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The geopolitics of the Gulf of Guinea

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Picture: REUTERS/Saliou Samb/File – Mist shrouds the Simandou mountains in Beyla, Guinea. Don’t buy the misguided view that Africa doesn’t matter. It does, the writer says.

By Koffi M Kouakou

Almost six hundred years ago, kidnapped, chained and brutalised, Africans slaves were sent naked, with one-way sardine-packed ship tickets to the Americas, never to return to their homelands, away from an Atlantic ocean cluster on the West and Central Coast of Africa known as the Gulf of Guinea or Golfo da Guiné in Portuguese.

Early in 1441, slave traders, mainly Europeans and Arabs, led by the Portuguese, had started to perfect the African slave trade business. It was the business of trading human beings, mostly black-skinned people, or also called in the trade cheap human cattle resources. The profitable commerce took place within a triangular axis: from Europe (building and financing of slave ships); to Africa (rounding-up and collection of slaves) and to the Americas to where slaves were shipped to work on vast sugar cane and cotton plantations.

The natives, brown-skinned, living along the West coast of Africa were known as the Tuaregs and Berbers. Below the Senegal river lived the Melli (Mali), Songhai and Wolof people, darker-skinned, who were the main targets. The Latin term for black or nigrum which became negro was used to describe black Africans, and Niger, the name of the river where they lived.

Unfortunately for the darker-skinned people, the slave trade, which lasted four centuries, was detrimental to them yet very lucrative for Europeans.

So successful was the slave trade that it enriched many European nations, including Portugal, France, Spain, Holland, England, making them wealthy custodians of a competitive nascent capitalism based on what was called the trade of blacks or la traite des noirs in French.

The new trade would turn Europe and the Americas into formidable powers that would dominate the world until today.

From human to natural resources exploitation

The painful memories of this brutal slave trade still linger and are about to be overwhelmed by a new sort of global resources competition.

From the old practices of the exploitation of human beings and their labour or human resources to the business of natural resources, the Gulf of Guinea is about to become again one of the most sought-after strategic and geo-economic spheres in the history of global power competition.

And here are the geopolitical reasons for such a shift.

But first, let’s clear a dismissive view about Africa’s irrelevant and backward role in the emerging international order today and perhaps tomorrow.

In fact, it ain’t so.

In short, while the dominant narrative about global power competitions stresses the great Western nations’ strategic pivot toward Asia, much evidence shows that Africa and especially the Gulf of Guinea are also becoming spheres of great competition.

Don’t buy the misguided view that Africa doesn’t matter. It does. Africa is a basket of denigrating “sh**hole countries,” as former president Donald Trump used to say.

Africa has all the resources necessary to fulfil the ambitious African Union Agenda 2063 goals of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful continent. Africa is even known as a geological and energy scandal by it’s the known immense natural resources. Much of that is now being confirmed almost monthly with the discoveries of the large deposits of oil, gas, gold, rare earth materials, water and even fauna.

Six years ago, the World Bank, in partnership with the African Development Bank, funded an eye-opening project to complete the mineral resource treasure map of Africa. It was dubbed the billion-dollar map of African resources wealth. Paolo de Sa, one of the World Bank project managers, said “unfortunately African governments don’t know the natural resources wealth under the ground of their countries”.

“But if African nations had the data, information and the appropriate knowledge, they would be able to negotiate better mineral resource contracts since they don’t own the extractive machinery and mining know-how.”

This resource-mapping exercise could reveal trillions in mineral wealth for Africa.

Gulf of Guinea Geopolitics

As the current global energy crisis deepens since the Ukraine crisis, African natural and energy resources attract the interests of global energy companies and powerful nations in a feisty competition.

Consequently, four geopolitical pillars will govern the race to the Gulf of Guinea.

First, geography. Geopolitics requires context. And context governs meaning. Context also always calls for geography to make sense of place. Here geography and geopolitics intersect. That’s why geography matters. And the Gulf of Guinea embodies that dynamic.

It is the sense of place and location of the Gulf of Guinea that gives it the required strategic military position in the Atlantic Ocean.

Picture: Souleymane Camara/Reuters Residents cheer on army soldiers after the uprising that toppled president Alpha Conde in Conakry, Guinea, September 6, 2021. There are rampant suspicions that under the guise of maritime security, fighting maritime crimes and piracy, many global powers are establishing footholds in the region to solidify their positions to influence, control and exploit its immense natural wealth, the writer says.

It is the “northeasternmost part of the tropical Atlantic Ocean from Cape Lopez in Gabon, north and west to Cape Palmas in Liberia”. It is located right above and below the Equator, the imaginary line that divides Africa into North and South and intersects the prime meridian in the gulf.

Basin countries include eighteen sovereign coastal countries, from the extreme West sliding East along the coast and down South, Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, São Tomé and Príncipe, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. Most of them are ancient slave trade destination and collection territories.

The region is also under multiple institutional mandates of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Economic Community of Central African States (ECCAS) and Gulf of Guinea Commission (GGC) to address maritime security.

The basin commands an estimated surface area of 2, 350,000 km 2 or 910,000 square miles with more than a quarter of a billion people and growing with the Nigerian population expecting to quadruple by 2050. Its rising demography lends the Gulf of Guinea into a potential large economic marketplace.

Therefore, any global power that controls this large basin of natural wealth will also command enormous advantage in the maritime security, defence spheres in the region and its natural wealth.

There are already rampant suspicions that under the guise of maritime security, fighting maritime crimes and piracy, many global powers are establishing footholds in the region to solidify their positions to influence, control and exploit its immense natural wealth.

