For most Arab countries, Africa remains an enigma: a dark continent as remote as the Arctic Circle. Yes, the Arabs had historical links with East and West Africa — albeit sometimes, it’s not something to discuss. That chapter needs to find a mutually agreed-upon closure. But Africa has been in the news lately: the coup in Niger and Gabon, the humiliating rebellion against former colonial power; France, and the fact that a new generation of African leaders is now making their voices heard.
The Arab world should hear these voices and find a way to respond. Almost half of the Arab world is in North Africa, which we tend to disassociate from the rest of the continent. More Arabs live in that southern Mediterranean shoreline than in the Asian part: Africa matters, or so it should.
Links with the Sahara countries and further south have indeed been limited. The Arab countries have set themselves as exclusive in a part of the world that encompasses two vast continents. However, governments in North Africa share something essential with the rest of the vast and varied continent that is Africa. There is the shared colonial history and its nagging legacy: that of France, Great Britain, and to a lesser extent, Germany, Italy, and Belgium, among others.
Political turbulence in Mali, Niger, Gabon and Burkina Faso
The colonial abuse of Africa is something that has been sidestepped for years. But the toxic legacy is being revived, thanks to political turbulence in Mali, Niger, Gabon and Burkina Faso. Once more, modern-day Arabs know very little about the undercurrents that agitate the new leaders of these countries. That is not an excuse to overlook the deep and resounding ripple effects that developments in these countries could have on the geopolitical situation of Arab North African countries and beyond.
Former colonial powers have usurped the ostensibly independent Sahara and West African countries for decades. We could find many documents about how these mineral-rich countries were plundered and how Western powers manipulated their political systems to serve their interests. The latest series of putsches have underlined the extent of hatred and rejection of French manipulation. The French affair with Niger has emphasised that in so many ways.
Impoverished and stripped of vast resources, the new leaders of these countries now say that is enough. So humiliating has been the Western powers’ treatment of these countries that we are witnessing today a major geopolitical shift that will have repercussions across the continent and beyond. As Africa tries to toss away its colonial links with the West, it is also open for business. It has abundant mineral resources and a full agenda for investors.
For decades, Western countries have established multiple military bases in West Africa. These were primarily aimed at supporting counter-terrorism operations, ensuring regional stability, and assisting local security forces. Today, the US, France, the UK, and Germany operate military bases in West Africa. It is difficult to make a case that such involvement has helped these countries overcome poverty, exodus of illegal migrants, or political and economic stability.
France has been supporting despots to stay in power for decades. It has ensured access to natural resources at unbeatable prices, so it has overlooked that the minions in control are corrupt and have accumulated outrageous wealth while their citizens suffer.
New breed of leaders
Africa must demolish the stereotype. It sits on enormous natural resources that could turn the countries into some of the wealthiest globally. West Africa is rich in natural resources such as gold, diamonds, copper, oil, and gas, making it an important source of raw materials for companies in Europe and North America. It is strategically located along the Atlantic Ocean and provides a gateway for Western countries to access Central and Southern Africa. West African countries represent an increasingly important market for Western companies.
It is a region plagued by conflict and instability, and Western countries have a strong interest in maintaining stability to protect their economic interests. And finally, Western countries have an interest in managing and controlling immigration flows from that part of the world.
While the West considers its options in Africa — following the spectacular uprising by a generation of leaders — Arabs must connect with African nations. What happens in Western Africa, East Africa, and the Sahara region directly impacts Arab North African countries.
Egypt has a problem in Sudan and Ethiopia, while all Arab North African states have an issue with illegal migration, which upsets Europe.
These countries are a source of problems and chaos. They do present opportunities for China and Russia. The Arab countries need to alter their view of Africa as a derelict part of the world and see it as a promising ally and economic partner.
As Africa tries to toss away its colonial links with the West, it is also open for business. It has abundant mineral resources and a full agenda for investors. The Arab world should adopt a new approach to Africa. It is not a distant continent, but closer to us than we think.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.
Source: Gulf News