For too long in the West, primarily the United States and Western Europe, the continent of Africa has been viewed as peripheral to world affairs. It was thought of only in terms of the natural resources that could be extracted from it or as a place of poverty, violence, and disasters—natural and man-made. As a diplomat who has served in Africa, a journalist who has photographed and written about the continent, and now as a think-tank analyst who studies Africa, this view of Africa is short-sighted and needs to be revisited.
Although Africa is home to some of the most strategic minerals on the planet, such as gold, copper, cobalt, and oil, it does have more than its fair share of problems—some of them self-inflicted, but others either not of its own making or exacerbated by the actions of outsiders. Nonetheless, the continent is far more dynamic and diverse than most Westerners realize and for a whole host of reasons it does matter.
Resource Rich Yet Still Poor
Africa’s resources, including people—during the height of the global slave trade—have always been both a curse and a blessing to the continent. Because it possesses a significant proportion of global reserves of some strategic minerals, it has often been, and still is, a pawn in the struggles between powerful countries to gain access to and control of minerals that are vital to modern industry. Africa is estimated to contain 21% of the world’s total gold reserves and 85% of platinum, just as two examples.
The competition to extract these minerals is often carried out without regard to the impact it has on the countries of Africa and on the average African who accrues little of the profit. While living standards and wages vary among the countries, and even by region within a single country, the average net salary for the continent is less than $400 per month. One in three Africans, or more than 400 million people, live on less than $2 per day and represent 70% of the world’s poorest people.
Persistent Troubles: Natural and Man-made
The African continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, suffers from serious environmental problems due to the impact of climate change, overfishing, deforestation, mining, and intense agricultural usage. Lack of resources, poor governance, corruption, and lack of respect for the rule of law by the governing elites contribute to the inability to solve these problems. Overlooked, however, is that the devastating impact of European colonization, the Atlantic slave trade, and the Cold War exacerbated a lot of these problems.
Pervasive poverty and excessive dependence on foreign assistance also contributes to Africa’s problems, sometimes aggravated by foreign aid, which is often misused, despite US and European attempts to lay down conditions, and because aid from countries like China comes without obvious conditions and easily leads to abuse. Corruption and poor governance is often considered the leading cause of poverty in Africa, and after decades of foreign aid—with and without conditions—it often appears that little has changed.
Africa Is Not a Monolith
Taking the above into consideration, along with the increasing number of extralegal changes in government, mainly through military coups, it is understandable, though regrettable, that many Westerners think these ills are representative of the entire continent. All too often, Africa in general is both perceived and presented as a global basket case that we notice only when the next disaster strikes.
But Africa is not a homogenous place; it is as diverse as any other continent and actually more diverse than many. Composed of more than 50 countries, Africa is the second largest and second most populated continent with 1.3 billion inhabitants. Over 1,500 languages are spoken in Africa, and it is home to every major religion and hundreds of ethnic groups. By 2050, the African continent is expected to have a population of 2.4 billion people and will account for half the world’s population growth. Moreover, Africa is an overwhelmingly young continent, with approximately 40% of its population under the age of 15; in some African countries, over 50% of the population is under 25.
Why Africa’s Demographic Issues Matter
The aforementioned demographics alone should cause the world to sit up and take notice of Africa. With such a large, young population that has grown up in the digital age, it represents an immense potential consumer market and employee base—or a potential source of recruiting for extremist movements if the economic needs of this population are not met.
Africa is also urbanizing at a fast pace. In 1960, 80% of Africa’s population was rural. Currently only 60% live in the countryside, and by 2050 that number will have fallen to 40%. This urbanization has been caused by economic privation, wars, and climate-fueled disasters. Still, the move to the cities has not solved the problems, as many of Africa’s large conurbations are not equipped to deal with the negative effects of climate change, nor does the move lift the internal migrants out of poverty. Approximately 70% of Africa’s urban population lives in slum conditions, lacking access to economic opportunity, education, or health care.
With 17% of the world’s population, Africa contributes a single-digit percentage of global greenhouse gasses but suffers more than any other populated continent from the impact of climate change, with droughts, floods, climate-caused storms, and heat waves reducing food production and increasing health problems across the continent. Diminished food production with such a fast growing population is a recipe for disaster. Currently, heavily dependent on agriculture, Africa receives only 4% of the world’s investment in agricultural research, a deficit that must be made up if Africans are to understand how climate change affects agricultural production.
