The Geopolitics of Oil: The US–China New Diplomatic Race In Africa

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For centuries, beginning with the slave trade, the West has ruthlessly exploited the African continent, plundered and pillaged its resources; tortured most of its progressive and militant-oriented pace-setters, and inspired conspiracies that witnessed the deaths of many of its leaders including Patrice Lumumba, apart from toppling so many African regimes, not forgetting “Operation Cold Chop” that pulled the legitimate rug from under the administration of Kwame Nkrumah and now turning Africa into a commercial hunt for the continent’s rich oil.

In the late nineteenth century, in what became known as the “Scramble for Africa,” the continent was arbitrarily carved up into colonies by the leading European powers, which violently subjected its people and plundered the continent of its rich natural resources. That is why this article under the topic the “Geopolitics of African Rich Oil’” pinpoints the failures of African diplomats on the world stage, oil as a core causes for conflict around the African continent and the US–Chinese race for Africa’s rich natural resources especially oil.    

The study of international relations has historically focused on the activities of large, powerful states, dismissing the smaller entities of the international system as unimportant or merely objects and pawns of policy for the larger entities (Nohra, 2012). This truism extends especially to those entities that exist in a partially recognized limbo, neither a full part of the international system nor an ungoverned space. Yet in the post-Cold War world, following the dissolution of large multi-national states such as the USSR, these entities have begun to proliferate.

The idea of an African rebirth seems to be finding more and more acceptance within international relations, but the continent representation in the international system is somehow discouraging primarily due to the unpreparedness of some of Africa’s diplomatic players on the world stage. This proliferation provides a significant challenge to an international system in which the primary participants are states, and to the institutions created to oversee their interaction. As such the study of these entities and their interaction with the world outside their borders is a study important for a universal understanding of contemporary international relations.

It is international relations which has been the gateway to link the continent to other continents, helping Africa to get in touch with other continents and influential multilateral institutions and organizations to establish its status among the comity of nations on the world stage. Africa has succeeded speedily in pushing and occupying key positions in the world, but on a large scale has failed to make an impact. A great deal has already been written on African international relations and the contributions of African countries and their governments in relationship to contemporary world’s politics.

In his recent book on democracy, Josephus Gray explained that this century perhaps more than any other period in human record has looked upon international relations and democracy as the vehicle of progress to establish ties with other sisterly governments and multilateral institutions and organizations. This new scramble for Africa’s resources is already engendering conflicts across the region. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where copper and diamonds have inspired wars and mayhem, there is currently intense competition and militia rivalries over the mining and sale, a critical raw material used in mobile phones and electronic devices.

The battle over oil and uranium, used in feeding nuclear reactors, according to French diplomat, Mathieu de Lesseps, continues to be at the root of conflicts in Niger and Nigeria, while similar crises would soon spread to other countries in the African region primarily due to the failures of the few privileges at the horn of political leaderships to account for resources from the oil. The connection between conflict and foreign exploitation of mineral resources can be drawn with respect to other countries, including Nigeria where Boko Haram is committing gross human rights violations. It has become clear that the discovery of significant oil and gas reserves in Nigeria’s northeastern Lake Chad Basin, the zone of the Boko Haram insurgency, is a major factor contributing to instability in the region ( Nicolas  Matthieu).

 The recent discovery has attracted the interest of neighboring countries, such as Chad, Cameroon and Niger, and international powers, including the United States, Britain and France. This also includes Sudan, Libya and Angola, while political crisis over lack of proper accountability over the use of natural resources, especially oil, is creating serious tension several other countries including Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Zimbabwe.  In the post-independence era, African states became weak pawns in the world economy, subject to Cold War rivalries, and their path to development largely blocked by their debilitating colonial past.

