by Charles Ray
In the minds of most Americans and Europeans, the continent of Africa has long been seen as peripheral to world affairs, looked at either as a source of natural resources ripe for extraction or a place of poverty and violence requiring massive amounts of aid. This is a shortsighted and distorted view of a diverse continent and is long overdue for a reset.
The truth is that Africa is home to some of the planet’s most strategic minerals and other resources, and that natural and manmade disasters plague the continent. It is far more diverse and dynamic than popular culture, mainstream media, and even many foreign policy makers portray it. For a lot of reasons, some of them existential, it is far from peripheral; it matters.
Rich in Resources, but Mired in Poverty
Africa’s resources, its strategic minerals such as gold, copper, diamonds, cobalt, and oil, as well as its human resources during the height of the global slave trade, have always been as much a curse as a blessing to the continent. With a significant percentage of global reserves of some of the world’s most strategic minerals, Africa has often been, and in some places still is, a pawn in the struggles between powerful nations out to gain access to and/or control over minerals that are vital to modern industry. To name just two examples, Africa is thought to have 21 percent of the world’s total gold reserves and 85 percent of its platinum.
The competition to obtain these minerals is often waged with complete disregard to the impact it has on the countries or upon the lives of the average Africans who get little or no benefit from their extraction.
While living standards and wages vary from country to country, and often from region to region within individual countries, the average salary across the continent is less than US $400 per month; one in three Africans (more than 400 million people) subsist on less than US $2 per day, representing 70 percent of the world’s poorest people.
Troubles—Natural and Man-made
Across the continent, but particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, climate change causes significant environmental problems. In addition, overfishing, deforestation, mining, and intense climate-unfriendly agriculture compound an already serious situation. Addressing Africa’s climate problems is hampered by lack of resources, poor governance, corruption, and lack of respect for the rule of law by the governing elites. All this combines to exacerbate a dire situation. While the lion’s share of the blame for this dire situation rests with Africa’s rulers, the devastating impact of European exploitive colonization, the Atlantic slave trade, and the US-USSR Cold War competition that used African surrogates against each other’s interests must not be ignored.
In 2020, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State provided $8.5 billion of assistance to 47 countries and 8 regional programs in sub-Saharan Africa. And yet, far too many foreign assistance programs, as well meaning as they are, create dependence on foreign aid, prop up autocratic rulers, and feed into corruption, failing to alleviate the pervasive poverty. Despite US and European efforts to put conditions on use of assistance, funds are still misused; unrestricted aid from countries like China and Russia, to name but two, contributes to abuse. Corruption and poor governance are often considered the leading causes of poverty in Africa, and despite decades and millions of foreign aid, it often seems that little has changed.
Africa is a Continent not a Country
When the aforementioned problems are considered, along with the increasing number of military coups and attempted coups, it’s understandable, though incorrect, that many outsiders think this represents the entire continent. Too often, Africa is perceived and presented as a global basket case that comes to our notice only when the next disaster strikes.
Africa, however, is not a monolith. It is as diverse as any other continent, more diverse than some. With 54 countries it is the second largest and second most populous continent with 1.3 billion inhabitants, over 1,500 languages and is home to every major religion and hundreds of different ethnic groups. By 2050, the population of the continent is expected to nearly double to 2.4 billion and will account for nearly fifty percent of the world’s population growth. In addition, Africa is on average a young continent. Approximately 40 percent of its populations is under 15, and in some countries over half the populations is under 25.
The Numbers Matter
The demographics outlined in the previous paragraphs should be enough to cause the world to reevaluate its views on the African continent. Africa’s growing young population will have an impact on the world —whether good or bad depends on how Africans and the world act in the present.
Because wars have destroyed so much of the colonial infrastructure, many young Africans have, for instance, never experienced analog telephones. They’ve grown up entirely in the digital age and represent a huge potential market for technological products and services as well as an immense work force. On the other hand, if their economic needs are not met, they represent a large potential source of recruits for extremist movements.
The African continent is also urbanizing at a breakneck pace. In 1960, 80 percent of Africa’s people lived in rural areas. That number is currently 60 percent and by 2050 will drop to 40 percent. Urbanization has been caused by underperforming economies in rural areas, wars, and climate-fueled crises. The move from countryside to city, which in many places leads to people being lifted out of poverty, has not had that effect in much of Africa. Africa’s large cities are not designed or equipped to deal with the negative impacts of climate change, and many of the rural migrants, in fact 70 percent of Africa’s urban population, live in slum conditions without access to economic opportunity, health care, or education. Slums are prone to flooding; because of the construction materials used in the slum housing, during the hot season they became urban heat islands leading to illness and death from heat.
While Africa has about 17 percent of the world’s population, it only accounts for a single-digit percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions. It nonetheless suffers more from climate change than any other populated continent, with droughts, floods, climate-caused storms and heat waves that reduce food production, increase health problems, and contribute to population displacement.
While this alone should be of concern to the rest of the world, of equal concern is the impact that Africa has on climate change, notwithstanding its low level of carbon emissions. The Congo rainforest is the world’s second largest carbon sink after the Amazon rainforest. With the degradation of the Amazon rainforest, which now emits more CO2 than it absorbs, it is vitally important to stemming the rise of global warming caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Congo rainforest, though, is currently also under threat from deforestation caused mainly by local agricultural practices.
