Currently, the battle for supremacy on the African continent is being fought out between the leaders of Asia’s two superpowers — China and India — and, for the most part, the United States is nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile, the President of the African Development Bank had to come hat in hand to Washington, where, a source with knowledge of the situation told me, all he got to see were some officials in the Treasury Department
President Trump has still not visited the continent and has not announced plans to do so.
Why should we care? China and India care deeply. After all, Africa is home to Nigeria — poised to become the world’s third most populous country and all the challenges that poses in terms of more jobs for an increasingly youthful population, not to mention food and infrastructure.
And as Akinwumi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank, told me this week, “there are 400 million hectares of arable land in the savannas of Africa” that will “determine the future of food in the world.”
Not surprisingly, Modi announced in an address to the Ugandan Parliament, the first by a serving Indian Prime Minister, that India would be opening 18 new embassies, “deepen[ing] our partnership and engagement across the vast expanse of Africa.”
But these Chinese-led initiatives and this push into Africa have only been accompanied by considerable peril and deep challenges to the United States and its interests there.
All too often, pledged against this debt are the natural resources ranging from oil in Nigeria and Angola to rare minerals in Congo and deeply important geo-strategic locations like Djibouti.
Meanwhile, as China and the US are embarking on a virulent trans-Pacific trade war, China is embedding itself in country after country across Africa, often quite profitably, occasionally quite toxically.
The London Court of International Arbitration ruled the seizure illegal.
“Before the Chinese arrived, we had no problems here,” Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, chief efecutive of DP World, told me in an interview. “But as soon as the Chinese moved in, of course, the Chinese basically loaned them more than what they needed—to the point there the government became helpless.”
China has failed to take any note of this, while the Djibouti government has said it was simply rewriting the terms of its contract with DP. The London Arbitration Court disagreed and termed it an outright seizure.
Sultan Sulayem paused and continued, “What is killing Africa is the infrastructure is collapsing and the only way to improve it is through public-private partnerships. And now, after Djibouti, who is going to invest?”
Djibouti is hardly the only African nation to be seduced by wbhat would appear to be easy Chinese money that will be difficult if not impossible to repay without selling its patrimony of raw materials at wholesale prices, thereby holding them hostage to or tying them ever closer to the Chinese sphere.
The African Development Bank, Adesina told me, has a number of programs designed to stem this drift away from western-style capitalism. But China’s commitments may be simply too large and too seductive.
Yet American interests diverge quite dramatically from China’s in many corners of this complex continent. China has little interest in building strong, democratic institutions and states. Its goal is to create dependencies that will advance its own agenda of control and security. So, it is long past time for Trump to pay more than lip service to Africa’s needs and undertake a substantive visit to this region where he is losing a vast and potentially quite deadly war.