USA – Africa reset under the shadow of China: An African perspective. Part 3

Reset of USA-Africa relations and the USA-China competition in Africa

Part I briefly discussed why USA and Africa mattered to each other, and why a reset of their relations was needed.

Part II explored tentative shifts in US mindset, narrative, strategy, and policy towards Africa.

This Part III, the last, argues that for Africa to credibly request changes from other nations, the continent should first implement changes at home. China is haunting the bilateral relations between the USA and African states; the reset of those relations cannot therefore ignore the Chinese dragon in the African room. Part III compares US and Chinese approaches to Africa and wonders whether America is a different kind of world power.

A – Testing Africa’s credibility: reset with the world should start at home.

As seen in Part II of this essay, Africans hate to be lectured by the USA on democracy and Human Rights. Also, they are forcefully asking for respect and recognition. In a world where only power speaks to power, one may ask “Africa? How many divisions?”1

In their relations to the USA, China and the rest of the world, African countries face difficult but unescapable questions:

  1. Is Africa a human, cultural, political reality, or a project of will and reason to be fulfilled?
  2. What does Africa have to show to the rest of the world in terms of achievement, to deserve respect and recognition?
  3. How clear, audible, strong, and credible is Africa’s voice on the world stage?
  4. Is Africa a geopolitical ghost or a power in the making to reckon with in world affairs?
  5. As Africa is allergic to criticism, what is its own model of freedom, rights, leadership, democracy, and development?
  6. Is Africa ready to take advantage of the USA-China competition to expand its options and enhance its bargaining power?

For Africa, reset with America and the world should start at home. The continent must seek clarity about its identity, aspirations, will, means, and credibility.

Part I of this essay sketched the tenets (dignity, sovereignty, self-reliance, homegrown solutions, pragmatism, result-drive, unity) founding a New Africa. That discourse would be empty slogans if the continent does not first win the following liberation battles:

  1. Free Africa from the past
  2. Free Africa from itself
  3. Reach a critical mass through unity

In Africa, the past is doggedly present, but the continent’s future should not be prisoner of that past. Given the magnitude and the duration of the violence Africa had been subjected to, it has been said that Africa’s history is written with swords as pens and blood as ink. The oriental (7th century AD onward) and the transatlantic (15th century AD onward) slave trades have drained tens of millions of Africans out of their home. The Portuguese penetration in the 15th century has opened the continent to brutal colonization and exploitation by Europe which lasted roughly until the 1970s. The trauma caused by slavery and colonization is still looming large and has plunged the continent in a frenetic quest for identity, confidence, and direction. But even if Africa’s present is burdened by the indignities of the past, cult of victimhood does not save the victim; Africa needs to abandon that incapacitating posturing and reinvent itself. The mental and psychological rebirth also means overcoming the demons of self-hatred and pessimism, after centuries of imposed inferiority. Likewise, coloring the world in black and white would be a posthumous victory of colonialism. Africans should not be obsessed with the fuzzy notion of race, a construct formulated in the 18th century by the European colonizers to attempt to intellectually if not morally justify conquest, slavery, exploitation, and discrimination. The strong defined the weak according to the former’s own canons and narrative. Race is a mirage and a trap; indeed, the skin color was used to mask what was essentially imbalance of power. Weakness, not blackness, led Africa to tragedy; what matters is not the skin, but the muscle.

Secondly, to credibly talk to America and the world, Africa needs to reinvent itself. The tiny Singapore and Dubai challenge an entire continent to invent its own model of political leadership, state, and social development. Africans often complain about US “lectures” on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law; although annoying at times, those sermons are useful reminders. In their quest for global consideration, Africans should understand that dignity starts at home; no self-respect at home, no respect to be expected from abroad. How to condone tribalism and condemn racism? How can a government mistreat its own people and raise the sovereignty argument to fend-off criticism from other nations? Why is a potentially rich continent the home of some of the poorest people on earth? Africa is rich in contradictions: strongmen and weak leaders, democratic constitutions and autocratic rule, citizens and subjects, republic and tribal kings, palace magnificence and town misery, in short absolute power that leads to total impotence in improving people’s lives. That curious mix of concepts, epochs, institutions, and legitimacies may well be the cause of the chronic political confusion some African countries are experiencing. Africa is yet to invent its own lexicon about politics, citizenship, democracy, and progress.

