What's up in Lisbon?

One effect of globalisation, and of China's increased activities in Africa, is that the continent's dependency on the old colonial powers is less strong than before. This may not, however, have exclusively positive implications on African governance.

Gone are the days of perpetuating historically entrenched interests and relations between “old Europe” and its in the meantime sovereign African colonies as unchallenged integral part of a global economic and political system in favour of the imperialist powers. The former hunting grounds for slaves fuelled European early capitalist development and pushed Africa ever since into structural dependency from a world market, which benefited others. Africa remained on the receiving end since then. But with increased competition for its natural resources, African economies emerge as a new attraction for a multiple range of potential partners, allowing the governments more choices than ever before.

The preparations for the EU-African Summit 8–9 December in Lisbon happen in the midst of what could be termed a new scramble for Africa’s resources. At a time when the US-American administration under the outgoing president Clinton enacted the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) to secure mainly its own interests through a new preferential trade scheme, the trade department at the EC 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 an agreement meeting the demands for WTO compatibility. The EPA negotiations have since then entered critical stages. They provoke reluctance if not fierce resistance of many among the ACP countries, who feel that Brussels seeks to impose a one-sided trade regime in its own interests.

Meanwhile China 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 rapid industrialisation process. 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 to the scramble for limited markets and resources. It appears at times, that the criticism often raised these days in the West against China and other potentially emerging competitors is more so an indicator of an increasing fear for losing out on own interests than being motivated by a genuine concern for the African people.

The new situation and the interests guiding decision-making is illustrated prominently by the discussion over Zimbabwe’s participation in the summit. The overwhelming majority of EU member states seem to be prepared to accept the presence of President Robert Mugabe in violation of the own sanctions decided earlier on. The main argument is the concern that his exclusion would result in a boycott of most African countries, weaken Europe’s status among African governments and thereby strengthen the Chinese influence further. More pragmatically, it is also maintained that using Mugabe’s presence for a discussion over the situation in Zimbabwe would allow the further pursuance of a negotiated solution. This could strengthen SADC’s mandate to Thabo Mbeki for seeking an acceptable exit option for the aging despot and a political solution to the ongoing crisis.

The new rivalry between external players strengthens at the same time the political bargaining role of African governments. In the presence of alternatives to the historically established exchange relations, their heads of state can easier agree on signs of solidarity among themselves, threatening to turn a back on Europe if it is not complying with their demands – such as the one to include the Zimbabwean despot in the list of invited guests.

The long lasting dependency syndrome, which characterised the North-South relations, is replaced by a feeling of having alternative choices at hand. While this expands the action radius of African governments, it has not necessarily a positive impact on improved governance. Quite the opposite: it might create new exit options to once again literally be able to get away with murder.
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