Instead of outside colonial powers carving up spheres of interest in Africa at a congress in Berlin, as they did between 1884 and 1885, a set of new players are staking military and economic claims in Africa. Replacing paternalistic neo-colonial overseers like France, Britain, and the United States – which divided Africa into Francophile, Anglophile, and “coalition of the willing” countries, respectively – are China, Russia, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The current “scramble for Africa” resembles what occurred in Berlin in the latter 19th century, but without the overriding presence of individual power brokers like Otto von Bismarck of Germany, King Leopold II of Belgium, Sir Edward Malet of Britain, and Mehmed Said Pasha of the Ottoman Empire.
The role of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) in protecting US economic and political power in Africa has been marginalized with the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti. No longer will the United States be able to treat Africa as an extension of NATO’s military command and control structure out of AFRICOM’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.
There is now a major UAE naval base in Berbera, in Somaliland, joining a UAE air base in Khadim in Libya. The Egyptians are also reportedly involved with the construction of the base. The UAE had maintained a maritime security base in Bosaso, in the self-governing region of Puntland in Somalia. However, the Somalis expelled the UAE military after it was announced that the UAE was building a naval base in Berbera, over which Somalia claims jurisdiction. The UAE also has an airbase in Assab, on the coast of Eritrea.
The current scramble for Africa is taking on the appearance of a cowboy western movie. On April 8, 2018, Somali troops boarded an Emirati plane on the tarmac at Mogadishu airport and seized, at gunpoint, $9.6 million worth of US currency. The United Nations had previously charged that UAE authorities handed out cash to voters in the 2017 Somali presidential election to influence the outcome.
In 2017, Turkey announced that it was building its largest military base abroad near the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The expulsion of the UAE from Somalia yielded a 2018 deal that included Qatari funding for the construction of military bases for the Somalia National Army in the country. Qatar and Turkey are, in concert, consolidating their military positions in Africa. In December 2017, it was announced that Turkey would redevelop the port on the island of Suakin in northeastern Sudan for use as a civilian port and a Turkish naval base. In West Africa, Turkey has made a play for influence in Mali, which appears to have been successful even though the gambit irritated French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been trying to consolidate France’s traditional hold on its former colonies in West and Central Africa. Mali is not the only Francophone African country that has attracted Turkey’s attention. The Turks have recently decided to invest in infrastructure projects in Madagascar.
India is building bases on the Seychelles island of Assumption and the Mauritius island of Agalega, supplementing an intelligence gathering base already established in northern Madagascar. India has also been eyeing a naval base in Beira in northern Mozambique.
The Saudis are planning to establish a military base in Djibouti, joining China, the United States, France, Germany, and Japan, which already have military facilities in the strategically-located country at the confluence of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden maritime approaches to the Suez Canal. Djibouti has turned into a virtual military bazaar for the Horn of Africa, hosting any nation’s military base if they have the money to pay Djibouti’s government.
Qatar maintained a peacekeeping force on the Djibouti-Eritrea border until it was ordered out by Djibouti. The force was a casualty of the rift between Qatar and its two erstwhile Gulf Cooperation Council allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Djibouti and Eritrea succumbed to diplomatic pressure from the Saudis. Ethiopia, under its first Muslim Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has attracted the interest of the UAE, which lost its military presence in Somalia and may seek to replace it with a presence in Ethiopia.
Consider Africa to be a large geo-political chessboard, where countries are moving their pieces at a rapid rate and checking and checkmating their adversaries at practically every move.
The United States overextended its military presence in Africa, from drone bases in Arba Minch, Ethiopia (since abandoned) and the Seychelles to “cooperative security locations” (CSLs) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic. In the latter, the US and France are now competing for influence with Russia, which has stepped up its security support for the civil war-embattled government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera. China has announced a deal to supply military armaments and equipment to the Central African Republic.
After breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establishing relations with China, Burkina Faso is seeing a rush of Chinese businessmen and development engineers. No longer are Washington and Paris calling all the shots in Burkina Faso.
A similar contest for influence is taking place in Cameroon. France has always considered Cameroon, a former colony, to be in Paris’s sphere of influence. However, the country’s 85-year old president, Paul Biya, recently concluded a military agreement with Russia. The pact will provide Cameroon with military equipment and trainers to help it fight against Boko Haram jihadist guerrillas active in the country. The US and AFRICOM considered the fight against Boko Haram and Al Qaeda affiliates in western Africa and the Sahel region to be purely a US and NATO responsibility. Russia and China are changing that perspective.
Israel believed that it had secured a base of operations in Togo, which maintains friendly ties with the Israelis. However, an Israeli-African summit scheduled in October 2017 in Togo was cancelled due to an outbreak of protests against the dynastic regime of Faure Gnassingbe, whose father had ruled Togo from 1967 to 2005. Israel is also extending its influence in Libya thanks to the efforts of Canadian-Israeli businessman Walter Arbib, the chairman of Skylink Aviation of Toronto, who acts as an “unofficial” link between Israel and many Arab and Muslim countries.
Private businessmen in Africa, like Arbib, are increasingly acting as local agents for global actors. Erik Prince, the American founder of the defunct mercenary firm, Blackwater, has teamed with UAE and Chinese officials to use his overseas-based mercenary firms, like Reflex Responses (R2) of Abu Dhabi and Frontier Services Group (FSG) of Hong Kong, to land security contracts in South Sudan, the South West State and Puntland in Somalia, Somaliland, Kenya, Libya, and Mozambique. FSG’s corporate leadership involves high-level businessmen connected closely to the government of China. There are also solid links between FSG and Israel’s Mossad.
In addition to the non-Africa players increasingly expanding their military and economic presence on the continent, Iran has cultivated relations with Ethiopia, to the chagrin of the Saudis, Emiratis, and Egyptians. The Saudis and Iranians have been vying for interest in the Comoros, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Although the Comoros are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, the Iranian Shi’as have developed friendly ties with the people of the island of Anjouan, a secessionist-minded member of the Comoros federation.
The scramble for Africa will only increase in intensity as the insatiable appetite for Africa’s oil, gold, diamonds, and rare earth minerals attracts more global interest and competition.