattis summarized the US mission:
“The war is morphing. You’re going to see more actions in Africa, not less; you’re going to see more aggression by the United States toward our enemies, not less; you’re going to have decisions being made not in the White House but out in the field.”
Is this a positive development? We shall leave the non-interventionist discussion for another day.
That said, Liberty Nation wrote in October 2017 about the neoconservatives itching for military might in Africa: “Just wait until you hear Max Boot, Jennifer Rubin or Ralph Peters claim in the coming months that Swaziland’s King Mswati III, Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos and Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo are literally Hitlers.”
This brings up the question: Can Africa take advantage of all this investment? Or will it be plundered by foreigners?
The Power Struggle
The continent is in a catch-22. On the one hand, it needs as much investment as possible, whether it is from a country that wants to bring prosperity to the land or one that wants to utilize it for counterterrorism purposes. On the other, African states might have their sovereignty threatened by importing billions of dollars from nations that might only be pretending to be munificent.
In any other land, this would be a positive development for the population. But this is not a normal region of the world. For decades, Africa has been paralyzed by corruption, leaders enriching themselves with the public purse, and shady dealings. Who is to say that some president’s brother will not be given a contract with a Japanese firm?
The power struggle is real. It is comparable to the Arctic Ocean situation, where varying interests lay claim to the waters. The Arctic is both a sublime strategic location and the home to an abundance of natural resources (natural gas, oil, and uranium). The biggest difference, however, is that Africa has people – 1.2 billion of them. If there is a confrontation between the world’s superpowers, then it is the public, one that has already been crippled by violence, who will suffer. Perhaps the old economic phrase will eventually ring true: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
By the end of it all, who will utter the famous Humphrey Bogart line, “Nobody puts one over on Fred C. Dobbs”?