For most Africans, the topic of imperialism is a very charged one. The African continent was almost completely placed under European colonial powers for over two centuries. But relations, or rather interactions, with Europeans go back much further than that, whether it was the trading between Egypt and Greece or the Berbers and the Franks, or missionary expeditions from two thousand years ago. For a couple of hundred years, the Europeans had a booming business trading the lives and bodies of African slaves like the revered spices from the East Indies. And so, for most people, imperialism still arouses feelings of anger and indignation, and it is almost entirely directed at Europeans.
Unfortunately, many Africans have held on to this bloody understanding of imperialism today. The focus in discussions is on the openly gruesome and hostile parts of the imperial experience, the murder, the maiming and the mutilating. Given how charged discussions on this topic can be, there is hardly ever a deeper conversation on the true effects and consequences of imperialism, especially amongst those still suffering from it. This focus edges out all other narratives regarding colonialism and imperialism and prevents a discussion on the underlying causes of colonialism, the tactics used to enter relations with the African people by the different states during that era, the subtler problems associated with imperialism and so on. Only in certain cases, such as the genocide in Rwanda in the early 90s, has the effects of imperialism in contemporary politics been felt.
Africa has generally agreed to accept the legacy of imperialism in the form of the inherited political structures and has codified that through the constitution of the African Union (AU), and it did so voluntarily, not under coercion. The AU also has a very strict policy on changing the colonial borders, which most countries stand firmly behind.
The political systems implemented post-independence were simply a continuation of the oppressive state structures instituted under the foreign powers. Since divide and conquer and favouritism based on identity were still the preferred strategies — the suffering of the people remained unchanged, the opposition to post-imperial state and politics remained the same, regardless of who was in power. And the weaknesses of the state structures allow for opportunist powers and players to exploit them.
Imperialism is still a problem for most countries across the globe which were not independent at the end of the World Wars. While control of these territories was absolute prior to independence, using hard power, in the post-independence period relative control, or soft power, was the order of the day.
Many countries were granted independence due to the geopolitical interests of parties other than the governed peoples. The Soviets were keen on independence for Africa as that meant more potential communist states in the bloc. Americans were demanding freedom for all peoples, in the spirit in which they fought the world wars, in the hopes that they in turn would join the capitalist order led by the USA. It is therefore not surprising that many of the states which gained independence in that era are not bastions of stability today.
The fact that imperial powers previously controlled a certain territory once upon a time pays dividends even today. Traces of previous hegemonies are clearly visible in ties between African countries and their former imperial masters. The United Kingdom has essentially codified its colonial influence through the Commonwealth, while France wields deep influence over countries in the so-called La Francophonie — for example through the Financial Community of Africa CFA Franc. La Francophonie and the Commonwealth are prime examples of what is known as spheres of influence, another remnant of the open imperialism of days gone.
Among Western countries, there is an understanding where they defer to each other in their respective spheres of influence in the internal affairs of their ex colonies. This explains why France is the main power in Western Africa and is spearheading a campaign against terrorist groups in the Sahel, why it takes an active role in the war in Syria, and why Britain is so deeply involved with the Persian Gulf Arab states.
SOFT POWER IMPERIALISM
China was not a colonising power for the last few centuries and so is new to the game of imperialism, which is changing the global balance of power. The rise of China has brought all the above to the fore because it too is taking over and is stepping on toes. China has used the wealth it has been generating for the last few decades to slowly buy influence in African countries. In other words, it is acquiring soft power.
Soft power is the wielding of influence through co-opting the subjects of this influence. It is the ability of states to get other states and territories to do what is required by the former, without the need for threat of, or use of, hard power. Often, the subjects of soft power are fully aligned with the policies of the hegemon.
When imperialism revolved around hard power, it meant near total control over the population and resources of the territory being colonised. That also meant that acquiring the resources of certain countries, and buying/having considerable influence, came at a great cost to the hegemon itself, in terms of financial resources and sometimes even lives lost.
Soft power is a low-cost, low-risk model of hegemony. So, it isn’t the behaviour of China that is unique or the problem today per se, but rather that Chinese actions are an indication of the changing times and adapting models. Today the importance of soft power cannot be underestimated. In the 21st century, it is soft power that reigns supreme.
Many speculate that one of the reasons why U.S. President Donald Trump is opposed by the American Establishment is because of the way he is eroding American soft power with his brash mannerism, his rash actions and his failure to understand the importance of soft power. In fact, Trump’s ascent to power has demonstrated to many the subtle importance of soft power as the gloves have started coming off and compensation is sought for all help provided once upon a time. Trump prefers a hard and fixed value to relationships rather than the quid pro quo approach of modern day politics.
