The collapse of the Arab power in East and Central Africa was not a result of Africans playing the West against the Arabs. African and Arab guides; higher technology and the use of anti slavery and Christian missionary movements aided the West's penetration into the region. China has recorded its presence on Africa's social, political and economic horizons. Will Africa play China against the West?
The West dislodged Arabs by disrupting the existing (slave and Ivory trade) market system that sustained their power. They did not seek to empower Africans to take charge of their own destiny. Arabs on the other hand were drunk to the full with the benefits of the market system at that time and cared less to upgrade it. Similarities are playing out with Chinese surge vis-à-vis the dominant Western influence in Africa. The West has never sought to empower Africans against the Chinese (for example through value added productivity on the continent) but similar to Arab days – it is all systems go to access raw materials and markets.
The Chinese have steered clear from Western driven market system that exports global issues to neutralize states' national sovereignty. The Chinese operate under the standard of “non interference in internal affairs of sovereign states.” Africans find themselves in a similar predicament to that of their forefathers once again; two superior hegemonies keen to leave them with spear and shield in the hand.
A little easy to read book entitled, “Tippu Tip: The Story of His Career in Zanzibar & Central Africa” by Dr. Heinrich Brode offers an illuminating exposé on the last days of Arab dominance in East and Central Africa. Tippu Tip (real name Hamad bin Muḥammad bin Jumah bin Rajab bin Muḥammad bin Sa'īd al-Murghabī) is described variously as a notorious slave trader (had 10,000 slaves for himself); a plantation owner; Sultan of Utetera Kingdom; governor of the modern Congo region; successful ivory trader and lead guide to some of the famous Western explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley and Dr. David Livingstone.
Western governments came on the scene powered by superior weaponry (courtesy of the industrial revolution) and advanced technology in medicine, especially against malaria. The West came loaded with more knowledge on Africans (gathered by explorers and missionaries) and benefits of uneven trade in their favor against Arabs and Africans. Under the banner of anti slavery movement – the West successfully found a soft entry point into the African hearts against the Arabs.
African chiefs signed away their territories which according to one British official, Captain Frederick D. Lugard: “No man if he understood would sign it, and to say that a savage chief has been told that he cedes all rights to the company (British East Africa Company) in exchange for nothing is an obvious untruth.”
Tippu Tip and African chiefs found themselves irrelevant. African treasuries full of beads found themselves irrelevant. Arabs and their wooden muskets (wooden guns) that they had once used to subdue Africans through their thunderous sound were replaced by the West's rapid firing Maxim guns. Instead of Africans playing the West against Arabs; the West played Africans against Africans. That is the story of modern day Africa. Africans load their treasuries with foreign currencies without pushing for domestic economic productivity. Africans are unlikely to play the Chinese against the West in the drone era.
To escape the recurring episodes of global systems working against Africans; it's urgent that analysts focus on systems and their impact on local challenges. Availability of abundant natural resources will not of itself liberate Africa. Investment in understanding how the world works is the key.
By James Shikwati
The author [email protected] is Director, Inter Region Economic Network.