The Congo basin could also be the origin of the world’s next pandemic. With human populations increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, the chance of animal-to-human transmission of dangerous viruses is increased; one shudders to imagine a viral disease that is an infectious as Covid-19 but as deadly as Ebola. Absent a concerted African and international effort to identify and isolate the zoonotic diseases of the region, such a scenario is just a matter of time.
While extremist and terrorist groups in Africa have not to date played a major role in global terrorism, most of the major international terrorist organizations, al-Qaeda and IS primarily, have a presence there and have established relationships with many of the continent’s domestic extremist groups. Terrorist activity has increased significantly in Africa over the past decade; if not dealt with it could become an international threat.
A Renewed Cold War, or a Continuation of the Old War?
The competition between the US and the USSR, which used African (and sometimes Cuban) forces as proxies for the two great powers in their struggle over influence in Africa, ostensibly ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia, though its presence was diminished, never completely abandoned the continent and now, with the deployment of the Wagner Group mercenaries across Africa, appears to be reviving its presence. In addition, the global competition between the US and China, though mainly economic and influence competition, seems like the Cold War redux.
China is now sub-Saharan Africa’s largest trading partner in mostly import-driven trade. China is also a major investor in Africa, with its firms dominating infrastructure projects. China has established a military presence in Africa, with a support base in Djibouti and reportedly has plans to establish a naval base in Equatorial Guinea on Africa’s Atlantic coast.
On the economic front, China’s largest import from Africa is oil, but it also imports a number of vital minerals to fuel its rapidly growing economy including iron ore and cobalt. In 2011, the Chinese imported almost all of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop, undercutting American and European buyers who had previously been the main customers. Africa is also a growing market for cheap Chinese manufactured goods.
Chinese investments in Africa don’t come with the governance, rule of law, and human rights conditions of American and European government assistance, or the legal restrictions that come with American private investment,. Because of this, Chinese investment is popular with the ruling elites and has contributed to a degree to economic development in some countries. But China’s lack of governance conditions, its support for some of the continent’s most authoritarian leaders and the debt burden its loans have imposed on some of the world’s poorest countries has generated controversy both on the continent and internationally. With Chinese firms—some state-controlled and others ostensibly privately owned but still influenced by the government—becoming increasingly dominant in African economies, US and European policymakers view the situation with an understandable degree of concern.
The Good, the Bad, and the Inevitable
Africa will have a significant impact on the world over the coming decades in several areas. Whether that impact is positive or negative will depend in large part on the actions of Africans themselves. But the impact will also be affected by the policy choices of countries like China and the United States.
If Africa’s economies are structured to provide adequate wages and living standards, it will be a lucrative customer base, a profitable investment destination, and a source of a young, tech-savvy labor force. It could, if economic and governance conditions are improved, contribute to a solution of the supply chain issues that were highlighted during the Covid pandemic.
On the other hand, if conditions do not improve, Africa could become the world’s worst nightmare; a densely populated continent of disaffected young people who are ripe for recruitment by extremist movements and at a minimum become part of a massive population relocation to areas of greater economic opportunity.
If methods are not developed and deployed to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, such as developing climate-friendly agriculture and building more resilient cities, food production will not keep pace with population growth, increasing Africa’s dependence on foreign assistance just to feed its people. This will perpetuate the cycle of poverty and suffering and further add to the destabilizing impact of population displacement. Relocation of populations caused by famine, war, or other disasters will put more pressure on already overburdened cities, with increased flows of people northward,. These flows will put increased pressure on southern Europe and the Mediterranean and ultimately impact the rest of western Europe and the United States.
Africa and the world, working collectively, must implement measures to protect and preserve the Congo rainforest. If it continues to degrade, it will lead to reduced rainfall, affecting agricultural production in regions where agriculture depends on it. The precipitous and dangerous rise in global temperatures that is likely to result will mean more frequent and violent tropical storms and rising sea levels. Destruction of wildlife habitats and increased human-animal contact could lead to the emergence of new viruses that could quickly become pandemic. These are not just African problems. They are global problems.
Implications for US Policy
The 54 countries of Africa make up the largest single regional voting bloc in the UN General Assembly, ensuring that if they band together they constitute a majority in the UNGA. Should the Africa Union’s initiative to develop an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA_ become reality, it would create the world’s largest free trade area. This could promote significant reforms in political and economic governance, contribute to the long-term development of Africa’s economies, and turn Africa into a global economic kingmaker.
The United States, using mechanisms such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA),which expires in 2025, could play a positive role in Africa’s long-term economic development. US policymakers should explore ways to incentivize US private investment in Africa, through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) for instance, to help American firms compete more favorably with Chinese firms.
More emphasis needs to be on education and health of Africa’s most vulnerable populations, particularly women and girls. This is key to sustainable development.
Both China and the United States, the world’s two largest economies, should take a more pragmatic approach to their competition in Africa by focusing on areas of common interest, such as climate change mitigation, counterterrorism, anti-piracy, and encouraging good governance, anti-corruption, and stability. This would not only benefit China and the US, but Africa and the rest of the world as well.
US Africa policy needs to be focused on the priorities and needs of the US and the individual African countries and regions rather than on foreign presence on the continent. For better or worse, in the coming decades, Africa will matter, and we had better believe it will. The health of the world could depend on it.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the February 2022 edition of the Jerusalem Strategic Tribune. You Better Believe That Africa Matters – The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune (jstribune.com)
Charles Ray is a retired US Foreign Service officer who served as ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe and was deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs. In addition to his 30 years as a diplomat, he served 20 years in the US Army. Ray is currently a trustee and chair of the Africa Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.