Soft power is providing a new avenue for conflict between the established powers of the world over resources and a few newcomers, and once more, Africa is getting caught in the cross-winds. What is interesting about the imperialism of today however is the number of aspiring hegemons. Many have simply equated carefully cultivated soft power with bought influence and are using it to have their way in their target markets. So now in 2018, there is another attempt to control the continent, or at least co-opt it, in the Soft Power Scramble for Africa. Nowhere is it clearer than in the Horn of Africa.
Somalia: Imperialism Past, Present, and Future
The Horn has not quite recovered from the last bout of imperialism. In the original division of Africa, the Somali territories were split into five administrative regions and shared between Britain (two shares), Italy, France, and Ethiopia. Those regions today are known as Republic of Djibouti, Republic of Somaliland, Federal Republic of Somalia (which legally includes Somaliland), the Somali State of Ethiopia (Ogaden) and the North Eastern Province of Kenya, but to the people of these territories, it is referred to as Soomaaliweyn — Greater Somalia.
In the 20th century, this division lead to one direct war (Ogaden War of 1977–78), one guerrilla war (the Shifta War in Kenya 1964–69), and one civil war (the failed union between the Italian colony of Somalia and British colony of Somaliland 1988–1991). And this historical division is still very relevant in today’s politics.
Today, there is intense competition between several regional and global powers for the resources of, and influence in, Somalia, foremost the UAE, Turkey, Ethiopia, and the USA. Since Black Hawk Down, America has resolved to act from behind the scenes while still maintaining its third largest concentration of troops in Africa in Somalia. America is ostensibly fighting Al-Shabab and regional terrorism, but it is getting increasingly involved in Somali politics.
Turkey is the most welcome of foreign powers in Somalia because of the highly public role it played in ending the 2011 famine, the worst in the country in 60 years. Turkey earned its status in Somalia by visibly, and in a sustained manner, aiding the state and people of Somalia. This has resulted in Turkey being allowed to build a military base in Mogadishu.
There is, however, a rivalry in the Middle East between Turkey and Qatar on one side, and UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other side. In an effort to match Turkey’s base, the UAE has signed agreements to build a base and run the main naval port in the southern Red Sea in Somaliland, which de facto is an independent state but which de jure is a part of Somalia. Consequently, the UAE has been ejected from areas of Somalia under the federal government’s control. The UAE has also built a port and base in Eritrea, north of Djibouti. Turkey, in response, is building a Red Sea naval base and port in Sudan.
Now, there is even talk of Russia trying to acquire a military and naval base in the Republic of Somaliland (where the USSR had a base during the Cold War). Given the strategic value of the Horn of Africa, the competition is only getting fiercer.
The Republic of Djibouti has essentially become a military enclave where rival powers can build bases within a stone’s throw from each other. The USA, China, Japan, France, and Italy all maintain troops there. Already, there are conflicts between the Americans and the Chinese, with the former levelling allegations against the latter that is actively attempting to sabotage its activities in Djibouti.
While African states can, for the moment, play these powers against each other in exchange for resources, the nature of these deals indicate that there will be a price to pay in the future. It will become apparent in the not-so-distant future that housing the militaries of two rival superpowers a hair’s breadth apart is not sustainable and a recipe for disaster. Soon, when the situation becomes untenable, choices will have to be made. What will be the consequences for Djibouti?
GHOST OF IMPERIALISM FUTURE
Dark clouds are gathering in the African horizon and that does not bode well for the continent. While there has been economic growth across the board in Africa, even in fractured Somalia, more conflicts are erupting, more wounds are festering, and more fault lines are appearing. This is mostly due to Africa’s collective refusal to deal with the legacy of colonialism, and hard imperialism. This is the result of the continental decision to bury its head in the sand, as is reflected in official AU policy.
The states of Africa, or rather their borders, were carved with injustices, a situation inherited and perpetuated by Africa collectively when it refused to discuss politics in the newly sovereign territories which created the AU. Of course, the African leadership has, or rather had, legitimate concerns regarding the composition of states in Africa and were afraid that they would be opening Pandora’s box if they reopened the issue.
But the experience of the last 60 years has taught us that it would be better to discuss this now rather than let it be resolved by more bullet further down the road. The conflicts in Rwanda and Somalia in the 90s were the result of hard-power imperialism and its legacy. But the situation in Somalia today is a warning to all of the destructive impact of soft-power imperialism and the future that awaits the continent if things are allowed to continue unaltered.
Africa needs to get its act together and start looking to the future. The identity politics ideas, which are the proliferating the world, are not suitable for a continent as diverse as Africa and should be avoided. The nation-states of the world as we know them are not suitable for the continent. The political class needs to ensure resources are diverted to where they are needed the most, which is education. Relief from the daily miseries must be provided to the youth, the overwhelming majority on the continent, to give them a chance to develop themselves and their countries properly.
And although victim-blaming is never productive, we must nonetheless learn from the mistakes of the past. Africa would do well to remember the age-old adage: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.