Updated: May 6
In the autumn of 1884, key world leaders from Europe, Asia, and the United States gathered at the Berlin Conference to collectively decide the fate of the African continent. Designed to further enrich European claims over African tribes and territories, the conference culminated in the continent’s near total surrender to European colonialism, with then-dominant powers such as Britain, France, and Belgium claiming wide swaths of land separated by arbitrary boundaries that pierced through tribal lands. Whereas 10 percent of Africa had been under European rule in 1874, that percentage grew to almost 90 percent by 1914. The “Scramble for Africa” had begun.
Nearly 140 years later, key world leaders have seemingly once more recognized the growing importance of the developing continent. Between 2010 and 2016, more than 320 foreign embassies have opened in African countries. US aid to Africa has grown to a record $8 billion in fiscal year 2021, while China and Russia have each signed military-related ties with 45 and 19 African countries respectively. Beneath these foreign inroads at African activity lies perhaps, above all else, the growing recognition of the continent’s potential. Africa is projected to house 20 percent of the global population by 2030 and 25 percent of it by 2050. Its current GDP of $3 trillion is expected to skyrocket over the next few decades, while even in the present its average annual GDP growth has consistently beat the global average. Africa, in other words, is a growing continent, and as world powers increase their involvement in the region commentators and intellectuals have been quick to deem such newfound involvement as a second “Scramble for Africa.”
Is this the case? That may depend on one’s impressions of the term in the first place. On the one hand, the initial scramble for Africa was a process of colonization and annexation that coincided with the period of “New Imperialism” over the turn of the 20th century. European powers extended direct governance over ultimately one fifth of the entire world’s land area as colonizing powers sought to find lower prices for and a greater supply of precious natural resources such as ivory, rubber, tin, diamonds, and tea. There’s no denying that the legacy of this scramble can be observed today, as in spite of the post-World War II independence of virtually the entire African continent, regimes in developing countries have held on to extractive and economically damaging institutions from colonial times, such as the business models of rubber plantations in Congo and coal mines in Nigeria.
On the other hand, globally renewed attention to the developing African economy and a resulting increase in political and economic activity may undoubtedly be considered a “scramble,” but it by no means carries the same negative implication that the historical “Scramble for Africa” holds. Western nations yet most notably the United States have sent aforementioned billions of dollars in aid with a focus on social development and democratic government. Even “competing” powers in the region such as China and Gulf states have funneled aid into other productive avenues, mainly infrastructure.
While this “scramble” may be out of the historically similar intention in advancing the economic interests of the respective countries by gaining leverage and better access to the resources of African countries, clearly the difference in this “scramble for Africa” would be the benefit that such African nations are in turn recieving. As Ebenezer Obadare writes for the Council on Foreign Relations, there is a prevailing “assumption that because global power competition is taking place in Africa, the continent is thereby shortchanged,” and that “it takes a certain amount of paternalism and ignorance of history to assume that Africa today is the same as Africa circa 1884.” Such improvement in the African continent, and the prospects for even greater growth, should serve as good news not only to developing countries within the region but to the already developed countries that wish to do trade and invest with them.