Among the internal challenges facing Africa, leadership crisis is the most acute, more pressing than security and economic crises, as it is “the mother of all crises.” To understand the ongoing leadership crisis in Africa, it is important to capture the prevailing culture of “chief” and “power.” Family chief, village chief, traditional chief, modern chief, paramount chief, chief of chiefs, everybody wants to be a chief; the title is self-attributed, inherited or even bought. For instance, in Nigeria, Africa’s most-populated nation, emirs and obas retain substantial political influence. No surprise some African heads of state behave like traditional chiefs (power theatrics consisting of lavish decor and stuffy protocol, ruling by force not governing by consensus, limited accountability, power as enjoyment not assignment), not like presidents. The republic and its principles are lost in the process. How can a person be a citizen in the capital city and a subject back in his village? To both celebrate and trivialize chieftaincy, are Africans themselves so much inclined to accept to be subjects? The so-called traditions should not be untouchable taboos; those that do not serve human dignity and progress should be discarded without regrets. Here and there in Africa, presidents cut the constitution like a bespoke suit or adjust it to fit their size and whims: customable, wearable, washable and disposable! Power is too often weaponized to solely confiscate, retaliate, punish, humiliate, divide, exclude and subjugate, not to unite and build. Power is raw force.

Democracy is not in the institution but in the people; if it does not inhabit the African citizens themselves, it will be absent from politics. Do African leaders reflect who Africans collectively are? How can Africa credibly speak to the world about freedom and respect when freedom and respect are not secured at home? Ultimately, Africa’s leadership crisis is not just about the leaders, but also about the peoples. If one African dictator is a poisonous fruit, what are the soil, the roots, the tree, and the climate, in short the environment that produced him? Some of the questions posed by the US Founding Fathers James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson are strikingly relevant to today’s Africa: What is government? How to reconcile majority rule and minority rights? What would be a frugal and wise leadership?

Finally, in the effort to reset Africa itself, a critical size would increase the bargaining power of the continent in a world dominated by geopolitical behemoths such as the USA, China, India, or the European Union. In the context of the War in Ukraine, resource-rich African countries should be wary of great powers’ renewed interest in their continent as an energy supplier: will this lead to more interreferences in African domestic affairs? Who represents Africa and who defends its interests? How can the continent benefit from the emerging geopolitical landscape? But more importantly, how can a headless, faceless, and voiceless Africa speak to the world? Put bluntly, many African countries are small, divided, unstable, poor, and weak, and therefore simply not viable in their current configuration. African unity is often mocked by both Africans and foreigners as an emotional and romantic aspiration.

That debate already took place in the early 1960s among Africans themselves, between the Casablanca and the Monrovia groups; while both were for integration, the pace and the modalities were hotly debated. The former group was more radical in its approach and proposed rapid surrender to a supranational authority, while the latter was more attached to national statehood. The Organization of the African Unity, created in 1963, was a compromise; it was succeeded in 2002 by the African Union.

But the current African leaders do not seem to have the vision and the courage of Kwame Nkrumah, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Haile Selassie, the leading advocates of African unity. Today’s Africa is characterized by nationalism without nations. Most of African leaders refuse to realize that, on the world stage, shared sovereignty at a continental level is better than lack of sovereignty as individual nations. Others mistakenly dismiss a Union as unattainable, arguing that an aggregation of individual countries’ problems would lead to an even bigger continental problem. That argument would bite if it were not hiding a meaner reason: many African leaders prefer to be sole “chief” in their homeland rather than co-chief in a wider union. For Africa, absence of ambition may be more costly than excess of ambition. Here again, leadership crisis is cruelly manifesting itself. The 54 African countries put together are still less populated than either China or India. The continent’s current contribution to world’s investment, trade or GDP is only around 2 to 3 percent. Instead of deterring, those figures speak to the potential of the continent as an organized union. Skeptics will always discount Africa’s unity dreams as delusions, but political unity is no longer an option but an existential imperative. The creation in 2019 of a continent-wide free trade area is a stepping-stone, to be followed by a monetary union; but the ultimate goal remains a political union with common defense and diplomacy. The USA was the first non-African country to appoint in 2006 an ambassador to the African Union; hopefully, this was a statement by America of its endorsement of the political unity of Africa.

B – US-China war of words about Africa

As discussed earlier, Europe has acted as the proxy of the West to stop the Soviet Union in Africa, during the Cold War. China has become the new conspicuously present adversary in US relations with Africa. China targets Africa’s key economic and demographic powerhouses such as Nigeria, South Africa, Ethiopia, DRC, Kenya, and Angola. The US leaders are accusing the resource-hungry China of many evils including neo-colonialism, setting a debt trap to subjugate African countries, negotiating unequal terms of trade, selling junk products, building low grade infrastructure, exporting workforce and disenfranchising local workers, and waging anti-African racism during the Covid pandemic in China.

