By Robert D. Kaplan and Mark Schroeder WASHINGTON 10/23/2013 @ 10:33AM
There is a new scramble for Africa. Roads, railways and pipelines are being built or envisioned into the interior of central Africa from multiple directions. Africa’s geographic tragedy through the ages has been its isolation, which has been among the main causes of its poverty. Despite possessing a long coastline, Africa has relatively few natural deep-water harbors. Its great rivers are generally not navigable from the interior to the various seaboards. The Sahara Desert has acted as a barrier to human contact with the great Eurasian civilizations. Of course, electronic communications in recent decades have worked to dilute such isolation. But these new pathways may promise a further, pivotal leap in terms of connecting Africa to the outer world.
Looking at a map of Africa with these new and projected pathways highlighted, one sees two major networks into the interior — from southern Africa and from East Africa — and two minor ones from West Africa and from the Horn of Africa.
Three proposed routes into the interior originate in Angola alone, leading mainly toward the southern edges of the immense forest and jungle of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Angolans, flush with offshore oil wealth and feeling secure enough in their domestic control following a 25-year civil war, are a rare example on the continent of intent and capability to extend their economic reach. They are initiating these plans themselves, and Luanda will pay the Asians for their technical expertise rather than barter for it, as most other African governments would do. The goal is to extract diamonds, copper and other precious commodities, which along the southern edges of the Congo have not been properly mined or explored to their full potential.
South Africa plans a complex network of routes from the Indian Ocean northwest and north into Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia, culminating, again, at southern outposts in the Congo. The South Africans are after gold, diamonds, copper and coal. In this sense, the black-dominated African National Congress has the same geopolitical imperative as the former white Afrikaner regime. Mining, which began in the late 1800s in South Africa, created the modern South African state. Indeed, the discovery of gold and diamonds and the blessing of a temperate climate with several natural deep-water harbors set South Africa on a unique geopolitical trajectory, empowering it to become the continent’s economic hegemon. The present goal is to reach stranded mineral resources and create a zone of South African economic and political influence throughout southern Africa, with the potential to expand farther north into the continent later.
The envisioned transport and pipeline network along the Indian Ocean in East Africa goes from both the Kenyan and Tanzanian coasts westward to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, and a spur line could run north from the Ugandan capital of Kampala to the South Sudanese capital of Juba. Ethiopia is reinforcing its rail connectivity to the Indian Ocean at Djibouti, and may eventually extend other links to South Sudan and Kenya. In the East African cases, unlike with the Angolans and South Africans, the financing, the impetus and the know-how must come from the Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese. These Asian countries have a hunger for African copper and cobalt, rare earths and other minerals from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo and hydrocarbons from South Sudan.
These are not entirely new networks, given that the Chinese in the 1970s built a railway into the Copperbelt of Zambia and the southern edge of the Congo (and the Germans, British and Portuguese during colonialism built limited rail networks in their respective colonies of Tanganyika, Kenya and Angola). Now the Chinese want to build a deep-water port in Bagamoyo and the Japanese want to do likewise in Dar es Salaam: Both ports are in Tanzania, with new pathways westward into the interior of Central Africa in each case. The Kenyans have been trying to interest the Chinese in building a port and transport links from Lamu on the Kenyan coast northwestward all the way into the oil fields of South Sudan, but so far at least the Chinese have held back from making a serious commitment. Beijing is sensitive to the consequences of empowering South Sudan with a pipeline independent of Sudan, and prefers instead to ensure that Juba and Khartoum remain co-dependent and thus peaceful in their economic conduct, avoiding any additional costs for crude extraction.
If you look at all of these newly planned routes into the interior from southern Africa and from East Africa, one geographical phenomenon stands out: Every route ends at or near the edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but without really penetrating it. The Congo, even if all of this infrastructure is built, will remain a vast, impassable blank spot on the map despite its abundance of copper, cobalt, rare earths, diamonds and oil, to say nothing of its agricultural potential (which is already its largest economic sector by gross domestic product).
Here, too, geography is destiny. The Congo is both enormous in size — among the largest countries in Africa — with a tropical rainforest difficult to clear, leading to poor communication between its major cities and to a government in the capital of Kinshasa that barely functions in terms of projecting authority. Rather than leading to Kinshasa, transportation linkages serving the mineral-rich regions of Congo are engineered and connected to neighboring regions. Congo is a universe unto itself of civil wars and local fiefdoms divorced from any meaningful central control. The government knows full well its constraints, and thus limits its ambitions to playing the role of kingmaker reliant on powerful barons ruling distant fiefs. So unconnected to the outside world is the Congo that Kinshasa has not even one international hotel chain, whereas just across the river from Kinshasa in the Republic of the Congo, hotel chains are numerous and the French essentially run a vibrant, modernizing country.
With the gaping heart of the African interior as represented by the Congo still destined to remain remote, and pathways reaching around its edges from multiple points along the Indian Ocean and from the adjacent southeastern Atlantic Ocean, we start to see the emergence of the African piece of the Greater Indian Ocean trade and conflict system — a system that stretches from Angola far in the west on the Atlantic to the Philippines far to the east in the South China Sea. In other words, the vast southern rimland of Afro-Eurasia is forming into one organic region, with even sub-Saharan Africa now a part.
Finally, there are the new routes envisioned in the Horn of Africa and West Africa. The Ethiopians want to upgrade their road and rail links from their capital of Addis Ababa to Djibouti near the Strait of Bab el Mandeb, again, on the Indian Ocean. The Ethiopians, having lost their outlet to the sea because of the separation of Eritrea, require a fully reliable export route for their light manufactured and agricultural goods and modest mining wealth. Of more remote interest to the Ethiopians is trade with the interior of central Africa. Transportation linkages Addis Ababa may foster there will find it in competition for scarce financing that the Kenyans and Tanzanians are struggling to mobilize.
As for West Africa, the only exciting advance appears to be a plan to upgrade land links from Abidjan on the coast of Ivory Coast northeast through Burkina Faso into Niger, where there is oil, natural gas and uranium. What infrastructure projects others have constructed in West Africa, such as in Liberia and Sierra Leone, have been extremely limited in scope and utility — to extract resources from a specific mineral concession. Nearby Nigeria, the largest country in West Africa and the most populous country in the whole of Africa, is a landscape of low-level chaos. While Abuja aims to improve infrastructure like roads, rail and power plants, these are often carried out at state or local levels, without national initiative. And none of the infrastructure really links much beyond its borders. West Africa, like the Congo, suffers from an unhealthy climate compared to that of southern and East Africa, and this has helped account for the comparatively lower levels of development.
Thus, all these pathways point to an Africa where there may be exciting economic progress in the south and east — in both cases oriented toward the Indian Ocean — while, for the most part, the rest of the continent languishes in poverty, continued low-intensity conflict and occasional bouts of anarchy.