Greater Power Involvement In “Vacuum Wars” And “Resource Trapped” Countries Of Africa – Analysis


Africa is gaining greater strategic significance for its natural resource abundances including high quality oil, natural gas and valuable minerals. The region known worldwide for violent extremist activities extending almost all over the continent and other potential source of threat from HIV/ AIDS, piracy and illicit trade to armed conflicts and state failures, contains two geo-strategically located shatter belts: one in Northern Africa adjoining Middle East and another in Sub Saharan Africa. Owing to the volatile geo-political situation these shatter belts may any time expand or contract but political vulnerability continues. If its North African Shatter belt implodes it can carry devastating impacts upon whole of Asia and Europe and if similar situation develops in Sub Saharan Shatter belt, it can bring similar havoc to the whole continent posing gravest danger to global peace, tranquility and safe maritime rights over international waters.

In August 1990, noted American political scientist and international relation theorist   John J. Mearsheimer in his provocative article in The Atlantic observed that “we will soon miss the Cold War” for “the conditions that have made for decades of peace in the West are fast disappearing, as Europe prepares to return to the multi-polar system that, between 1648 and 1945, bred one destructive conflict after another.” According to him, we may, any day wake up and lament the loss of the order that the Cold War gave to the anarchy of international relations. What Mearsheimer predicted was reflected some more on Balkans and Eastern Europe and mainly in Africa.

Jakub Grygiel in the American Interest Magazine (July/ August 2009) admits that the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prostration of states such as Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti and Bosnia, and most importantly the terrorist attacks of September 11—created impressions that weak states have unraveled because of the great powers’ disinterest in them. Grygiel further states that the “Cold War had a stabilizing effect in several strategic regions where either the United States or the Soviet Union supported recently fashioned states with little domestic legitimacy and cohesion for fear that, if they did not, the rival superpower might gain advantage”.

The post-Cold War World have exhibited the great power neglect that created the number of failed states starting from within and subsequently generating spills over to other countries ranging from crime to drugs to global terrorism including 9/11.
When a state weakens, becomes fragile or is going to fail, it creates a power vacuum. The stronger country in the neighborhood or some regional or international powers following the nature of international politics develop stronger desire to control the vacuum inside a fragile state for its natural resources or strategic location and that goes on weakening the state until it is declared ‘failed’.

“Vacuum Wars” and “Resource Trap” in Africa

Africa for long has been at the crossroads of great power competition for its tremendous wealth and trade opportunities. The continent, unfortunately being caught in a “natural resource trap” have shown how resources are wasted, considered resources as curse and even lead to destructive behavior from ethnic conflicts to civil wars – claiming lives of millions with unending chaos, anarchy and state failures. Many African countries for its abundances of high quality oil, natural gas and minerals and for pivotal location are further weakened by the strategic interests of major powers. Their invaluable resources are cruelly exploited, divisions among people are created, and political corruption is promoted so that they or their hands can grab the huge prize that a fragile country can offer.

Naturally, when a state fails, it creates a vacuum. And including Nepali people, citizens in weak and fragile countries know it much better that if such states are strategically located in a major geo-political region, directly or indirectly it invites competitive great power intervention following a source of domestic conflicts; that potentially may turn into a source of great power rivalry that in turn may lead to confrontation, crisis and war.

As mentioned above, there are ample evidences to support that when a state fails or becomes fragile, it becomes a playground of both regional and great power rivalry. Grygiel in his provoking essay states that as nature abhors vacuums, so does the international system. He further quotes Richard Nixon when he said to Mao Zedong, “In international relations there are no good choices. One thing is sure—we can leave no vacuums, because they can be filled.” And quite predictably, the power vacuums created by fragile or failed states attract the interests of great powers because they find it easy to expand their influence while weakening their opponents or forestalling their intervention. “A state that decides not to fill a power vacuum is effectively inviting other states to do so, thereby potentially decreasing its own relative power”.

