Despite an extended period of civil and inter-state wars, ethnic strife and external intervention, Africa is said to be showing certain positive prospects of political change, economic stability and development. Not only have many African states shown signs of prosperity and peace but also foreign direct investment has increased too.
However, ground realities of Africa and the magnitude of problems ranging from political and economic to social still defy the ‘prosperity’ and ‘spring’ discourse on Africa. Poverty is rampant, peace is still a dream to be materialized across the continent, and civil wars are still hanging on the heads of most of countries of Africa. Foreign direct investment has increased over the years; however, its reason is not merely the emerging prosperity of the continent. It is an indirect indication of the umpteen people living still below the poverty line. In other words, the most attractive part of Africa, for the global capitalists, notwithstanding huge reservoirs of natural resources, is its cheap labour. It is an intrinsic characteristic of modern or the so-called ‘late’ capitalism that it thrives in favourable conditions; and, availability of cheap labour is a fundamental pre-requisite condition for capitalism to thrive. Needless to say, Africa’s is the cheapest labour in contemporary times. No wonder, most of the modern capitalist states, including China, have started making politico-economic ingress in Africa on a very large scale. It is for this reason seems to be logical when someone argues that there is no dearth of countries willing to invest in Africa.
As such, China is most often in the headlines and its influence in Africa is visible in the stadiums, parliaments and roads it is building across the continent. But other emerging nations including India, Brazil and Turkey are also making their mark as investors, importers and providers of aid and technical assistance. The African Economic Outlook report says, hinting at the paradox of the ‘rising’ Africa, that while there is no evidence to suggest that the new players are hindering Africa`s industrialisation, debt sustainability or governance, “Africa needs a clear engagement strategy and all sides must show greater transparency.” Even if one can accept the thesis of development in Africa on its face value, it is difficult to deny that the so-called development is not bringing problems of a new sort, which hitherto were not considered either to be important or were simply set aside in the face of more ‘crucial political problems.’
Paradoxically, despite all claims of development, a huge segment of African population still does not have access to clean drinkable water. According to a report of World Water Council, today, about one third of the total population lack access to water and about 313 million people lack proper sanitation. As result, many riparian countries surrounding the Nile river basin have expressed direct stake in the water resources hitherto seldom expressed in the past. In other words, a new form water geo-politics is emerging in Africa—hence, new avenues of War and conflict. In the absence of consensus, regulatory frameworks, mutually agreed modalities of sharing water, the tendency of conflict escalation across the continent is high.
The fact that water has become a strategic commodity has certainly increased probability of triggering conflict. In the case of Africa, Egypt’s hegemony over control of water resources of the river Neil has started to push many countries against it. The case of Ethiopia can be taken as an example, which has been pushing its demand for more access to water resources from Egypt in order to develop hydroelectric power plants along the river Neil. But Egypt would simply not let it happen, given the fact that the Neil has been a source of wealth, both material and immaterial for her since many centuries.
As such, Ethiopia’s plans to build a multibillion dollar dam on the Nile River spurred the ex-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi – whose country lies downstream from Ethiopia – to vow to protect Egypt’s water security at all costs. “As president of the republic, I confirm to you that all options are open,” and that; “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.” However, it cannot be overlooked that rapidly changing and deteriorating conditions in countries like Sudan and Ethiopia are creating a very hostile atmosphere among the dominant and the dependent states. Against the backdrop of high population growth, global warming, global economic crisis natural disasters, political fragility, pollution and resource depletion, industrialization as well as urbanization, high capital cost of water drilling, poor rural electricity for pumping underground water have impelled these riparian countries to challenge Egypt’s control, to re-negotiate earlier water treaties and abrogate all attempts by Egypt to control the use and development of water resources over the Nile basin.
Now the sheer fact that the Nile river basin is the largest one in the world, and that around ten states comprise it give it an unusual geo-strategic and geo-economic significance in the geo-political landscape of Africa. The unusual situation emerging in the Nile river basin and the consequent tensions have attracted the United Nations organizations interventions and other international organization, notwithstanding the US’ own geo-political maneuverings both with Egypt and Ethiopia, on matters concerning the distribution and allocation of water resources.