In turn, China points to the West history of slavery, colonialism, and racial discrimination. For China, the West’s animosity is fueled by an existential angst caused by its rise. China is prompt to respond that after occupying and exploiting Africa for centuries, the Western countries are-ill placed to lecture on human rights and fair partnership with Africa. To defend itself, China also claims that its relations with Africa are not new and date back to the ancient Silk Road hundreds of years ago. Further, China brandishes as a trophy its involvement in flagship energy and infrastructure projects crucial to African development, including a nexus of ports, roads, railways, and airports, in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Congo, and other places. China opportunistically stepped up its presence in Africa around 1990-2010, when, following the defeat of the Soviet Empire, Africa was discounted and lost relevance in the eyes of the West2 .

C – Contrasting US and Chinese strategies in Africa.

The mantra of China’s diplomacy is well-known:

  1. Anti-colonialism
  2. Respect of national sovereignty
  3. Win-win cooperation and co-development
  4. Non-belligerence (no fighting troops overseas)

In addition, China seems to favor stability, social cohesion, national unity, and territorial integrity over political competition. Rejecting the West’s perceived injunctions and interventionism, many African countries are sensitive to the Chinese rhetoric.

Today, China is in a shopping spree in Africa but at a marketplace, money is the currency, not sentiments. Is China’s bombastic declaration of friendship only a business trick? For African countries, contracting foreign debt is mortgaging their sovereignty, and easy borrowing is a mortal honey trap. Like its debt, China’s aid will have to be repaid, in cash, or via new infrastructure projects, diplomatic support or increased access to natural resources. In front of an opportunistic China, the USA is challenged to invent a new kind of relationship with Africa.

Tentatively, China’s Africa strategy has seven features:

  1. Imposing but not intimidating. China strives to present itself as a respectful, non- intrusive partner. That is part of its diplomatic play book and theatrics. China excels at respecting form and at ego management. In calculated humility, China, now the second world power by many measures, insists it is still a “developing country.” It celebrates a “Partnership among equals.” At China Africa Summit, every African leader is welcomed, greeted, and listened to, in a speed dating with China’s ruler. This contrasts with US presidents, who, since Kennedy, generally shun African leaders assumedly deemed negligible quantities or bad photo opportunity. Among the heavenly qualities of kings, Confucius mentions the art of being imposing without being intimidating.
  2. Time as a partner. China is an adept of long-range planning, with decades long objectives. China can afford short term losses and frustrations, in expectation of long- term gains. Doing business with Africa and navigating the intricacies of its bureaucracies might be exasperating for an American. I recall an instance where an American business delegation was so frustrated by the police and custom administration at an African capital city’s airport that they decided to shorten their mission and leave the country. China seems to better accommodate Africa’s slow motion and tortuous bureaucratic ways. Contrary to the USA who often has preconditions in terms of democracy and human rights, China deals with African countries as they are, without prerequisites; this can be seen as either cynicism or pragmatism.
  3. Long term influence, not short-term return on investment. Like in portfolio management, China accepts that winning and losing investments and partnerships compensate one another, if its visibility and influence on the continent are overall increasing. High profile presence in Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa through flagship road, train and energy projects compensate for mixed results in Congo, DRC, and other places.
  4. Serving candies, not pills. The official China celebrates friendship, win-win cooperation, and respect of sovereignty, and does not give moralizing lectures on human rights and democracy. China’s diplomatic tune is easy listening, whereas the USA uses rebukes, threats, and demonization. The two powers’ approaches to the ongoing crisis in the Ethiopian region of Tigray are very telling; the USA stresses respect of Human Rights, while China emphasizes respect of Ethiopia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  5. Economic, not military invasion. Contrary to America and Europe, China is not sending troops to Africa (except for a base in Djibouti and contribution to UN peace- keeping forces), but is massively invading African resources, trade, investment, and debt. China Exim Bank finances up to 85 percent of projects. The China Civil Engineering Construction Company is benefits from the government funding. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative aims to open trade and resource corridors to Chinese industries. The conquest is therefore economic, not military. About 10,000 Chinese companies and one million nationals (among them 200,000 workers) are reportedly present in Africa. By comparison, the US Corporate Council on Africa, the premier business and investment forum between the USA and Africa, has about two hundred members and according to the US Government, roughly 232,000 lived in Africa3, by far the smallest number among continents. In 2013, China overtook the USA as Africa’s largest equity investor in terms of FDI stock and since 2014, China’s FDI flows have exceeded those from the USA. In 2019, China’s FDI stock in Africa was USD 44 billion versus USD 43 billion for the USA4. In 2019, China trade (exports and exports combined) with Africa amounted to USD 192 billion compared with USD 57 billion for the USA5. According to sources (there are uncertainties over the true level of governments’ debt), China holds between 15 and 25 percent of total Africa’s external debt. China is henceforth Africa’s first trade partner, investor, and creditor; this grants the country a huge economic and diplomatic leverage.
  6. Flooding, not sprinkling. Everything China is about mass: population, land, finance, investment, and trade, so there is no surprise that China is seeking critical mass in Africa and is betting on volume effect. As what seems to be a response to China’s sledgehammer strategy, the US government unified its efforts into Prosper Africa, a conglomerate of seventeen aid agencies with a total war chest of USD 60, to boost bilateral trade and investment with Africa.
  7. Winning without combating. In his The Art of War, Sun Tzu, the famed Chinese military strategist, recommends winning without combatting. China strives to exploit the West perceived or real weaknesses and anti-West sentiments here and there in Africa, without directly confronting the West: slavery, anti-Black racism, European colonialism, Africa’s marginalization in world affairs. To win, China is also counting on the Western countries own internal challenges and thus making some risky bets: will democracy bring instability? Will diversity lead to social implosion? Will the excesses of private capitalism and free market destroy liberal economies? Will the laborious democratic processes and consensus-building hamper the West’s decisions and actions? Will the USA and the West exhaust themselves in long, costly, and inconclusive military campaigns like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan? Furthermore, China might also see the inconsistencies in the foreign policy of Western powers as a passive ally: for instance, between preaches and acts, how consistent is the West on democracy, human rights, transparency, and international justice? For instance, the US multifaceted, rapid, massive, and unconditional support to Ukraine is resented by many Africans as another example of discriminatory policies towards victims of injustice around the world, depending on their race and geographical location.

