Malawi and the new scramble for Africa

By Wadza Otomani

The new scramble for Africa is real. This will not be a new experience for Africa. In 1884/5 European powers met in Berlin, Germany, where they divided Africa among themselves.

They saw a continent that was poorly defended but has vast natural resources. Without consultation with the land dwellers, Europe descended upon Africa and took everything for herself.

For Malawi, then as Nyasaland, became a British protectorate in 1891. The British rule lasted for the next seven decades. But in between, the John Chilembwe uprising in 1915 was the earliest efforts towards Malawi’s independence.

Although it did not have an immediate impact, the Native Associations which were formed across the country two decades later referenced to the uprising. From them came the Nyasaland Africa Congress, later Malawi Congress Party, which fought for Malawi’s independence from late 1950s.

The country became independent in 1964 during the Cold War. This was an ideological warfare between the West for Capitalism, led by the USA and the East for Communism, led by the USSR, and signified by the Berlin Wall.

The independent Africa was caught in the rage. There were coups and civil wars on the continent which were direct results of which side the leader of a particular country leaned.

Kamuzu Banda in Malawi was aligned to the West, and this was a major reason for his three decade survival despite his poor human rights record. November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany, was the end of the Cold War, and with it the fall of strongmen like Kamuzu Banda as well.

The direct link between the end of Cold War and the fall of such men tells one story: They were mere pawns.

At this point it sounds like Africa was left to thrive and lead its own path. But in reality, the West and East have never left the continent. The relationship merely changes with time and circumstances. But largely, it still remains the same: Africa providing resources which are exploited by the developed nations. Africa still has its vast resources intact like petroleum and minerals, and presently, a growing population that is a huge market for goods and services.

The recent interest of countries like China and India on the continent should not be a surprise. These Eastern powers want to rival the grip of Western powers on Africa.

Other countries like Turkey, Israel and Russia are also into Africa evidenced by the opening of new diplomatic embassies and trade agreements. More importantly, the India-Africa, China-Africa and Russia-China summits.

African leaders are being invited for agreements and concessions with the West giving it a close watch. But there is a catch in the different approaches of these two blocks: The West hooks its aid to demands on good governance and accountability, while the East cares less.

Mutharika and chinese leader Xi Jinping

The latter as well promotes the strongman politics on the continent, that democracy in a Western idea. As long as a leader is delivering, it does not matter how long they stay in power.

This will prove to be attractive to most African leaders who would like to stay on. The need for resources also goes with the need for a leader who can be controlled. This is where the dilemma rests.

Once again, the battle of who leads a country and its resources will mean everything between the West and the East. There are examples of countries such as Russia and France putting their men into power in Niger and Ivory Coast, respectively to ease access to the country’s resources.

Malawi comes in as well. Lacking minerals, just as it was during the Cold War, but it will still be significant. The recent growth in its trade with China has proved it to be a market.

Again, it will be a strategic political presence for whoever wins to be there. Still, there is a need for African leaders, including those in Malawi, not to fall into the strongman politics trap. Even more, it has been proved that countries with good governance and stable institutions are doing better than their counterparts. These are facts to be considered by African leaders when making agreements with these emerging Eastern powers.