Different countries’ national interests aren’t limited to their territories or neighborhoods.
Good economic, foreign, and security policies are based on identifying national interests and cultivating spheres of interest, to different degrees and varying levels of priority. Regional and global powers will establish spheres where they can exercise influence.
This influence can be used in the short-term, mainly to the advantage of the influencing power or to develop a long-term zone of interest to the countries’ mutual benefit.
Areas where political structures are fragile–regardless of whether they are democratic or autocratic because they haven’t been adapted to the local culture or societal needs–are especially prone to dependence on or intervention by foreign powers. This intervention can be economic, political or come in the form of soft power.
Sub-Saharan Africa is especially prone to foreign influence, which has overwhelmingly shaped the region’s politics, economics, and even culture. There is a long history of this intervention.
Until the 16th century, the coastal areas on the Indian Ocean were mostly influenced by Arab and Indian traders. African tribes, in addition to slaves, exchanged gold and ivory for textiles, metal products, and weapons.
With the arrival of the Portuguese Navy and traders in the 1500s, European countries continued the practice of coastal trading on the Atlantic and Indian Ocean coasts.
Portuguese traders were quickly followed by the Spanish, Dutch, British, and French. Due to competition in Europe, the various nations established fortified outposts in strategic locations. Those not only aided the exchange with the tribal areas in the hinterlands but also served as bases that were used to secure increasingly important maritime routes to India and East Asia.
In contrast to what was going on in the Americas at the time, European powers were not yet exploring and colonizing the interior, as Europeans were vulnerable to tropical diseases, especially malaria. Only Dutch and French Huguenots, who were forced to leave Europe, developed a permanent state based primarily on farming on the Cape of Good Hope. The Portuguese increased their holdings and were slowly entering Angola and Mozambique.
The development of quinine–medication used to treat babesiosis and malaria–and other medical advances in the middle of the 19th century allowed European explorers to make expeditions into the heart of Africa. The continent was no longer an unknown territory. In was an unprecedented land grab–the competing European powers divided Africa into colonies. Boundaries weren’t drawn according to established traditional lines but to accommodate the theoretical strategic–and even conflicting interests of European powers.
Although atrocities occurred in the course of colonization, the colonial powers put massive efforts into introducing working administrative systems and the rule of law. They established infrastructure, including roads, railways, and manufacturing, and they took responsibility for primary and secondary education. They improved health systems, which led to a large increase in native populations.
Due to colonialism, Africa had a stable political structure from the late 19th century to the 1950s, though it had become a sphere of the relevant European powers.
In a wave of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s–and, in the case of the Portuguese territories, in the 1970s–the colonies became independent states, supposedly adopting European democratic norms for governance.
These new entities were multi-ethnic states with borders that had been defined by the colonial powers; none of them evolved from historical or cultural processes. Most of the new countries became failed states: corrupt, haunted by political instability, diseases, and civil wars. This was the ideal environment for all sorts of foreign intervention.
In several former French colonies–including a former Spanish and a former Portuguese colony–France successfully introduced a currency linked to the French franc and later to the euro. This was beneficial for France as well as for the 14 African countries concerned (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, the Republic of the Congo, Senegal, and Togo), as it provides them with some monetary stability, something other former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa lacked. This is one of the rare success stories of foreign influence.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union began initiatives to destabilize regions in Africa or increase its influence there. Especially notable were its activities in civil wars in Angola and Mozambique. In Angola, mainly Cuban mercenaries fought on behalf of Soviet interests. Zambian dictator Kenneth Kaunda, Robert Mugabe, and Joshua Nkomo in the Rhodesian civil war, as well as Samora Machel in Mozambique and Patrice Lumumba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), were just some of the leaders who enjoyed Soviet support.
In the 1960s, the region of Katanga in the DRC and the region of Biafra in Nigeria had justifiable reasons for wanting independence from their respective countries. These independence movements were put down with terrible bloodshed. The United Nations and major foreign powers supported the sides that committed the atrocities—the national governments.
China Has Long History With Africa
Sub-Saharan Africa has re-emerged as an area where foreign powers are competing for influence. It remains a very fragile environment.
Africa is a richly endowed continent with a crucial geographic location between the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It has a wealth of minerals, energy, water, and agricultural potential, and its population is proliferating rapidly. Many consider the high fertility rate on this continent to be a curse, but it is rather an opportunity. We mustn’t forget that high birth rates combined with increased life expectancy usually are strong drivers of economic and social development.
Over the past 30 years, Africa has become a focus of an assertive China, which sees the continent’s potential. China wants to enlarge its sphere of influence to Africa to secure its economic and geographic advantages. Africa had become a strategic vacuum, widely abandoned by its former colonial powers, with corrupt leaders and internal conflicts fueled by the flawed state structures. These factors made it easy to infiltrate and gain influence in the various countries.
China helps African countries fund and construct infrastructure projects and is becoming an increasingly important market for several of them. More and more Chinese are active in the sub-Saharan region. All of this plays to China’s advantage, allowing it to exercise influence.
Europe Showing Interest in Africa for Wrong Reasons
Europe, on the other hand, has lost much of its influence in Africa and, for a long time, even neglected it as a sphere of interest. European countries mostly limited their activity there to some feel-good humanitarian initiatives—though also some good intentions shouldn’t be dismissed, and especially the hospitals and schools established by Christian organizations have been very helpful. In many cases, development aid was wasted and really harmful. It offered the wrong incentives but relieved Europeans’ consciences.
Africa has now re-appeared on Europe’s political and public radar, not for the right reasons, but instead because of the threat of mass immigration. Young Africans crossing the Mediterranean are causing a migration crisis in Europe, dividing public opinion, complicating the political landscape, and shaking the very foundations of the European Union. This is a terrible sign of European weakness.
European leaders are now traveling through Africa, promising economic and social aid with the hope that it will keep people from migrating, as well as help African governments contain the flow and take migrants back. These measures won’t succeed, as they are based on false assumptions and lack any potential for making Africa a zone not only of long-term interest but also influence. It is an attempt at a short-term fix that’s bound to fail.
Success can only be based on a strong will from politicians and the business community to make sub-Saharan Africa an essential zone of interest for Europe, where the influence benefits both sides. This wouldn’t be a neo-Colonial relationship but a robust partnership. Such involvement in Africa is more than a tremendous opportunity for Europe. It is a strategic necessity. The robust economic involvement of European business is only possible based on strong political support, leading the host countries to respect property rights and the rule of law.
Turkey Sees Africa Partnership Potential
Turkey has recognized the opportunities in Africa and has begun building on a zone of interest there. Turkish business is very active in Africa, and the government in Ankara is getting involved in infrastructure projects—currently on the strategically important Horn of Africa. Turkish Airlines flies to more than 50 destinations in Africa, a clear sign of the country’s commitment. Ankara’s successes have the potential to serve its long-term interests.
Turkey would be an ideal match for European countries in creating a successful partnership with Africa. Further alienating Turkey politically could strengthen Ankara’s alignment with Moscow, although it wouldn’t be Turkey’s first choice. Europe and Turkey would be complementary in a partnership with Africa.
The other alternative—bad for everyone involved, especially Africa—would be if Europe, China, and Turkey (in alignment with Moscow), were to follow conflicting interests in a political vacuum. Along with African countries, Europe also would be a loser in the long term.
Prince Michael of Liechtenstein is the executive chairman of trust company Industrie- und Finanzkontor, and founder and chairman of Geopolitical Intelligence Services. This article was first published by GIS Reports Online.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.