The usual protagonists, France, US, and European nations are already present. Since colonial times, their presence has allowed them an early strategic advantage both militarily and economically. France, the leading nation with the US, have already has functioning military bases in the region that allow them it to patrol and exercise maritime and aerial security, unchallenged.

In the past decade or so, China and Russia have been attempting to establish a presence in the Gulf of Guinea with some success. Russia on the military, defence and security front and China on the economic level mainly. But progressively China is building up the economic advantage to establish military head points in the Gulf of Guinea as it has done in Djibouti in Eastern Africa.

So, what else makes the geopolitics of the Gulf of Guinea important and meaningful?

Second and in addition to global power competition and the role of Africa, is the immense natural resources wealth on land and at sea.

No one knows exactly how much natural wealth is in that region. But regular and sizeable discoveries of oil, gas, gold and rare earth minerals, help to speculate that there are more findings to be made, in addition to onshore, in the deep Atlantic ocean than discovered so far. If the recent discovery of the 13 trillion-dollar gold deposit in Uganda is of any sign, the natural wealth in the Gulf of Guinea could be estimated at trillions of US dollars in liquid assets value.

The current global energy crisis is pushing powerful nations to redouble their interests in Africa’s untapped energy resources and explore sustainable energy supplies.

More recently, criss-crossing visits by European, American, Chinese, Iranian, Russian, and Turkish officials in search of favourable energy deals with Africans are testimonies to Africa’s relevance in the emerging the geopolitics of energy. And here, the Gulf of Guinea energy resources plays a critical role.

Although the recently unveiled US strategy for sub-Saharan Africa does not overtly spell out in detail its intentions, covertly the US intends to expand and deepen its critical Africa energy footprint in partnership with its European allies against China and Russia.

According to the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs or IRIS, “US mining policy is on high alert and a ‘State of Emergency’ was declared by Presidential Executive Order No 13953 issued by Donald Trump in September 2020 and upheld by Joe Biden upon his inauguration as President in 2021. Risks to the security of critical mineral supplies are described as an ‘extraordinary threat’ to national security, foreign policy and the economy of the US.

“The stakes are also military. The military is one of the country’s largest consumers of critical minerals. But the US is in a difficult situation. The industrial capacities of the mining sector in the country have been greatly weakened since the end of the Cold War. The country’s dependence rate on external suppliers increased very sharply during the period and China is the United States’s leading supplier of metals. The rise of Beijing’s ambitions and the rare earth crisis of 2010 have awakened American strategists.”

Since the Ukraine war, the global energy insecurity crisis has worsened, and Russia has become an additional energy challenger and “systemic threat” to the West in general and the US in particular.

In this context the IRIS asked “what is the extent of the vulnerabilities of the United States in terms of supplies of critical metals for the energy transition? What is the strategy of the United States vis-à-vis China in these new geopolitics of metals?,” and adds that “For its part, China has developed a marked industrial policy in the metals sector for nearly 30 years, particularly in the refining sector. Can this domination be used as a geopolitical and geo-economic weapon?”

Africa’s geopolitical relevance and role Energy transition and security issues are an essential goal for all global powers. China and Russia are also frantically establishing competitive strategies against Western nations as well.

All global powers, especially the Europeans, Americans and other Western allies will have a strategic energy agenda about the Gulf of Guinea tomorrow, if not already. Then, Africa becomes a potential cornerstone of energy supply. As such, its geo-economic position and its role as continent that matters strengthens.

However, the four central pillars of the geopolitics of the Gulf of Guinea expressed above will could also lead to great concerns for Africa. The geo-economic fortunes of the continent will could attract possible tensions and even hot wars among global powers.

The US and its European allies are already threatening Africans to stop doing business with Russia in the wake of its Ukraine invasion earlier this year. The next warning may be against doing business with China or any other country, especially the growing BRICS+ nations.

Of course, it will not be that easy for Africa to emerge as an independent energy power as global powers will exercise their hegemonic stance to own and control its Africa’s natural resources wealth as they have done for centuries.

Should Africans be concerned about the goals of global powers in Africa, within the context of natural resources grabs? Yes, they should be.

Russia’s geological company Rosgeo said it has signed its first contracts for hydrocarbons exploration work in Equatorial Guinea. Photo: Twitter/@PlattsOil

What is a stake is that Africans must quickly understand how to navigate the challenges, opportunities and prospects of the coming global energy resource economy where monetary power might be pegged to their enormous gold assets. That’s why we should care about the future of the Gulf of Guinea.

As the new expansion strategy of the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in Eastern Europe against Russia and in Asia toward China, unfolds, Africans must be vigilant about its de facto hegemonic extension into the continent. NATO is now seen as a war bulwark instrument for the Western foray into Africa. Already, signs that NATO in collaboration with the US-Africa Command could intervene in Mali on the account of insecurity caused by terrorism and Jihadism, has raised alarms among Africans.

But Africa must organise more efficiently and anticipate Western and other global power bullying and hegemonic expansions into Africa and its region as the second scramble for Africa ensues. It must develop its own sustainable energy and natural resources wealth agenda closely linked to the AU Agenda 2063.

As the competition for the Gulf of Guinea and its future accelerates, the cartography of its geopolitics clarifies what is at stake for Africa. The great game of geopolitics, embedded within its geo-economics, calls for an anticipatory response from African leaders unaware of what’s looming, especially the rivalry on strategic energy issues for global dominance.

Africa cannot afford another worst-case scenario.

Koffi M Kouakou is an Africa analyst and Senior Research Fellow at The Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.