Painfully and paradoxically, if fragile, weak and failed states are rich in natural resources or are strategically located, the competitions among great power overtly or covertly become dangerously complicated and the worst sufferers again are the people living in such weak states. And this further confuses the situation within them – whether it is Afghanistan, Nepal, or any African country falling under this category. When the major traditional power competes to continue its control over natural resources, trade opportunities or strategic advantage or some other country come at front to challenge the conventional power against its so called privileges, again the fragile country has to pay the high price.

America, China and India in Africa

India, although with longer historical linkages, has been late comer in courting Africa in its bid to enhance access to the continent’s natural resources, expand trade opportunities and secure enhanced international influence over African continent. In May last year, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during his six day trip to Africa declared $5-billion line of credit, fund 22,000 scholarships, set up a “virtual university” and support infrastructure and training programs for the region.

But trade with Africa has been fervently in favor of China than India. Africa’s trade with China in the year 2011 was $ 166.3 billion while with India it was $ 46 billion and the gap is expected to widen by 2015. Similarly according to Los Angeles Times while the total Chinese investment in Africa is $ 32 billion the Indian investment is merely about one third of it.

Likewise, while Beijing is making Africa its top foreign policy priority, is sending its Prime Minister or President to the continent almost every year, top-level Indian visits in the continent are fewer and far between, Los Angeles Times reported referring to an African analyst.

The striking differences remain in the participation of African leaders too. In the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) hosted by China in Beijing July this year, 50 African leaders attended the event, while in India-Africa summit in Addis Ababa held last year, it only attracted 15 African leaders.

Concerning security relations between China, India and Africa, a Portuguese scholar- Constantino Xavier says that India faces a specific advantage as a potential security provider in meeting the piracy threat along the Somali and East African coast. It offers Indian Navy a superb opportunity to develop its blue water ambitions along the crucial sea lanes of communications and strategic choke points including in the Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel to ensure their security. Indian Naval capabilities in the East African Waters with its “increased joint exercises, creation of new listening posts and the supply of vessels” including its enhanced delivery capacity, has given India a distinct strategic advantage vis-à-vis China, Xavier says.

The lone super power could not detach from Africa any longer. On February 2007, according to a Report prepared for American Congress, Bush Administration aiming to promote U.S. strategic objectives by working with African states, strengthening regional stability and security through improved defense capability had promised to deter aggression and respond crises. It also announced the creation of a new unified combatant command for Africa named as AFRICOM.

President Barrack Obama, while announcing his comprehensive African strategy in June this year, expressed his belief that Africa as a region of growing opportunity and promise can repeat the next major economic success story. He elaborated his priority to work with African partners to build strong institutions and “create opportunities for Africa’s people to prosper”. Earlier to this the American Government has also allocated $ 8.1 billion development aid packages to Africa for the year 2012.

Recently U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her major policy speech at a university in Dakar Senegal on 1st of August spelt out U.S’s Africa policy based on promoting opportunity for development, spurring economic growth, trade, and investment. She also highlighted American priority to advance peace, security and strengthen democratic institutions.

Beyond doubt, the best strategy for countries torn with ethnic hatred and civil war is to build strong institutions to manage ethnic divisions, promote unity and cooperation among people and prevent war like situations so that ethnic diversity among people may help development than to impede it. But this is possible only when the major powers and their different hands in many shapes and forms stop fanning ethnic divisions among people and search for opportunities to serve their national interests that obviously stand quite contrary to the values that their nation and society has put up for centuries.

This article appeared in The Reporter Weekly and is reprinted with permission.

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai

Keshav Prasad Bhattarai is the former President of Nepal Teachers' Association, Teachers' Union of Nepal and General Secretary of SAARC Teachers' Federation. Currently, he is the Advisor of Nepal Institute for Strategic Affairs (NISS). Mr. Bhattarai has also authored four books -- two of them are about Nepal's Relations with India and one each on educational Issues and Nepal in global Geopolitics.

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