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Henning Melber presents a “state of the continent” report and comments on the “new African order” as designed by the global power structures of the World Economic Forum.

Almost 50,000 people from social movements all over this world gathered in Nairobi during the second half of January at the World Social Forum (WSF). Originally initiated in the Brazilian city of Porto Allegre a few years ago, it is organised as a counter meeting to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) during this time of the year in the Swiss town Davos. The WEF brings together those in command of politics and economy in this world and those “celebrities” who like to be close to them. They represent a world in which Africa remains at the receiving end of the global power structures and increasingly again the object of external interests. This article summarises and comments upon recent developments on the continent.

Old wine in new bottles

It is anything but new that the African continent’s human and other natural resources are the object of more or less systematic looting from the outside world. Who still believes that “globalisation” is a very recent phenomenon simply needs to look in an African perspective on the devastating impact of the slave trade to understand, “how Europe underdeveloped Africa” (so the title of a seminal book published by the late Walter Rodney during the early 1970s). Already Karl Marx had observed (though in a rather insensitive language) in his Critique of the Political Economy that the hunt for black skins signalled the dawn of capitalism.

Since the days of the Trans Atlantic human resource transfer various subsequent forms of brutal exploitation through colonialism and imperialism were ultimately by means of formal decolonisation processes at least modified. But the “winds of change” created sovereign African states, whose societies remain to a large extent characterised by the structural legacy of an externally oriented dependency. Beneficiaries of such limited socio-economic development are still mainly externally based, with the limited participation of – all too often parasitic – small local elites, who exploit their political control over national wealth for their own gains.

They collaborate with those operating from the outside offering them the most convenient (and unashamed) access to the small slice of the cake they are able to keep for themselves in such sell out deals. Seen in this light, some (if not most) of the recent critical accounts of the aggressive expansion of Chinese interests into African countries and societies and their collaboration with local autocratic elites and despots has a hypocritical taste or at least bears traces of amnesia. After all, the Chinese penetration only rears the ugly face of predatory capitalism, which for far too long has already abused the dependency of the majority on the continent. One therefore is tempted to wonder, if the concern expressed is actually not more about the Western interests than about the welfare of the African people, given that what we witness today is anything but new with regard to its forms and effects. While this critical observation does not exonerate the at times appallingly imperialist nature of the Chinese expansion into Africa, it does undermine the credibility of those critics, who find no similar words for the other forms of imperialism, which for far too long had (and continue to have) crucial responsibilities for contributing to the state of misery many of the African people are in.

Africa since the end of the bipolar world order

The collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of a more than forty year period of bloc confrontation was by no means “the end of history” (as suggested by Francis Fukuyama). It was the beginning of a new global order for hegemonic rule with far reaching consequences also for African governments. Gone were the days, where in midst of a Cold War some manoeuvring space for limited opportunistic bargaining existed, which allowed for a bit of strategic positioning. Not that this was necessarily to the best of the African people: all too often, this constellation encouraged and protected self-enrichment schemes for dictators and/or small local elites through forms of rent seeking or sinecure capitalism, as examples from A (like Angola) to Z (like Zaire) document. The bi-polar world order was in no ways a suitable breeding ground for development “from below”, but offered parasitic agents the opportunity to position themselves as satellites in return for their own gains within the East-West polarisation.

The consolidation of the US-American dominance during the 1990s and its impact on the global order resulted in several changes also for the African continent. A regionally inter-linked “appeasement” strategy (with the Russian retreat from Afghanistan and the Cuban withdrawal from Angola) secured in Southern Africa the final decolonisation of Namibia (1990) and paved the way for an end to Apartheid and democratic elections in South Africa (1994). During this period the economic paradigms represented by the international financial institutions (World Bank and IMF) resumed the only power of definition. The World Trade Organisation (WTO) emerged as the broker to regulate comprehensively binding the global exchange relations of goods. The most to say in these regulating processes with far reaching implications for not only “classical” trade relations but wider defined exchanges has the club of the G8 members, which defines the rather one-sided rules of “global governance”.

