But Africa should be wary of such major investments by the world’s most powerful nations. Historically, when external powers have eyed Africa and seen it as a source for raw materials or markets, Africans themselves often pay the price.
That was true during a previous colonization drive known as the Scramble for Africa in the 1880s, when it was European powers competing for access to the continent. In 1884, 11 European powers plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire met in Berlin to divide up the Congo River basin, an area as large as Western Europe. At stake was access to the ivory and rubber resources of the Congo Basin rainforest. The ivory trade was under the control of Swahili and Arab traders from the East African coast. Europeans were eager to bring the ivory to the Atlantic coast and exploit the wild rubber vines found in the Congo rainforest.
In Berlin, the great powers declared the entire Congo River basin to be a free-trade zone, and they authorized King Leopold II of Belgium to manage it as the private entity known as the Congo Free State. No Africans were consulted.
In just 10 years, the entire region, which had previously been simply a blank spot on European maps, became the focus of international economic activity. Sent by the Belgian and French governments, explorers such as Henry Morton Stanley and Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza found shortcuts from the Atlantic coast of Africa into the Congo River basin, and they quickly signed exclusive trade agreements with local chiefs using a combination of gifts, threats and promises of military protection to persuade them to sign. These coerced treaties provided cover for the European powers to award the bulk of the Congo River basin to King Leopold’s Congo Free State, leaving the western edge of the basin to the French.
Although they were motivated by economic interests, the Europeans framed their effort in humanitarian terms, as a blow against the East African slave trade. Swahili and Arab trade caravans in the eastern part of the Congo River basin carried captive people as well as ivory to Zanzibar, a practice that mobilized antislavery organizations in Europe. In 1889-1890, the signatories of the Berlin Act met at the Brussels Anti-Slavery Conference, where they abandoned free trade and allowed the Congo Free State to impose customs duties, supposedly to finance anti-slavery activities.
But it was ivory that propelled violence in the Congo Basin. Arab and Swahili trading parties manned by locally recruited armed forces moved systematically through the rainforest, attacking villages and holding people for ransom until a sufficient amount of ivory was delivered. The Europeans began purchasing the ivory thus collected, but soon they began attacking the Arab-Swahili trading parties and confiscating their ivory. Driving the Swahili and Arab ivory traders out of the Congo Free State — in the name of an anti-slavery campaign — helped the Europeans consolidate their takeover of the ivory trade.
When, by the 1890s, it was clear that ivory was a diminishing resource, authorities in the Congo Free State joined with private business to turn to wild rubber, which could be extracted from the landolphia vines in the forest, into a profitable commodity for growing industries across the globe. The Congo Free State ordered mandatory rubber collection as a kind of tax, sending soldiers to enforce its collection.
King Leopold also parceled out large territorial concessions to companies that created private armies to oversee African laborers, forced to extract wild rubber. These rubber companies set quotas for the amount of rubber to be delivered by the local population each fortnight under threat of violence. By 1898, the rubber concession system in the Congo Free State was being duplicated in the French Congo, where the territory was divided up among 40 concession companies.
Wild rubber, like ivory, turned out to be a diminishing resource ill-suited to the bottomless hunger of industrialization because vines that were tapped too frequently died. Rubber tappers had to travel farther and farther into the forest to find vines to exploit, leading to violent clashes and warfare between villages over the last remaining strands of rubber vines. Rubber company militias enforced the quotas by killing and imprisoning thousands of villagers, but rubber production continued to diminish. Fearing for their lives, people abandoned their villages and lived hidden in the forest, surviving by eating roots and berries, resulting in further loss of life from starvation and disease.
By 1906, the two largest rubber concession companies in the Congo Free State were suffering from diminishing production and profits, and they were subsequently taken over by the state, which reduced the quotas to a negligible amount once it became clear that the wild rubber boom was over. The land was not only exploited, but Europeans had disrupted political and family life, local economies and social worlds. Even after the Belgian and French Congos became independent in 1960, the pent-up anger in the former Belgian Congo manifested itself in a series of rebellions against the post-colonial government that continued through the end of the 20th century.
In the space of three decades from 1877 to 1908, the Congo River basin was transformed, ravaged and nearly destroyed. Today, a new scramble for the resources of equatorial Africa seems to be on the horizon. The players include the Russians and the Chinese, who seek contracts and exclusive trade agreements rather than territory, but the goals are drearily similar.
African nations in need of outside funds are in danger of again becoming subordinated to powerful nations and commercial interests to the long-term detriment of their own people. In the 19th century, some local chiefs along the Congo River sought to maintain their independence by signing treaties with both Stanley and Brazza, but those treaties became moot when the Europeans came together at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 and divided up equatorial Africa among themselves.
Today, with claims to Africa’s resources coming from all corners of the globe, African governments and companies might be in a better position to balance competing offers to assure a brighter future for their countries.