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The second scramble for Africa (Part 2)

By Timothy Kalyegira

These new discoveries of oil have increased Africa’s strategic importance on the world stage, but there is even more to this than these mineral deposits.

The last 15 years have also seen countries like China, Brazil, Russia and India registering strong economic growth and with that lifting tens of millions of people from poverty into middle class status and with that exerting greater pressure than before on resources.

At the same time in many parts of the world, from Australia to the United States’ desert areas, to Asia and Africa, drought has become a common feature of life, with low rainfall and sources of fresh ground water drying up and arable farm land becoming scarce.

Since 2000, the world witnessed many more destructive monsoon rains, tropical cyclones, hurricanes and unusually heavy rains, resulting in top soil and millions of acres of farmland being washed away or destroyed.

As world oil prices continued to rise since the late 1990s and with more and more voices calling for alternative sources of fuel to the fossil-based petroleum, there started a trend in the 2000s to experiment with ethanol fuel, the so-called ‘hybrid’ cars.

To produce this fuel from maize (or corn) and other cereal crops, whole tracts of land in South America and the United States were converted to the production of ethanol.

Maize ranks second behind wheat and just ahead of rice as the world’s most important food crop. It is the most important food crop grown in the United States, the world’s largest economy and is the staple diet of millions of people in East and southern Africa.

With the switch to ethanol-based fuel came a side effect that had not been anticipated: world food prices started to rise as farmers turned from growing maize for human and animal consumption to growing it for the much more lucrative car fuel market.

In 2008, before the world financial crisis struck in September, much of the news was dominated by regular reports and warnings on inflation caused by rising world food prices and how millions of people in the developing world were in danger of slipping back into absolute poverty, spending up to 65 percent of their income on food.

The rising price of food between 2007 and 2008 and the realisation that food security was going to be more critical in the coming years than had been realised, countries from Saudi Arabia to South Korea, China, Russia and others started to negotiate purchases of land in Africa on which to grow food for the home market.

The German news magazine Spiegel reported on July 30, 2009 that the urgency of acquiring farmland has focused eyes on Africa: ‘Governments and investment funds are buying up farmland in Africa and Asia to grow food — a profitable business, with a growing global population and rapidly rising prices. The high-stakes game of real-life Monopoly is leading to a modern colonialism to which many poor countries submit out of necessity.’

Finally, even though most of the northern, Horn and southwestern part of Africa is desert or semi-desert, the tropical interior of Africa has an abundance of fresh water.

The Great Lakes region of East-Central Africa has Lake Victoria, the world’s second-largest fresh water lake, the Nile, the world’s longest river, the River Congo.

The region has lakes like George, Edward, Wamala, Mburo, Bunyonyi, Albert, Kyoga and others in Uganda. Kivu, Mugesera, Kyohoha-Sud, Ihema, Bulera, Rugwero and Sake in Rwanda. Rugwero and Kyohaha-Sud (shared with Rwanda) and Tanganyika (shared with Tanzania) in Burundi. Mai-Ndombe, Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Tanganyika, Eyasi, Manyara, Rukwa and Natron in Tanzania.

(By way of illustration, compare this large number of lakes in the Great Lakes region with the fact that for all its size and population, Nigeria in West Africa has only one lake, Kainji, and the smaller part of Lake Chad to the northeast, a lake that is now rapidly shrinking in size.)

This abundance of fresh water lakes and the many rivers that crisscross East-Central Africa, with rich volcanic soil in eastern Congo, Rwanda, and western Uganda, makes the region the most fertile and fresh water-endowed in Africa.

When Ugandan opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye remarked in March at a campaign rally in Amolatar District in northern Uganda that the government had leased part of Lake Kyoga to a South African consortium, President Yoweri Museveni reacted defensively. This surprised many Ugandans since most take fresh water for granted and could not understand why “a mere lake” would cause Museveni to react with such sensitivity.

Africa’s geopolitical importance in counterterrorism

Apart from resources, some being discovered, others dwindling, there is also another essential value in Africa. The continent, through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, is one of the major trade gateways of the world.

If that area that stretches from the Horn of Africa to the Suez were to be closed, ocean going ships and oil tankers would have to make their way round the southern tip of Africa on to markets in Europe and North America, significantly increasing transportation costs and so raising the price of such critical commodities as oil.

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States in September 2001 and the heightened activities of global jihadist groups, the Horn of Africa states of Djibouti and Ethiopia have become important surveillance bases for France and the United States as they keep an eye on militant activities in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

With militant Islamist groups determined to spread their activities into every corner of the world — from attacks in the Russian region of Chechnya starting in 1994 to the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Spain, Britain, to attacks on two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, attacks on western tourists in Egypt and Israeli airline in Kenya’s Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa — suddenly every part of the world has become important in military and counterterrorism terms.

The third part will run in the next edition

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