Towards a new African order: NEPAD and AU

Significant inner-African dynamics complemented at the beginning of this century the global re-arrangements. With the democratically elected and legitimised new governments in South Africa and Nigeria the two economic powerhouses on the continent South of the Sahara left behind their pariah status. Based on internal and international acceptance, they resumed leadership roles in international policy arenas. At the turn of the millennium presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo emerged (with active support by Senegal, Algeria and Egypt) as new figureheads representing the collective interests of the South and in particular Africa vis-à-vis the industrialised Western countries. Originally tasked to negotiate debt cancellation arrangements in direct communication with them they moved on to seek new forms of interaction under the premises of the acknowledged socio-economic premises as defined by the WTO. As kind of junior partners in the global market they became the architects of what was finally termed the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

After some incubation period and assumingly intensive political negotiations behind closed doors this blue print was upgraded to the status of an official economic programme and institution of the African Union (AU). The AU itself was a parallel transformation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). In the course of its change it undertook some significant corrections to the hitherto established continental policy pillars. Most importantly it moved away from the erstwhile almost holy principle of non-intervention into internal affairs of member states.

With a lot of confidence and trust and substantive political support offered by the G8 since its 2001 summit in Genoa the NEPAD-architects could bring back home the reassuring message that the industrial West is on board and willing to support the initiative. This contributed to the acceptance both in Africa as well as by the United Nations system, which in a General Assembly resolution officially recognised NEPAD as the economic programme for Africa. While this looks like a success story, the critical policy issues were to some extent at the same time aborted or at best watered down. The good governance discourse in line with the new uni-polar world system and to some extent imposed by the Western-capitalist hegemony was after all not only cosmetic rhetoric, but in some parts indeed a meaningful deviation from past practices of unquestioned autocratic rule by African despots and oligarchies.

The AU Constitution was adopted at the same summit in Durban when NEPAD was incorporated. It introduced a collective responsibility so far absent, justifying joint intervention for specified reasons. This has in the meantime provided several results, as cases like Darfur, the DRC, the Ivory Coast, Liberia and Togo have among others shown in different ways (and varying degrees of success), all seeking to contribute to conflict reduction or enhanced legitimacy of the political systems. In contrast to this new responsibility, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), conceptualised by NEPAD as a cornerstone for enhancing the notion of good governance, did not meet the expectations. The disappointment over non-delivery was maybe biggest when it came to the absence of any determined policy action by the NEPAD initiators in the case of Zimbabwe (where the South African president preferred his so-called silent diplomacy to any meaningful political intervention). Nonetheless, the demand for democracy, human rights and respect for constitutional principles articulated by the NEPAD blue print as a prerequisite for sustainable socio-economic development might have been a contributing factor to the new phenomenon of an increasing number of African heads of state more or less voluntarily (and peacefully) vacating their offices (which does not mean that the rotten apples have been eliminated, as Museveni, and even – though less successfully - Obasanjo as well as some others have shown in their recent efforts to extend their stay in office beyond the originally stipulated period of time).

New multi-polar tendencies and the competition for securing African resources

Systematic new efforts to access African markets and tap into the local resources became visible with the adoption of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) by the out-going Clinton administration. Through this initiative the USA openly underlined the relevance of the African dimension for its external trade relations (Africa ranks higher than Eastern Europe in the US trade balance). The break down of the AGOA trade volume, however, also discloses that with the exception of a few smaller niches (e.g. the temporary opportunities created for a locally based – though not owned – African textile industry with preferential access to the US market) the trade volume is mainly composed by exporting US-manufactured high tech goods and machinery and importing oil, strategic minerals and other natural resources for meeting demands of US-based industries.

Soon after AGOA was enacted, the trade department of the EU headquarters in Brussels initiated negotiations for a re-arrangement of its relations with the ACP countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific through so-called Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). The declared aim was to enter a post-Cotonou agreement phase meeting the demands for WTO compatibility. The EPA negotiations have since then entered critical stages meeting the resistance of many among the ACP countries. They are afraid of losing out on trade preferences and feel that Brussels seeks to impose a one-sided trade regime in its own interests, which also denies the declared partners the right to autonomous negotiations by re-drawing the map of regional configurations in Africa to comply with EU expectations.

Both initiatives, AGOA and the EPA negotiations, seem to reflect less so the genuine desire in fairer trade than securing access to relevant markets not least in the own interest of the USA and the EU. The competition for preferential trade agreements with South Africa (successfully negotiated by the EU during the late 1990s and currently facing an impasse with regard to the USA) are illustrating at the same time the point, that the industrialised states are anything but sharing the same interest when it comes to securing their individual links with other countries.