Paradoxically, what has now intensified struggle over control of water resources and calls for better management of resource is the very impact of development and modernization and its negative consequences. That is to say, industrialization across the Nile basin has contributed massively to depletion of essential material resources in the Nile river basin, which is further causing high rate of unemployment, diseases and hunger in the countries depending on water resources. In addition to it, feasibility of farming along the Nile, which has become one of the major sources of livelihood for communities living along the concentrated Nile river basins, has also increased the intensity and rate of drought, famine and land degradation, which have in turn heavily impacted the water resources in the Nile river basin. The Environmental Protection Agency in its 2010 report also argued that land degradation and deforestation in the river basin due to excessive burning for land cultivation in many parts of the Nile River has virtually eroded the oasis making it extremely tough for cultivation and water conservation.
This paradox of ‘development’ in Africa also points out another related problem. The claim of many western and non-western investors that economic growth leads to urbanization and that urbanization leads to gradual emergence of democracy also appears to be problematic in African context. This claim has overlooked an important ground reality of Africa, that is, despite ongoing rapid urbanization most African populations remain predominantly rural. An unmistakable evidence for this fact can be had from the above given description of the increased use of the resources of the Nile river basin for farming and agriculture—both being crude indicators of the state of development and the predominant general quality and standard of life.
In fact, what has also recently spurred water relayed concerns in Ethiopia and Sudan is, to an extent, foreign direct investment. In this behalf, the arrival of China on the African scene has given upstream countries financial and technical options that were simply unavailable to them during the 20th century. For decades, Egypt, through its alliance with Washington, was able to stop any funding by the international financial institutions for upstream hydro-infrastructural projects with the argument that it would be ‘politically destabilizing.’ However, Chinese bankers and engineers have been less responsive to such arguments and have enthusiastically ‘helped’ Sudan and Ethiopia to implement their incredibly ambitious dam projects, which are expected to transform the regional political economy. Ethiopia and Sudan combined have built, are building and are further planning to build more than 25 big hydro-electric dams to improve water security, bolster food production and generate electricity for industrialisation.
Chinese and other foreign presence and investment in Africa has also ‘positively’ affected and speedified extraction of mineral resources, as also of gas and oil. However, although these resources are being certainly converted into ‘national’ wealth, governments have yet to ensure, and in fact are far from it, that these resources benefit the general population. In such a scenario, with both internal and external pressures on Africa, the stakes are pretty high. Africa`s largely `jobless` economic growth is almost a waste of the continent`s most valuable resource: its young people. Also, in parts of the continent, unemployment is fuelling political violence and recruitment into armed groups, including the Islamist extremist movements. Needless to say, with the population set to double from one to two billion over the next four decades, governments have to ensure that the youth bulge— Africa has the youngest population in the world—is securely transformed into a true demographic asset, instead of becoming a liability, by providing employment and economic opportunities to young people. And, the youth can be positively accommodated only when economy grows, not just foreign direct investment.
Although investment in the last few years has increased, however, continuity of investment in Africa is contingent upon some other factors. According to a (2012) report of the World Bank, growth rate for Sub-Saharan Africa was to be 4.8 percent, but that this could change in the event of contagion from the eurozone crisis and the slowdown in China, Africa`s leading market for commodities. Similarly, although after 10 years of high growth, an increasing number of countries are moving into “middle-income” status, defined by the Bank as those countries achieving more than $1,000 per capita income, and foreign direct investment has also increased, however, so have increased conflict and political instability too. The case of Libya, Egypt, Mali and currently of Sudan many be taken as examples.
Another usually sighted indicator of development is the rapidly rising rate of urbanization. In 1980, just 28 per cent of Africans lived in cities. By 2030, this share is projected to rise to 50 per cent, and Africa`s top 18 cities are expected to have a combined annual spending power of $1.3 trillion. But private sector is still at an embryonic stage of development and is crucial for sustaining the ‘expected’ high growth rate. Similarly, corollary to this aspect is that of the rising middle class. Contrary to all talks of an emerging middle class, a considerable majority of Africans still continue to live below the poverty line, and as mentioned, live on agriculture and farming for meeting the very basic needs of life.
Above all, corruption and ethnic conflict are hindering the way for laying a strong foundation of economic growth. As a matter of fact, to-date, almost every country in Africa is still haunted by historical injustices and oppressive structures that were bequeathed to the post colonial leadership. This is an aspect which informs the weak institutions of the state, flawed legislative systems and constant struggles for political power to the detriment of the well being of many nations, which could have moved on a path of development as part of modern societies. While the international community, whose geo-security and resource interests seem to benefit from the status quo in Africa, has not been pro- the establishment of functioning systems in Africa, instead, their involvement, continues to undermine Africa’s stability through the militarization of conflicts for accumulative purposes.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.