More recently, the West has choked Africa with an onerous debt regime, forcing many nations to pay more in interest on debts to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) than on health care, education, infrastructure, and other vital services combined. Finally, by analyzing the likely impact on the economies of oil-producing states, it considers whether we should lament or rejoice over the ‘new diplomatic scramble for Africa’. However let us bear in mind that the emerging of this “neo scramble” or a US–Chinese diplomatic race for Africa should be treated with some caution and that the use of terms such as ‘scramble’ and ‘race’ are perhaps being  overstated, while the economic impact of oil investments is likely to be bleak.

Both the American and the Chinese governments were important in paving the way for American and Chinese oil interests in expanding in Africa. The US government used diplomatic instruments such economic incentives and military aid (Lionel de Moustier). China has proven more supportive and has provided loans, debt relief, scholarships, training, and provision of military hardware without political or economic conditionalities, in exchange for a foothold in the oil business. In turn, incumbent African leaders have identified Chinese unconditional financial resources, cheap products, and know-how as an important tool to fend off pressure for political and economic reform from international organizations such as the IMF and Western governments. China is the new ‘superstar’ and newest sensation on the African continent when it comes to new diplomatic ties, trade expansion and investments in large-scale development projects.

For African governments, China's new interest mostly has been a blessing, partly a tipping point and now gradually becoming a game changer in the geo-political landscape. Diplomatically, their dependence on Western countries is eased, allowing new diplomatic competition as in the Cold War era, and giving pariah leaders an alternative backing. Chinese aid, be it funds or otherwise,  is also popular, because Beijing asks no questions on good governance and is fond of prestigious grand projects. Several diplomatic scholars argued that economically, however, the Chinese advance has been a mixed-blessing for Africa. With China's admittance to the World Trade Organization (WTO), it has boomed into an economic superpower of cheap mass produced exports, giving no room for African competition. But Beijing is not only interested in gaining African export markets.  Studies show  that the growing and soon to be economic superpower is not endowed with many natural resources, making Beijing dependent on mass imports of crude materials.

Most importantly, there is evidence of greater involvement of the United States and China in Africa, in terms of both commercial interests and political engagement. "China's bilateralism in relation to Africa" could undermine regional and continental institutions as "it replays the colonialist divide and conquer tactics."

From Sudan to Congo and Libya to Nigeria, natural resources such as timber, oil, diamonds and other most needed precious minerals have helped fund armies and militias who murdered, raped and committed other horrendous human rights abuses against civilians. China is taking a very broad approach and accessing the region whole heartedly,  erecting infrastructures,  building roads in Southern Sudan, Ghana, Liberia, and Ethiopia, just to name few. We are also seeing the French role in Mali, Ivory Coast and Congo; while Japan is involved in Liberia and the British in Sierra Leone. In recent times the US has strengthened its relations across the continent especially in Southern and West Africa including the north.

The recent outbreak of Ebola disease gives the U.S. the advantage to enhance its relations in West Africa; the Britain and the French also enforced their presence in Sierra Leone and Guinea, while Beijing has also been active in combating the deadly disease from Liberia. Battling to overcome its own created problems such as bad governance, Africa throughout the Cold War until the mid-2000s, played only an insignificant role on the world stage in the context of international relations and diplomacy most often pulled by the nose as a surrogate force and launching pad as appeasement to the will and  pleasure of self-styled global policemen.  This is not to say that Africa was irrelevant;  but the developments of the Cold War somewhat overshadowed the continent on the global stage. During the Cold War period, most of Africa remained within the spheres of influence of the former colonial powers, which made use of the relative freedom they were given by the Great Powers to materialize their interests in Africa, but with the end of the Cold War, things somehow turned the other way in the interest of the continent.

