Africa Looks East

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from Horne’s forthcoming book on the crisis of US imperialism titled Blows Against the Empire: US Imperialism in Crisis (International Publishers).

“Look East My son. Look East.” Those were the sage words of Kenyan journalist, Wanjohi Kabukuru, as he assayed the results of his President’s visit to Beijing, in just the latest journey from the continent – Africa – most ravaged by the savagery of imperialism and, ironically, where the crisis of US imperialism has become most evident. Of late there has been a growing hysteria in Washington that China is stealing a march on US imperialism, providing an alternative which means that Africa is not bound to bend the knee when their leaders cross the Atlantic.

Kenyans were not wracked with anxiety with this prospect when President Mwai Kibaki arrived in China in 2005. Instead, they were happy that he came home with multi-million dollar loans and grants for improvements of Nairobi’s power distribution system. Kibaki also signed a contract with the Chinese technological giant, Huawei Technologies Company, to provide wireless telecoms to all government district offices and link them with the central government in Nairobi.

Kenyans are not the only Africans who are pleased with China’s peaceful rise for this Asian nation’s trade with the continent as a whole has jumped dramatically, reaching approximately $35 billion in 2005 after growth rates of 50 percent in 2003 and 59 percent in 2004. Chinese entities have invested heavily in copper and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including building roads; it is helping Ethiopia build the continent’s biggest dam; it has helped Nigeria launch a communications satellite and introduced a new anti-malarial drug in Uganda.

China’s economic engagement with Africa is breathtaking and may be the beginning of the end of a destructive cycle for the beset continent inaugurated by the unlamented Slave Trade, which developed Europe and North America as it undeveloped Africa. Now, Africa is beginning to recover as US imperialism enters an era of profound crisis. In the Spring of 2007, for example, Beijing pledged to provide about $20 billion in infrastructure and trade financing to Africa during the next three years, eclipsing many of the continent’s big donors in a single pledge. North Atlantic powers had pledged about $7 billion via multi-lateral agencies, according to Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank. Grants and soft loans from these donors to Africa from Europe, the US and Japan still exceed China’s, though they come with conditions attached and often fail to materialize when these are not met.

The new day for a New Africa was on display in Beijing in the late Fall of 2006. For it was then that all African nations were invited to a two-day summit – even the five nations that recognize Taiwan and not Beijing as “China” were invited to send representatives.

Beijing’s policy towards the Congo is also revealing. For the past decade millions have perished in this sprawling central African nation, the site for this planet’s most destructive humanitarian catastrophe since the end of World War II. Though elections have taken place that added needed legitimacy to the administration of President Joseph Kabila, the North Atlantic powers have been lethargic in assisting Congo. Thus, there was alarm on the part of these powers when Beijing announced in September 2007 that it planned to lend Congo a hefty $5 billion to modernize its decrepit infrastructure, including roads and railways, 31 hospitals, 145 health centers and two universities. And part of the loan will go into Congo’s mining sector, a treasure trove that also includes gold and diamonds. Instead of happiness at the prospect that a besieged Congo was receiving desperately needed assistance, a churlish International Monetary Fund basically instructed this sovereign state to reject funds from China.

Unfortunately, as the African American activist professor, Clarence Lusane, pointed out, arms dealers from the US armed both sides in this fratricidal Congolese conflict. Ultimately the forces backing Kabila – backed by Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe – were able to defeat his opponents backed by Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, who were favored by influential forces in Washington.

The result? As Wamba Dia Wamba, the Congolese intellectual and political leader, noted in the Spring of 2001, “in less than three years, about 2 million have died. There aren’t any good health services, in the war zone, particularly. Soldiers have been using violence on women, so you have quite a few who are victims of HIV….[T]he conditions of life are very bad and the conditions of reproduction, in terms of food, also are not good. In fact a study has said that as m such as one sixth of the population has problems finding access to food.” The fearsome Ebola, monkey pox, vaginal fistula and other diseases and maladies of biblical proportion have taken hold. Though the competition is stiff, Congo – an early and persistent victim of both the Slave Trade and brutal colonialism – probably has suffered more in recent years than any other nation on this planet and the gross interference of global imperialism has played no small role in this process.

