When one thinks of global powers – those movers and shakers that drive global politics, few African nations come to mind.
Egypt, certainly; maybe even South Africa, a country that was a founding member of the United Nations and one of the founding members of the African Union.
Beyond that, most of the recognition given to African nations is not for remarkable political accomplishments; they are mostly known for ferocious infighting and being abysmally poor.
Such an opinion does not do justice to the world’s second largest and second most populated continent (after Asia). With her 54 sovereign states and multiple dependencies, the African continent is much more than tribal clashes, reproductive health concerns and destitution.
Today, your Superprof leads the exploration of the so-called Dark Continent.
We’ll examine how this vast region came to be divided up and how the African continent is emerging from traditional tribal rule to take her place on the world stage, one country at a time.
Geopolitics in Africa: From Tribalism to Nation States
In spite of the African continent being where humankind originated from, it only came under scrutiny a little over 130 years ago, and only for its potential riches.
During the late 19th Century, in a period called the New Imperialism, European explorers scrambled to claim overseas territories.
Such was the push on the African continent that it has earned an infamous title: the Scramble for Africa.
Within just a few years, the entire African continent save for Ethiopia and Liberia was divided between seven western European powers – and even those two territories did not remain independent for long.
- France laid claim to much of northwestern Africa
- Germany settled for a few parcels of land scattered across the southern region: Cameroon, Rwanda, Namibia and most of Tanzania
- Portugal’s two major plats lay on either side of the peninsula: Angola and Mozambique
- Spain reaped comparatively little territory: northern Morocco and Equatorial Guinea
- Belgium ensconced herself in the middle of the African peninsula, claiming the Congo, a portion of Rwanda and all of Burundi
- Italy, a relative latecomer to the African pillage, managed to secure Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and Ethiopia
- The British Empire secured for herself vast tracts of land in southwestern and northwestern Africa, as well as a few parcels in West Africa abutting French territory.
These demarcations are important to Africa’ geopolitics because those colonial borders, drawn by European powers, are for the most part how the borders of today’s African nations are drawn.
Besides the goal of laying claim to as much territory as possible, those European powers were interested in the vast plunder of natural resources to be had.
Economic and political gains were not the only considerations leading to the colonization of African lands.
Religious missionaries, intent on converting the masses, set about educating the native population, steering them away from African languages and installing the various European tongues as official languages.
So it came to be that the languages, cultures and way of life of the African people became subsumed by a barrage of new vernacular, ideas and politics.
Naturally, we cannot discuss African history (or world history) without considering the slave trade.
For centuries, the people of west Africa had good reason to fear any ship on the horizon; the possibility of being carted away to serve in distant lands was distinct and very real.
Later, when Europeans settled in Africa, the African people’s relationship with colonisers was largely predicated on the negative sentiment engendered through those enforced separations.
It didn’t help that many colonisers employed slaves on their African plantations.
Fortunately, global outcry ended the trading of humans long before the end of the Second World War, when a wave of independence movements fuelled by the African people led to the end of colonialism and the surrender of lands.
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Since then, the countries of Africa have been establishing their own development goals and are finding partnerships in unexpected quarters.
Resources in Africa that Affect Geopolitics
Angola, Nigeria, Lybia, Egypt and Algeria are rich in oil. The area formerly known as Katanga, in the Republic of the Congo, is rich in minerals, especially copper.
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Sierra Leone, Botswana and Angola bring millions of pounds worth of diamonds to the surface every year.
Unfortunately, the revenue derived from these mining efforts has caused that area to be known more for its rebel movements than for its wealth; an effect that has so far prevented any African nation from competing in global politics on a large scale.
Geopolitics, the study of political relations intrastate and internationally, take into consideration geographical features as well as natural resources of a land; political relations and military power also factor in.
We’ll discuss the latter two in a bit; for now, we need to focus on one aspect of African geography that is in crisis: water.
We all know that the Saharan desert is a vast field of sand with nary a drop of water on the ground.
The Nile, known as the world’s longest river, runs through the eastern part of the Sahara. Other rivers coursing through Africa include the Congo and Zambezi Rivers.
Traditionally, the most water-rich areas were located in sub-Saharan Africa: Lake Victoria and Lake Chad. Today, they are both severely depleted due to drought and water diversion.
Virtually all fresh water sources on the African continent are in trouble and it is rural Africa that is the most impacted. Not only is water becoming scarcer but what is available must meet the needs of all African people.
To make matters worse, surface water is terribly polluted and there is a severe lack of infrastructure to bring groundwater to the surface, let alone to make it accessible in sparsely populated, remote areas.
The water crisis in Africa is a global concern, leading many foreign governments, such as China, to pour billions of Yuan into such massive engineering projects.
Learn all about Asian investment in Africa through our geopolitics in Asia article.
The long and the short of the matter is: for all of Africa’s wealth in minerals and other natural resources, she is a parched land slowly dying of thirst.
Politics and Military in African Countries
If we accept a loose definition of ‘military’ as 'a body of armed fighters', then we must include rebel forces, which gives us a broader picture of fighting in African nations.
The majority of fighting in Africa is not one country against another but insurgents rising up against the established government of their own country.
In some cases, conflicts span several nations.
One example of such is the Ugandan conflict that started as a religious uprising in 1987 and continues still today, with the help of the U.S. military, to capture Joseph Kony and his fanatic followers.
The Sudan Civil War presents an example in which the military, a government entity, actually sided with the people to bring down the existing government.
Among all of the conflicts in countries of Africa, the tribal clashes are perhaps the most brutal: the Rwandan massacre, mercifully short-lived, stands as a prominent example of such.
The prolonged ethnic cleansing in Darfur – unfortunately much longer in duration, is another.
It is now time to take a look at Africa’s developing regions, and how those growing economies are working together to build a better African continent.
Looking at All of the Countries in Africa
On the one hand, the African continent has vast natural resources, including gold, diamonds and oil – the world’s three most coveted materials.
On the other, development and infrastructure are seriously lacking and many African nations are suffering a crisis of leadership.
Did you know that Russia labours under similar geopolitical challenges?
Few leaders of African nations have been able to reconcile ethnic factions that have a long history of enmity, let alone deter those who would rise up to claim a larger share of wealth from the lands’ natural resources.
The gender gap in earnings and in civil rights is more of a gulf; many rural areas still ascribe to traditional views regarding women.
Through this all, foreign powers maintain an interest in the riches of Africa but have shown little interest in African development.
Besides civil matters, one of the biggest problems assailing African nation leaders is resource distribution.
For instance, all of the diamond mines are located in southern Africa; how should Zimbabwe share that wealth with, say, Niger – one of Africa’s poorest countries, while possibly inciting their immediate neighbours' ire by not sharing with them?
And how to manage international affairs when so few people had ever had any large-scale international dealings?
Enter the African Union, an organisation of African nation heads of state and, born to foster cooperation between countries and help manage international relations.
Headquartered in Addis Ababa, this recently-founded group replaces the older Organisation of African Unity, whose main goal was to oversee the end of colonialism and ensure against any future attempts thereof.
This newer union, with 55 member states, is pledged to advance solidarity and cohesion among African nations, to continue with political and social integration throughout the continent and to encourage international cooperation of individual states.
Nobody knows the geopolitical realities of African nations better than African leaders. How they manage the challenges facing them will depend on how well they can work together.
Now take a look at geopolitics around the world...