Across Africa, outside nations are vying for influence as the economic and military power of the United States decreases on the continent. Post-colonial spheres of influence established over newly-independent African states are no longer relevant. Replacing paternalistic former colonial overseers like France, Britain, and the United States are China, Russia, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates in what resembles the most frenetic “scramble for Africa” since the Congress of Berlin concluded in 1885.
It was at the Berlin conference that the colonial powers of Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Portugal, Spain, Great Britain, and the United States moved to consolidate control over their respective colonial territories in Africa. The African borders drawn in Berlin remain relevant today. With very few exceptions, the African Union recognizes the colonial borders of those of modern-day African states, even though they cut across tribes and ethnic groups and are used to reject secessionist movements.
However, with new international players in Africa, that may change. The role of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) in protecting U.S. economic and political power in Africa has been marginalized with the establishment of a Chinese military base in Djibouti. [pictured right] Talks have been held on a Russian air and naval base in Zeila, a town in the self-proclaimed Republic of Somaliland bordering Djibouti. Russia has also held talks with the warlord exercising control over eastern Libya, General Khalifa Haftar, to establish a naval base at Tobruk, near the Egyptian border. Russia has also expressed an interest in naval bases in the Eritrean ports of Massawa and Assab.
Russian bases in Eritrea would join those previously established in the country by Israel. Two Israeli naval bases reportedly exist in Eritrea, one in the Dahlak Archipelago and the other in Massawa. The Israelis are also said to operate a signals intelligence facility atop Emba Soira, the highest mountain in Eritrea.
There is a major UAE naval base in Berbera, in Somaliland, and a UAE air base in Khadim in Libya. The UAE did maintain a maritime security base in the self-governing region of Puntland in Somalia. However, the Somalis expelled the UAE military after it was announced that the UAE was building a naval base in Berbera, over which Somalia claims jurisdiction. On April 8, 2018, Somali troops boarded an Emirati plane on the tarmac at Mogadishu airport and seized, at gunpoint, $9.6 million worth of U.S. currency. The United Nations charged that UAE authorities handed out cash to voters in the 2017 Somali presidential election to influence the outcome.
In 2017, Turkey announced that it was building its largest military base abroad in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. The expulsion of the UAE from Somalia yielded a 2018 deal that included Qatari funding for the construction of military bases for the Somalia National Army in the country. In December 2017, it was announced that Turkey would redevelop the port on the island of Suakin in northeastern Sudan for use as a civilian port and a Turkish naval base. Sudanese President Omar Bashir reportedly offered Russia the use of a naval base at Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Russia is said to have shown limited interest without a formal commitment.
India is building bases on the Seychelles island of Assumption and the Mauritius island of Agalega, supplementing an intelligence gathering base already established in northern Madagascar. India has also been eyeing a naval base in Beira in northern Mozambique.
The Saudis are planning to establish a military base in Djibouti, joining China, the United States, France, Germany, and Japan, which already have bases in the strategically-located country at the confluence of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden maritime approaches to the Suez Canal. Djibouti has turned into a virtual military bazaar for the Horn of Africa, hosting any nation’s military base if they have the money to pay Djibouti’s kleptocratic president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who originally immigrated from neighboring Ethiopia.
Qatar maintained a peacekeeping force on the Djibouti-Eritrea border until it was ordered out by Djibouti. The force was a casualty of the rift between Qatar and its two erstwhile allies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Djibouti and Eritrea succumbed to diplomatic pressure from the Saudis. Ethiopia, under its first Muslim Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, has attracted the interest of the UAE, which lost its military presence in Somalia and may seek to replace it with a presence in Ethiopia.
Elsewhere in Africa, outside players are also competing for political, military, and economic influence. The hopes of the United States for AFRICOM, established in 2007 by the Bush administration to be a virtual anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency umbrella over Africa, is being threatened by other international players with their own vested interests in Africa, many of which diverge from those of the United States.
The United States overextended its military presence in Africa, from drone bases in Arba Minch, Ethiopia (since abandoned) and the Seychelles to “cooperative security locations” (CSLs) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Obo and Djema in the Central African Republic. In the latter, the U.S. and France, the former colonial power, are now competing for influence with Russia, which has stepped up its security support for the civil war-embattled government of President Faustin-Archange Touadera. China has announced a deal to supply military armaments and equipment to the Central African Republic.
After breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establishing relations with China, Burkina Faso is seeing a rush of Chinese businessmen and development engineers. No longer are Washington and Paris calling all the shots in Burkina Faso.
A similar contest for influence is taking place in Cameroon. France has always considered Cameroon, a former colony, to be in Paris’s sphere of influence. However, the country’s 85-year old president, Paul Biya, recently concluded a military agreement with Russia. The pact will provide Cameroon with military equipment and trainers to help it fight against Boko Haram jihadist guerrillas active in the country. The U.S. and AFRICOM considered the fight against Boko Haram and Al Qaeda affiliates in western Africa and the Sahel region to be purely a U.S. and NATO responsibility. Russia and China are changing that perspective.
The Saudi-Qatari rivalry that has seen shifting alliances in the Horn of Africa is also playing out in West Africa. Saudi and Qatari officials bearing development aid packages and other gifts are crisscrossing West Africa, paying visits to such leaders as Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire and Alpha Conde of Guinea. The Saudis and Qataris are engaged in a major influence operation in Gabon and Chad. Gabon has sided with the Saudis in the Saudi-Qatari rift. Qatar appears to have eclipsed the Saudis in Chad, which had originally sided with the Saudis. The Saudis are also cementing their ties with the Republic of Congo. The UAE has also extended its influence operations into West Africa, with particular focus on Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso.
Israel believed that it had secured a base of operations in Togo, which maintains friendly ties with the Israelis. However, an Israeli-African summit scheduled in October 2017 in Togo was cancelled due to an outbreak of protests against the regime of Faure Gnassingbe, whose father had ruled Togo from 1967 to 2005. Israel is also extending its influence in Libya thanks to the efforts of Canadian-Israeli businessman Walter Arbib, the chairman of Skylink Aviation of Toronto, who acts as an “unofficial” link between Israel and many Arab and Muslim countries.
Similar competition for political, military, and economic influence is taking place across Africa. The traditional patrons in Washington, Paris, and London are being replaced by new benefactors from Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and India, with Israel and Japan also establishing their own links to various African governments. The scramble for Africa will only increase in intensity as the insatiable appetite for Africa’s oil, gold, diamonds, and rare earth minerals attracts more global interest.
Previously published in the Wayne Madsen Report.
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Wayne Madsen is a Washington, DC-based investigative journalist and nationally-distributed columnist. He is the editor and publisher of the Wayne Madsen Report (subscription required).