The new offensive pursued by China, which expands aggressively into African markets and seeks access to the fossil energy resources and other minerals and metals it urgently needs to fuel its own further rapid industrialisation process, adds to the rivalry and conflicting interests. In a matter of time, India, Brazil and Russia (as well as a number of other actors such as Malaysia and Mexico) are likely to add further pressure on the scramble for limited markets and resources. This new stage of competing forces on the continent has resulted in a plethora of recent analyses dealing mainly if not exclusively with the Chinese impact and practices. Interestingly enough, the EU and US-policies and practices seem to almost fade away from the picture. The current type of Cassandra-prophecies presents at times a rather one-sided story. Such selected narrative tends to downplay if not ignore the damaging external effects, which the existing socio-economic imbalances and power structures have created and consolidated. It appears at times, that the criticism raised towards China is more so an indicator of an increasing fear for losing own interests than for being motivated by a genuine concern for the African people.

Into more dependency or towards enhanced manoeuvring space?

The global initiatives for liberalisation under the WTO regime pose the question, if the markets and producers in the so-called developing countries are able to meet the challenges of a relatively free competition with the industrialised world or instead would require continued protection. At a closer look, it becomes obvious that this is a question wrongly posed. It had been indeed the markets and producers of the industrialised OECD countries, which were one-sided beneficiaries of state protection and distorting subsidisation policies. This turned any form of proclaimed fairness in trade and market relations into an illusion and ideological humbug.

Those advocating a liberalisation of trade relations contribute to the misperception that such steps would be identical or at least similar to a de-regulation of exchange relations with goods. As a matter of fact, the trend is quite the opposite. The so-called liberal global trade structures and networks have never before been to such an extent contractually defined and put into clauses. Numerous additional rules, such as hygienic and sanitary specifications, regulate access to markets even more so at times than tariffs. They are open to abusive control resulting in undue pressure and could turn into a tool for sanctions in cases of disagreement.

The historically-structurally disadvantaged societies should however at least be enabled to gain socio-economic strength based on own initiatives. This requires a framework, which would as a matter of principle allow for a kind of protectionist policy as legitimate survival strategy to empower local producers and foster own markets. This could create preconditions, from which in subsequent exchange relations the people in both the industrial as well as the African societies could benefit (but maybe at the expenses of unhindered profit maximisation for those who earn most).

With new rivals such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and a series of further countries at the threshold to meaningful own industrial production the competition for entering favourable relations with African countries might increase. This is in itself not negative to the interests of the African people. But it requires that the tiny elites benefiting from the currently existing unequal structures put their own interest in trans-nationally linked self-enrichment schemes behind the public interest to create investment and exchange patterns, which provide in the first place benefits for the majority of the people.

Selected Further Reading

Alden Christopher/Daniel Large/Ricardo Soares de Oliveira (eds) (2007), China Returns to Africa: The Politics of Contemporary Relations. London: Hurst
Broadman, Harry G. et. al. (2007), Africa’s Silk Road. China and India’s New Economic Frontier. Washington: World Bank
Brüntrup, Michael/Henning Melber/Ian Taylor (2006), Africa, Regional Cooperation and the World Market. Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute (NAI Discussion Paper; 31) (accessible for download at
China in Africa. South African Journal of International Affairs, vol. 13, no. 1, 2006
Fombad, Charles Manga/Zein Kebonang (2006), AU, NEPAD and the APRM. Democratisation Efforts Explored. Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute (Current African Issues; 32) (accessible for download at
Manji, Firoze/Stephen Marks (eds) (2007), African Perspectives on China in Africa. Nairobi & Oxford: Fahamu
Melber, Henning (2002), The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – Old Wine in New Bottles? In: Forum for Development Studies, 29(1), S. 186-209
Melber, Henning (2004), The G8 and NePAD – more than an elite pact? University of Leipzig Papers on African Politics and Economics (ULPA), no. 74
Melber, Henning (ed.) (2005), Trade, Development, Cooperation. What Future for Africa? Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute (Current African Issues; 29) (accessible for download at
Melber, Henning (ed.) (2007), China in Africa. Uppsala: The Nordic Africa Institute (forthcoming)
Southall, Roger/Henning Melber (eds) (2006), The Legacies of Power. Leadership Transition and the Role of Former Presidents in African Politics. Cape Town: HSRC Press & Uppsala: Nordic Africa Institute
Taylor, Ian (2005), NEPAD. Towards Africa’s Development or Another False Start? Boulder & London: Lynne Rienner
Taylor, Ian (2006), China and Africa. Engagement and compromise. London & New York: Routledge
Tull, Denis M. (2006), China’s engagement in Africa: scope, significance and consequences. In: Journal of Modern African Studies, 44(3), pp. 459-479

* Dr. Henning Melber is Executive Director of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in Uppsala/Sweden. He has been Research Director of The Nordic Africa Institute (2000-2006) and Director of the Namibian Economic Policy Research Unit (NEPRU) in Windhoek (1992-2000).

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