D – The next frontier of USA-China competition.

A lot has already been written on great powers’ respective economic, financial, military, diplomatic and demographic powers. How about their “soul power,” namely the values and principles they incarnate and defend?

When USA and China reach parity on military and economic might (e.g., it is estimated that China’s GDP is set to overtake America’s as the world largest, around 2030), character and behavior will be the key differentiating factors. Therefore, Africa needs to understand who and what its American interlocutor is, what the USA stands for, and what are the perceived differences between the USA and other powers.

Tentatively, five features set America apart among world powers:

  1. America is an idea, an ideal and an ideology
  2. America is a self-examining, self-criticizing and self-healing nation
  3. Diversity makes America a world-nation
  4. In America, might is under the watch of right
  5. America is a polymorphous power

What is the origin of US propensity to lecture the world? America is an idea, an ideal and an ideology. As an idea and according to solidly encrusted clichés, America is the imagined land of the free and of opportunities, a promised land that is still an immigration magnet, almost a mythical land. As an ideal, despite its own imperfections, America is the benchmark against which other nations are judged on matters such as democracy, rule of law, equality, individual freedom, and even economic policies. Drawing comparisons between the USA on the one hand and China and Russia on the other has become a mental reflex. Because of its attractiveness as an idea and an ideal, America has become a de facto ideology in its own right, with its own symbols such as Lady Liberty and the light guiding the world (confrontation between the forces of enlightenment and those of darkness), good versus evil (President Bush’s mention of the Axe of Evil to characterize the sponsors of 9/11), truth versus deception (freedom of press in the USA versus what America calls Russian propaganda or Chinese lies), openness versus secretiveness (the Open Society versus the Iron Curtain during the Cold War). The USA loves to portray itself as the leading moral power as it transpires in phrases such as beacon of democracy or leader of the free world. Moreover, the use of human rights as an instrument of diplomacy, the extraterritoriality of some US laws, the advocacy for an America-inspired universalism, the implicit refusal of a return to a multipolar world since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the insistence on US exceptionalism, all point to the fact that America sees itself as a country on a unique mission to salvage humanity, an indispensable nation, a civilizing force. America assigned itself a Promethean role. As the dominant power, the USA sets world’s time, tune, and trends. Everything American, good, or bad, becomes world sensation from Apple smartphones to the MeToo movement, from Michael Porter’s market analysis framework to hip hop music, from the blue jean to Michael Jackson’s dance steps, from the evacuation of Kabul to George Floyd’s agony.