Not only is Africa affected by climate change, but it also has a potentially significant impact on climate change. The Congo basin rainforest is the second largest carbon sink on the planet after the Amazon rainforest and is endangered by deforestation, caused mainly by local agriculture. With the Amazon rainforest now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs, itself endangered by logging and agricultural activity, the Congo rainforest becomes even more important.
The Congo basin, where human populations are increasingly encroaching on wildlife habitats, could be the source of our next global pandemic. One shudders to imagine a viral disease that is as infectious and transmissible as COVID-19 and as deadly as Ebola; in the absence of a concerted effort to identify and isolate the zoonotic diseases native to the region, it’s not a matter of if but when we will be faced with this disaster.
While Africa has not been a significant factor in global terrorism, most of the major international terrorist organizations do have a presence there and the continent has a large number of domestic extremist groups. Extremist activity has significantly increased in the past decade. Left unchecked, these groups could become a threat to countries outside Africa.
The New Great Power Competition and its Impact
The competition of the United States and the Soviet Union in the Cold War era has been replaced in the last decade with the US–China competition. Mostly economically oriented, China is now sub-Saharan Africa’s largest trade partner in mostly import-driven trade. China is also a major investor in Africa, where it is building a number of infrastructure projects. However, China has also established a military presence in Djibouti, where it built a support base (the second Chinese overseas military base) at a cost of US$590 million. Although China’s largest import from the continent is oil, it also imports a number of vital minerals to fuel its rapidly growing economy, including iron ore, and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While Chinese investments in Africa are popular with the ruling elites and have created a degree of economic development, China’s lack of governance conditions, its support for some of the continent’s most authoritarian leaders, and the debt burden its loans have imposed on some of the world’s poorest countries have been controversial both on the continent and internationally. With Chinese firms—many controlled by the central government or the Chinese Communist Party—increasingly becoming dominant in African economies, the US and the West view the situation with an understandable degree of concern.
Finding the Light Through a Glass Darkly
Looking to the future, Africa will have a significant impact on the world in a number of areas. Whether that impact is positive or negative will depend upon the actions taken primarily by Africans themselves, but also by the policy choices of the countries of the global north.
As Africa’s populations increase, if economies are structured to provide adequate living standards, it will be a potentially lucrative customer base, investment destination, and source of a young and tech-savvy labor force. It also could become our worst nightmare: a densely populated region of disaffected young people who are ripe for recruitment by violent extremist groups.
If Africa cannot develop methods to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, such as developing climate-friendly agriculture and building more resilient cities, food production will fail to keep pace with population growth and thus increase Africa’s dependence on foreign assistance just to feed the people, hence perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
Population relocation due to famine, war, or other disasters will exert more pressure on already overburdened cities, with the population possibly flowing northward and putting pressure on southern Europe and the Mediterranean, ultimately affecting the rest of Western Europe and the US.
Africa and the world also have to implement methods to protect and preserve the Congo rainforest. If this forest continues to be degraded, it will lead to less rainfall and will affect agricultural production in a region dependent upon it. It will most certainly induce a rise in global temperatures, which will, in turn, lead to more frequent and violent tropical storms and rising sea levels. The destruction of wildlife habitats and increased human–animal contact could lead to the emergence of a virus that could quickly turn into a serious pandemic.
Africa’s 54 countries constitute the largest voting bloc in the United Nations. Having this many votes ensures a majority in the UN General Assembly. Should the Africa Union’s initiative to develop an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) become reality, thus creating the world’s largest free trade area, it would promote significant reforms in Africa’s political and economic governance, enhance the long-term development of African economies, and potentially turn Africa into a global economic kingmaker.
While China and the US, currently the world’s two largest economies, are often at loggerheads on a number of issues, taking a pragmatic approach to US–China competition in Africa by focusing on areas of common interest, such as climate change mitigation, counterterrorism, anti-piracy, and stability, could benefit not only the two competitors but also Africa and the rest of the world.
For better or for worse, in the coming decades, Africa will matter, and we had better believe it. Our lives could depend on it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.