By Olumide Ijose
On November 15, 1884, the Berlin Conference kicked off and by its conclusion on February 26, 1885, Africa had structurally been positioned for long-term economic exploitation by outsiders, slow growth and endless wars.
Western European nations recognized the toxic and noxious broth they were creating but more focused on the economic advantage of their nations and acting in an hitherto unknown manner, a group of white men created countries in another continent, without as much as a consultation or a nod to the history, culture, values norms and sensibilities of the varied people in that continent.
These were representatives of European nations mostly populated by speakers of a single language and a dominant religion. Nations that had lived through centuries of nation-building and resource acquisition wars. Men who knew that organic nations aligned around a common language, culture and belief systems were crystallizing in Africa, but chose to ignore that in favor of economic exploitation supported by military might.
The Berlin Conference created countries that were mere expressions, amalgamation of long existing and independent ethnic groups and tribes. Complicated countries that till today, struggle beneath the heavy yoke of tribe, ethnic and religious tensions, many seemingly oblivious of the difference between countries and nations.
Europe benefitted immensely, economically and culturally, from trampling on Africa. The economic benefits were so substantial that direct political rule over the continent ended due to factors and forces beyond their control. But by far, the most egregious aspect of colonial exploitation was a clear lack of interest in creating a political framework that was national in outlook and capable of a fundamental reliance on merit in pathways to political office.
Europe concentrated on making Africans feel inferior to Europeans. Rather than document oral African history, history was written in a tone of European superiority. Mungo Park a Scottish explorer the first European to sight the great River Niger, became a folk hero. His sighting of the Niger was taught to Africans as if he was the first human to ever see the river. Great lengths were taken to make Africans feel uncivilized. The process leading to independence was used to size-up the main political actors. Those who saw through their world-view were denied access to power or assassinated.
Countries like Ghana, where an insightful individual obtained power, soon found themselves confronting the reality of a global economic system, with rules forged at Bretton Woods to favor Europe, America, Australia and New Zealand. The limitation of revenue from an agricultural commodity in diversifying a rural economy quickly became clear. That the global financial system and multinational corporations were unwilling to invest in local production capacity, beyond a toe-hold quickly became apparent.
A country like Nigeria, where power was passed onto those deemed to be nonthreatening, soon succumbed to ethnic rivalry and a military coup. In short-order, a truly federal constitution, more anchored to the development needs of the different ethnic groups, was replaced with a centralized and unitary constitution, that facilitated domination by the Fulani ethnic group and aligned interests.
The mission and role of Europeans in Africa was calculated and clearly thought out. An end-game, continued economic exploitation, regardless of nature of direct political control was always the goal. Unfettered access to raw materials and strategic minerals and metals was paramount. Economic growth and job creation in Europe was the direct interest.
Sixty years and counting, since the great wave of independence, real economic growth in Africa stories not close to bending the production curve to advantage Africa. Value added remains in low single digits, governments are typically controlled by a tribe or ethnic group and raw material, strategic minerals and metals, remain under the control of outside entities.
So deep and thorough was the work of Europeans that institutions in Africa are still not robust. The ability of the typical African country to deliver the ten percent real growth rate China routinely generated between the 1970s and 2010s, remains an ordinary potential.
Over the same time period, continued birth rates but better healthcare resulted in explosive population growth. The world became more interconnected with transportation and virtual capabilities those at the Berlin Conference could not imagine. China became an economic superpower and great competitor in extracting resources from Africa. Like Europeans, China became adept at extracting multiples of whatever investment it made in Africa. China also perfected the process of granting loans for high profile but low grade investments, recipient countries find hard to repay.
The increasing economic and jobs challenge China poses to Europeans everywhere represents an opportunity for the Biden administration to rethink America’s strategy towards Africa. It is clear that the loss of good manufacturing jobs to globalization was a loss of jobs to China. Could the existence of a correlation between hollowed out manufacturing jobs and the increase of populist and more insular thinking in America and Europe be in doubt?
The outgoing Trump administration operated an American first economic and trade strategy. The strategy was disassociated from the normal America first strategy, one nestled in institutions and alliances and subtle but powerful. While the Trump administration used economic sanctions, the prior Obama administration was in the process of joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
The failure of sanctions to slow China’s technological advances to a point where jobs would return to America in their millions, has created an opportunity to return to multilateralism. Yet, the Trump administrations effective populism heightened the adversarial relationship with China to a point where a Biden administration has to think twice before entering any pact resembling TPP. In fact president-elect Biden didn’t mention TPP during the presidential campaign.
In engaging with Africa, the Biden administration will have a historic opportunity to right the wrongs of the Berlin Conference while also creating conditions to slow down a rampant China. Redrawing the map will be challenging but the new administration would be positioned to enact policies that would help deliver strong economic gains in the countries created in the Berlin Conference.
To achieve that, the administration will need to support a quick maturing of political processes, practices and systems in sub-Sahara Africa. It would have to strongly and deliberately support the emergence of political figures that are polar opposites of those encouraged and supported to govern African countries by colonialists at independence.
Ijose, a Professor of Strategic Management and International Business, wrote from the United States.
To be continued