Barack Obama’s visit to three African countries is a reminder of how important this huge, rich and troubled continent is on the global chessboard. Since China’s rapid rise began – and with it the frenetic search for raw materials and new markets – Africa is at the epicenter of a new scramble for influence and trade. In the international news media, analysts note that the US president is a distant second in his visit to Africa, far behind the leaders of hyperkinetic China.
This is Obama’s second visit to the continent as president, after a brief visit to Ghana in 2009. Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, who assumed office only last March, made a point of making Africa his first foreign destination. His predecessor visited the continent five times over the past decade. The result is that since China began its engagement with Africa in 1996, economic and political ties have developed to such an extent that in 2009 China overtook the United States as Africa’s biggest trade partner – with an annual turnover of about 200 billion dollars, twice that of US-Africa trade.
It is clear that both superpowers are keenly interested in the continent of 54 sovereign states, where six countries were among the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies over the past decade. Indicative of this, the United States and China each have 50 embassies in Africa. The European Union, also, is actively involved, adopting an ambitious development program with African countries with the aim of improving governance and leading to the greater well-being of citizens. Its goals include tackling the effects of climate change, conflict prevention, achieving a sustainable energy market, developing infrastructure, providing food security, dealing with the challenges of migration, combating HIV/AIDS and promoting gender equality. The EU is also the world’s biggest donor, providing 53 billion euros in aid in 2011, despite the economic crisis. According to OECD figures, in that year, EU institutions and some member states provided over 30 percent of aid that went to Africa.
The EU is trying to help establish institutions that will improve citizens’ lives. The US also is promoting the development of institutions and is showing special interest in health but also security, especially after the recent creation of the Africa Command and the deployment of drones in a number of countries. China is concentrating on mutually beneficial agreements, without intervening in the domestic affairs of countries (prompting criticism, from the United States mainly). The Chinese buy raw materials, they develop infrastructure, they establish large communities. They are actively changing the face of the continent.
Africa is entering a new era, with mighty suitors trying to beat each other to its unlimited potential.