Sunday, July 19, 2009

The New Scramble for Africa

It couldn't have gone unnoticed the news coverage of Obama's visit to Ghana and Africa but underneath the PR gloss of the memories of slavery roots , a much more mercenary purpose existed.

The new scramble for Africa

Today's race is not for colonies to conquer but for natural resources and America has stepped up pursuit in response to superpower rivals.We read

At Nigeria's Defence Intelligence School in Karu, near the capital Abuja, 30 military officers from seven African countries graduated from a training course designed to meet the "rapidly changing security complexities" of their nations "and the continent at large".Ostensibly organised by Nigeria's Defence Intelligence Agency, the 12-week "Military Intelligence Basic Officers' Course for Africa" - the third this year after two in Mali - was in fact designed by the controversial United States African Command (AfriCom). To exploit and secure the region's oil, the US has to take into account the threat to its interests from terrorist and liberation groups. AfriCom is designed to protect vital US interests, but while its public profile is low its footprint on the ground is increasingly large - hence the military intelligence courses in Nigeria and Mali, and also AfriCom preparations with Mali, Algeria and Niger for a major joint military and police operation along their common borders.While AfriCom's main role is military oversight, it is slightly different from other US commands because it acknowledges Africa's complexities and mysteries by including health and aid experts in its mission. Steven Morrison, director of the Africa programme at the Washington think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the new command is designed to shift US involvement in Africa from a reactive to a proactive commitment.

AfriCom - currently headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, but aiming to transfer to Ghana - is a measure of how seriously Washington is taking the new scramble for Africa and how determined it is to compete there with China, which has major strategic and economic goals throughout the continent, and how seriously it intends securing its burgeoning oil and gas interests in West Africa.

That commitment was also suggested by another little-noticed event: the opening of an Aids testing and counselling centre in the Botswana mining centre, Francistown, built by AfriCom. The centre - one of 12 in the country whose establishment has been supervised by AfriCom's Lieutenant Colonel William Wyatt

President Barack Obama's visit to Ghana this month signalled that America's approach to Africa was emerging from a long, deep sleep and that the US was back in the African version of the Great Game.

In recent years, the strongest winds blowing over the continent have come from China. With the US and European Union preoccupied elsewhere, China has had the African playing field virtually to itself and has won new markets in country after country. Beijing brought welcome foreign investment on a scale not seen since the end two decades ago of superpower competition between the US and the former Soviet Union.

For example, in Angola, which is stunningly rich in natural resources and was fought over by Moscow and Washington's surrogate guerrilla armies in a 27-year civil war that ended only in 2002, China is partnering the country's rapid development with its multi-billion dollar investments in Angola's infrastructure.

Two Chinese oil companies last week bought a $1.3 billion stake in the rich Block 32 development 90 miles off the Angolan coast - already China imports more oil from Angola than it does from Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Beijing announced it will invest $1.2bn in the development of Angolan agriculture over the next four years.

It is the latest phase in the commitment by China of billions of dollars in aid and cheap loans to Angola, which has resulted in Chinese companies building roads, bridges, schools, hospitals and telecoms infrastructure, as well as rebuilding the 835-mile trans-African Benguela Railway, built 107 years ago by Aberdeen engineer Sir Robert Williams but destroyed in the post-independence civil war.

And in Gabon, China rejuvenated the entire national railway grid as the price for developing the huge Belinga iron ore deposits deep in the country's dense tropical forest.

"Beijing's motives are clear," said Professor William Lyakurwa, executive director of the Nairobi-based African Economic Research Consortium. "China is home to more than 20% of the global population. Its growing industries demand new energy; its exporters want markets; its diplomats require support in international organisations.Its propaganda still seeks support from allies to advance Chinese interests and, when necessary, to counter the United States. It views Africa as a centre for military-to-military co-operation and a market for China's growing arms industry."

Obama has made it clear that if the US wants to out-muscle China it will need to commit more to projects like the 421-mile-long West African Gas Pipeline, which is scheduled to begin delivering gas early next year from Nigeria's Niger River Delta to Benin, Togo and Ghana. The pipeline is 40% financed by America's Chevron Oil and is the first regional natural gas transmission system in sub-Sahara Africa.

Within days of Obama returning to Washington from Ghana, the Washington-based International Monetary Fund approved a $603m loan to help the West African nation tackle budget imbalances while preparing to start production from recently discovered rich offshore oil fields - the loan is by far the biggest IMF financing package for an African country since the onset of the current global financial crisis.

Ghana will start pumping crude oil next year and expects to begin producing about 500,000 barrels of oil per day by 2014, about a quarter of the production rate in nearby Nigeria.

It is oil fields like Ghana's Jubilee find - 40% owned by London-based Tullow Oil - that AfriCom has the task of protecting; by diplomatic and aid means if possible and by force if necessary. Already West African nations supply as much oil to the US as Saudi Arabia and the US National Intelligence Council estimates that by 2015 some 25% of US oil imports will come from West Africa. The region's crude oil is overwhelmingly "light" and "sweet", the grade preferred by big refiners and the distance tankers have to sail is less than half that from the Middle East. Also, 83% of West Africa's oil resources come from big, more easily managed fields.

The original scramble for Africa took place in the late 19th century, when Britain, France, Germany and Portugal competed to carve Africa into colonies. Today, governments and corporations from the US, France, Britain and China are competing to profit from the rulers of often chaotic and corrupt regimes.

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