This is a point well worth pondering – particularly when one answers a call on a mobile phone. For tantalum, the refined extract of Columbite – or coltan for short – is a critical element in mobile phones. And the Congo supplies a significant percentage of the world’s supply, produced by miners toiling in horrifying, even startling, conditions.

The severe limitations of US imperialism’s policy toward Africa is also revealed in its one-sided policy toward Zimbabwe. China has stepped into the vacuum in Zimbabwe created by sanctions imposed by US imperialism and its sidekick in London. Chinese entities have emerged as the dominant force in Zimbabwe’s economy, which still retains a decent infrastructure of roads and an educated populace. Zimbabwe’s neighbors – notably South Africa and Namibia – still await a reckoning of their own as to how to confront the detritus of the bad old days of European settler colonialism. Intriguingly, as recently as 1998 China ranked only 11th in Harare’s roll call of importers – an indicator of how quickly change has occurred. Yet today informed estimates suggest that there are at least 15 sizeable Zimbabwe-China business deals, mostly involving state enterprises.

Zimbabwe’s wealth of resources – which includes gold, platinum, coal, nickel, diamonds, and the like – guarantees the continuing interest of US imperialism and its allies. These resources – particularly petroleum – also guarantees that Africa as a whole will be of interest to US imperialism. By 2005 this continent provided more oil to the US than the Middle East. Three of the top 10 suppliers to the US by 2005 were Nigeria, Algeria and Angola. Yet, here again the crisis of US imperialism is no better revealed for hands were wringing throughout Washington when in January 2006 China’s state-run oil firm announced it would pay $2.3 billion for a 45 percent stake in a bountiful Nigerian oilfield and then in May of that year President Hu Jintao made a triumphal visit to West Africa.

Because of its lengthy history of anti-African racism and brutal exploitation of the continent – not to mention its hostility to the idea of a state sector at the commanding heights of the economy, which will be Africa’s savior – US imperialism is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to competing with China. Angola has overtaken Saudi Arabia as China’s premier supplier of crude oil and is Luanda’s second largest consumer of oil – behind the US. In March 2006 a new consortium Sonangol-Sinopec International, was unveiled, an enterprise jointly controlled by the state-owned oil company of Angola and China’s Sinopec. Chinese companies have been at the forefront of Angola’s reconstruction bonanza. A new airport is being built at Viana, just outside the capital, Luanda, one-third financed by the government, the rest by Chinese interests. Emerging from the rubble of the Cold War is a formidable China, now rebuilding in a $300 million deal the war-damaged Benguela railway, which stretches from the Democratic Republic to the coast. Chinese loans have allowed Angola to forego funding from the International Monetary Fund – yet another blow to the pretensions of US imperialism.

Oil has fueled US imperialism, but the question Washington must face now is that world oilfields are only just meeting demand and are being drained faster than new production can be brought on line. And this is occurring as China presents an ever more stiff challenge to the hegemony of US imperialism. This provides African nations with a more than viable alternative and makes them less prone to docilely accept the routine bullying of Washington.

The relative decline of US imperialism – the locomotive of world imperialism – may be so significant that it will be unable to arrest the rising of Africa in league with China. US imperialism and British neo-colonialism, who owe their present elevated status to the plunder of Africa, should be in the forefront of aiding the rise of this continent; instead, they abdicate their responsibility in favor of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and therefore create a huge opening for China to ride to the rescue. Of course, given the importance of African oil, it would be a mistake to assume that US imperialism has ruled out the possibility of military intervention in Africa itself – though one could easily imagine that the presence in their ranks of African Americans may give Washington pause.

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