Introspection is the second American trait. Because it can criticize itself, America feels legitimized to criticize other nations. Instead of denying, the USA tackles heads-on tough questions, such as those pertaining to race relations and foreign engagement. In America, even private individuals regularly face naming and shaming. By so doing, America displays its faith in its ability to ever improve. Because it loudly debates about race relations (an academic field of study!), America might give to the rest of the world the false impression that racism is more prevalent there than in other countries. Some countries found a convenient but contorted way of denying racism by simply denying the very existence of racial communities. Americans believe in second chance and in redemption; a mistake can be corrected and tomorrow will be better than today. The so-called Affirmative Action is meant to rectify racial injustice. During some of the most difficult chapters in US history such as the institutionalization of racial discrimination and the Vietnam War, the staunchest opposition to US government policies came from within the USA itself. America can recognize, confront, and overcome its inner demons. It is uncommon to witness a great power openly question its own stance and actions, as America is doing today regarding Afghanistan. America seems to have built-in circuit breakers that allow the country to weather any internal storm, which stands in stark contrast to the former Soviet Union that imploded from within.

Thirdly, a nation of many nations, America embraces diversity as an asset, while other nations see diversity as a risk to social cohesion. African Americans for instance are vocal about their rights, but they are indefectibly, proudly, and loudly American, so are Irish Americans and Native Americans. Other nations might deride US hyphenated identities as fractionalism. The former German Chancellor Merkel and the Russian president Putin have both claimed that multiculturalism has failed in Europe. America’s motto E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one) captures the country’s commitment to diversity. But that commitment comes with its own ambiguities and traps: is diversity over-celebrated in America? Won’t the accentuated differences undermine the commonalities? The paradox is that while identity is a complex notion within America itself, the country stands as one and has a singular identity on the world stage. A melting pot, America potentially has a natural edge over competitors in managing the diversity and complexity of the world society. A land where many races, ethnicities, religions, and political creeds coexist, and whose language, English, is the Lingua Franca of the globe, America can claim a “global DNA” and “world literacy” that its competitors like China do not have. To lead the world, powers must understand the world, and perhaps look like it in its diversity.

The fourth feature of the American character is the fearful respect of law. In USA, might is under the watch of right. The former may try to circumvent or fool the latter. but eventually might is subservient to right. The system of check and balances among the three branches of government is in fact a built-in counter power to the executive branch. Individual and minority rights are sanctified to safeguard against the tyranny of the majority. The media scrutinizes the political class. A vocal civil society condemns police abuses. Antitrust laws aim to tame corporate greed. The US Constitution is a living document which underwent twenty-seven amendments to adjust to new necessities and add new individual rights. In the USA, no power goes unchecked as witnessed by the Watergate scandal which led to the resignation of President Nixon in 1974, and in more recent years, the attempts to impeach Presidents Clinton and Trump. The justification of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the constitutionality of post 9/11 measures, have been questioned by the Americans themselves. The exercise of the American power, domestically and abroad, is subject to scrutiny by the legislative, the judiciary and the media often dubbed the Fourth Power.

American might is somewhat restrained by the law and America thinks of itself as morally superiority to competing powers.

Lastly, as a polymorphous total power, the US is the only country that can claim the attributes of omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence. With six geographically circumscribed military commands, America signals that the entire globe, not a specific region, is the potential theater of its operations. No other power can claim such projection and outreach capability. The mighty dollar is the implicit currency of the world. Hollywood studios and Broadway shows entertain the world and sculpt our imagination. Google, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple are about to enroll almost the entire humanity. CNN, The New York Times, and the Washington Post tell us what to watch and what to read, and perhaps how to think. US universities are incubators of the world elite in many areas. McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group are among the world leading management mechanics. Jazz is the modern classical music. The US Think Tanks are the intellectual factories who set the public policy agenda nationally and internationally. Through their grants, the US Foundations hugely affect the activities of the civil society and possibly the political outcome in many countries. Furthermore, the US holds a de jure or de facto veto power in post war international organization like the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. American individuals like Steve Jobs or Michael Jackson were iconic world figures who still contribute to the intangible global power of America.

The five singular features of the American identity described above show that America’s might is not just military or economic. As a universal reference time in areas as diverse as the news, academia, innovations, social trends, music, fashion, business, management and technology, America immerses in one way or the other every single aspect of our daily lives. That multi-dimensional, multi-faceted, and multi-shaped power is unmatched by any other country. Contrary to China and Russia for example, the American might clearly goes far beyond the confines of government and state to state diplomacy.

