Dan Poulton explores the relationship between the new scramble for Africa and the War on Terror in an article is based on a talk given at the recent Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times festival
To any casual observer of the news the French decision to invade Mali with not just an air bombardment, but with troops on the ground appeared to come out of blue. Many may not have known where Mali was, or weren't sure Timbuktu was a real place. But the invasion had been on the cards for much longer and was part of something much more familiar- the ongoing imperialist project of the 'War on Terror'.
In 2009 US president Barrack Obama tried to dial down the War on Terror, saying it was now called 'the war against Al Qaeda and its associates'. This was not quite as catchy a title, but perhaps that was so we wouldn't think about it too much.
In the days following the invasion, Leon Panetta toured various Southern European countries – including Greece, Portugal and so on, which were coincidentally experiencing major economic crises- and said 'we need to all pull together'- that the War on Terror is back and 'we need a more “agile” NATO to take on the 'security challenges' that arise from the 'Islamist threat' that we are all lead to believe has come out of nowhere. I want to argue that there is a high degree of continuity between the Africa invasion and the War on Terror, which is taking on a new phase. This phase follows some significant events on the world arena which are worth noting.
The 21st Century began with rambunctious calls for a 'project for a new American century' and a prevalence of high flying ideas of American hegemony. The early part of the decade saw western imperialism in full stride in its response to the 9/11 tragedy. Massive conventional mobilisations cost hundreds of thousands of lives and, significantly, were opposed by the domestic populations of the US and the UK, the key drivers of the imperialist project. Protests didn't stop the wars but did cause a massive political crisis. In the past big wars could be used to save political reputations, like Thatcher did with the Falklands war.
But now wars are vote losers. The big strides of US imperialism, although not stopped, were set back by these momentous movements against war. Imperialists had to think again about their strategy. Similarly the Arab Spring was a kick back against US hegemony in the Middle East and caused our rulers to think again. This set the scene for a massive imperialist focus on Africa.
The Arab Spring uprisings had a knock on effect throughout Africa which witnessed popular uprisings far beyond the arc of the Arab Spring.
The US-led War on Terror conflicts were an abject failure even on their own terms. The increasing instability caused by these incursions was even predicted by high ranking figures in the security services who argued western foreign policy would further proliferate terrorism and create destabilisation. The current rhetoric of Islamic insurgents and the imposition of Sharia law have strong parallels with the early stage of the War on Terror.
It's striking how none of the right lessons have been learned from these failed wars. A recent BBC article revealed that European and British military trainers are working to train African troops. It quoted one trainer saying that they had learned useful lessons from their experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's an incredible level of amnesia regarding the mass death, wasted lives and resources that these wars have created.
The scramble for Africa
Another side of what I want to talk about is the old scramble for Africa. I came across an Encyclopaedia Britannica article on the 'military challenges' involved in the colonisation of Africa which said that European trainers were working to train local forces in a process that could take twenty years. This rhetoric is almost identical to contemporary counter-terrorism narratives about battles that could go on for decades as David Cameron recently admitted. The old scramble for Africa involved a twenty year process of co-opting military regimes to get an entry point into the region.
The current scramble for Africa is not simply about the ongoing scramble for resources on the part of imperialist powers. The eurocrisis is an extra motivating factor. The crisis of neoliberalism which began in America in 2008 and then spread to Southern Europe and elsewhere threatens to spread much further still. This crisis has lit a fire under the US imperialists who are experiencing an economy in dire straits which is heading towards the 'cliff edge' we keep hearing about with no solutions in view and both government debt and the deficit increasing.
By way of contrast the old 19th Century scramble for Africa was motivated by a period of rapid industrial expansion fuelled by the industrial revolution. Expansion within Europe had hit a wall with the unification of Italy and Germany and so on. So the European powers turned their focus outwards towards the untapped continent of Africa at the end of the century. This involved both an imperialist scramble between imperialist rivals but also involved partial agreements and marriages of convenience in order to carve up African resources whilst attempting to minimalise inter-imperialist conflict.
Today we have a eurocrisis instead of an industrial revolution. Where previously rapid industrial growth pushed the west into Africa in order to open up new markets, now we have an economic crisis forcing imperialists to try and monetise Africa in an attempt to get some kind of purchase in a tanking economy.
'If we get in the game we can win'
When talking about the New Scramble for Africa it's worth noting that it's not just the left using the phrase, however convenient it may be for the left to bring up the imperialist past in the context of our current liberal democracy. In fact we don't have to look any further than the head of Meryll Lynch Bank of America, a man by the name of Richard Gush, who said that 'a new scramble for Africa is underway' in the economic sphere in terms of the competition for markets and resources in Africa.
We also saw US Secretary of State John Kerry almost putting his foot in it at his inauguration hearing when he said that 'China is all over Africa and we've got to get in the game here, folks, because if we get in the game we can win'. Presumably realising that he wasn't just talking to his mates, he was also being broadcast on TV as well, Kerry tried to cover up this gaff by quickly adding that 'when I say “win” I don't mean win in the cold war sense, I mean win in an economic sense in terms of creating jobs for Americans'.
So the new scramble for Africa is a very real question we need to address. It's important that we don't just seek to understand the significance of the New Scramble For Africa but that we actually oppose any interventions into the continent and also oppose proxy wars and drone wars. Drones and proxies are in a way a partial response to the fact that the anti-war movement stopped conventional wars from being politically viable, at least in the West, forcing the imperial powers to find new ways to be horrendous and new ways of killing people.
It showed that a mass movement did actually force the imperialist powers onto a new track. Of course it's still a nasty and dangerous situation we find ourselves in. This means that it is vital that we don't just try to understand this new phase in the War on Terror but that we organise to effectively oppose this imperialist project as well.
Dan Poulton is a writer and broadcaster. His documentaries critique neoliberal economics and Western foreign policy. See his programme The New Scramble For Africa
Dan is a writer, broadcaster and campaigner. His most recent documentary was The New Scramble For Africa and his documentaries have appeared regularly on the Islam Channel. He is an organiser for Counterfire and a regular contributor to Counterfire site.
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