Owing to the continent’s recent avancement on the world stage to occupy some major positions in the international system, there have been calls for the continent to occupy a seat on the Security Council with an equal veto, but the  politically suppressed lingering question that arises is, which of the three African countries will  occupy the dedicated seat? Nigeria, South Africa or  Morocco, are all vying and not ready to allow or apply at least a brake for either one of the three to repesent  Africa  should the occasion arise. The continent in recent times has   been repositioning itself in the international system as far as international relations and politics are concerned, but greed for power and wealth, and by bad governance, are some of the major problems that are affecting growth and development of the continent on the stage of transparency and accountability. In the words of a French diplomat, Paul Claudel, most African diplomats lack a true representation of their countries. He argues that their presences bring no benefits to the sending state.   But a Russian diplomat, Gustavic Édupukiv  writes that most African diplomats are politically strangers to the international system.

During the Cold War period, most of the Africa continent remained within the spheres and claws of influence of the former colonial powers, which made use of the relative freedom they were given by the Great Powers to materialize their interests in Africa. This situation perpetuated the hierarchical structures of the colonial past, not necessarily against the will of the African ruling influential leaders. The view of Africa as a subordinated entity in the international system was even further reinforced by the continent’s marginalization within the discipline of International Relations and world politics. Some political pundits and commentators argue that the continent was described as  less important by the big powers in the face of international relations and politics but not a day has the situation proven otherwise.

Africa's bilateralism in relation to the world in recent times has been successful while, bad governance still remains a critical issue of  major concern. As new  nations emerged, the problems of nation building and economic reconstruction loomed on the horizon and that one cannot ignore the impact of the 1960s. This was the first decade of independent Africa and it has been characterized by violence from north to south, from east to west. What we saw at the beginning of the 1960s was a precursor of what is taking place now.

The Congo crisis, the secessions of Katanga and Kasai were symptoms of the malady of the continent. At the beginning of the 1960s it was fashionable then to look upon the Congo tragedy as the unique example of Belgian colonial ineptitude. Now with years of bitter experience behind us, we can say that the Congo’s situation pointed to all the issues which would afflict Africa from the ‘60s to 2000s. The Congo gave us also the first real taste of the cold war involvement in Africa. As the Congo became a battle ground of international strife, it was unfortunately the African who bore the brunt. It was once again the Congo which gave Black Africa the first indication of the importance of diplomacy in African politics. This has become a fact of life and no one in Africa today can think of resolving conflict without a diplomatic intervention and leave out militarism, which is the last course of action.

But farsighted political figures, however, agree that Africa has entered a new phase of history, which is characterized by increased African actors on the world stage, with greater influences. For instance, a good marker of this change is the greater interest that the continent has received from Asian and other developing countries and the resulting competition between well-established and new actors on the African continent.

Another critical juncture that contributed to the repositioning of Africa in world politics is the fight against terrorism. Virtually overnight the African continent gained new significance in relationship to the global war on terror.

In light of the political instability across the Middle East and North Africa, Africa has come to be ‘of major geo-strategic importance to the oil-dependent industrialized economies,’ and giving an attention that Africa receives from actors all over the international system, the idea of an African rebirth seems to be finding more and more acceptance within international relations. Referring to the colonial scramble, which hit its peak at the end of the 19th century and the partition of the entire African continent along borders brokered between a handful of European colonial powers which some scholars see as a ‘new scramble for Africa’ emerging.

Evaluating the continent’s key actors’ performances on the global stage, many observers see Africa steadily moving towards Beijing, while others regard tales of a successful Sino-African future with suspicion and point to the robustness of US–African ties.

But farsighted political figures, however, agree that Africa has entered a new phase of history, which is characterized by increased African actors on the world stage, with greater influences. For instance, a good marker of this change is the greater interest that the continent has received from Asian and other emerging countries and the resulting competition between well-established and new actors on the African continent.

Africa has come to be ‘of major geo-strategic importance to the oil-dependent industrialized economies’, and giving an attention that Africa receives from actors all over the international system, the idea of an African rebirth seems to be finding more and more acceptance within international relations, but the continent’s  representations in the international system are  somehow discouraging due to the unpreparedness of some of our diplomatic players on the stage, reducing them to mere spectators.

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