Those unique features have been shaping America’s foreign policy. The country has been facing an inner fight between the temptations to rule the world by force and to lead it by persuasion, to be a hegemon and to be a role model, to build an empire and to cultivate allies, to defend freedom abroad and to weaponize democracy against its geopolitical rivals, to preach morals and to defend material interests. This permanent tension between force and virtue, realpolitik, and idealism, may explain the inconsistencies and hesitancies of US policies towards Africa, but it also defines America as a power tamed by its own values and principles. The ability to defy itself and come stronger out of doubts, mistakes and even tragedies, is one of the US unrivalled strengths.

But those inner strengths can turn into weaknesses if America falls in the following traps:

  1. Self-fascination: according to the Greeks, hubris can lead to nemesis, or excessive pride to self-destruction;
  2. Self-righteousness: judging the world only through US lenses and attempting to export American way of life and values;
  3. Self-absolution: temptation to be both judge and jury in world

Through African Americans who represent a sizable portion of the US population, Africa projects a massive shade on the daily life of Americans, from music to sports, from art to politics, from business to science. How can Africa capitalize on this natural link in its relations with America? The competition between USA and China in Africa might migrate to identity, values, character, behavior, and reputation. But what does Africa know about China’s identity, character, and values? What are Africa’s relays in China?

For the big powers, the issues of credibility, exemplarity and global accountability will become more pressing. Like in a fist fight between two individuals, the competition between the USA and China is likely to involve the body (physical power: military and economic strength), mind (intellectual power: knowledge, technology, information and strategy), heart (emotional power: sympathy capital, attractiveness), character (mental power: will, confidence) and soul (moral power: values and principles). The USA and China will be eventually judged by Africa on their respective ability to embrace and lead on the big challenges facing the continent. Covid is an example of pandemic requiring a concerted global response; for Africa, other pandemics include illiteracy, poverty, instability, and on the global scene racism, injustice, and wanton exploitation of the weak by the strong.

Conclusion: Africa and the antelope’s predicament.

This essay discussed how USA and Africa mattered to each other. It also explored tentative changes in USA-Africa relations, to better heed Africa’s aspirations to sovereignty and dignity, and to better serve the mutual interests of USA and Africa. China’s inroads in Africa constitute a geopolitical gamechanger, but for both domestic and external reasons, Africa does not seem to be ready to take full advantage of the competition among great powers.

Africans would secretly dream of a cooperation or complementarity between USA and China to lift them out of chaos and poverty; that is wishful thinking, considering the fierce rivalry between the two superpowers. Africans try to speak the language of their own selfish interests and do not want to be forced to choose between the USA and China, but do they have the means to adopt a neutral stance?

Africans are watching with a mix of fear and fascination the American eagle’s stunts and the Chinese dragon’s dance. Is the dragon, a mythical creature, just a mirage, a tale? Can one approach the fire-breathing dragon without being burned? Is the dragon dance a sacrificial ritual before it engulfs its hypnotized victim?

When two lions are fighting in the jungle, what should an antelope do? According to an African fable, the poor antelope can contemplate four options:

  1. Just hide and avoid being spotted by either Await the outcome of the fight to take a side. But the antelope is too fleshy to go unnoticed. It is every predator’s prey. It may escape lions but end up being eaten by tigers or hyenas;
  2. Take a side and take the risk of facing reprisals by the winner if the one lion endorsed loses the battle;
  3. Try to stay neutral and run the risk of being a feast if the two lions sign a peace agreement, they may decide to share the antelope’s spoils instead of fighting each other;
  4. Bet on the fact that in their fight, the lions will neutralize each But this may not lead to peace in the jungle, as tigers and hyenas would replace the lions as chief predators and hunt the antelope. The antelope should not escape the dominance of the lion to succumb that of tigers and hyenas. Switching masters is not gaining freedom. Freedom to choose a master is not freedom.

The moral of the story is that the fate of the antelope is not sealed by the lions and the other predators, but by the very nature of the antelope itself, as a weaker inhabitant of the jungle. In that tale, Africa might be the antelope.

  1. Reportedly, in 1943, Stalin asked about the size of Pope’s army, to stress the Vatican’s lack of power.
  2. As an illustration, in May 2000, the Economist branded Africa “The Hopeless Continent” (the same paper later published a 2013 report entitled “Africa Rising”).
  3. 2015 data
  4. Source: UNCTAD
  5. Source: UN Comtrade and US Census Bureau

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