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The scramble for the Global South: Foreign domination or self-sufficiency?

August 28, 2023 at 10:22 am

Coup supporters wave flags during the protest against a possible military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc and sanctions in Niamey, Niger on August 20, 2023 [Balima Boureima/Anadolu Agency]

The year 2023 has, so far, proven to be an eventful year for the “Global South”, the loose collective of nations with developing, less developed or under-developed economies, which has served more as an abstract idea than a unitary reality until now.

When the military coup in Niger took place in July, overthrowing the democratically elected government and installing a military junta, it may have seemed like an unsurprising occurrence of one of the most common upheavals that tend to inflict a developing nation.

This was different, however, in that it sparked both a debate amongst the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on whether the bloc should intervene and use military force to reinstall the deposed president, Mohamed Bazoum, and in that it inflamed a fierce anti-French and anti-Western wave in the country and throughout the wider Sahel and West African region. 

Niger is the latest nation in the region to join others that have experienced their own coups d’état over the past two years and are now ruled by their militaries, namely Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Chad. The five nations have now formed a sort of “coup belt” across the continent, embodied especially by a fervour against the former colonial powers and their presence in the region.

That divide has only grown with ECOWAS’s imposition of sanctions on the junta regimes and the announcement that the bloc has decided on a potential “D-Day” to launch its military intervention into Niger. This seemed to split the region into two camps: one backed by the international community and Western nations willing to go to war with their neighbours, and the other opposed to the continued influence of former colonial powers over national and regional affairs.

While it may be true that the first camp is acting at the behest of the likes of France and other Western powers, it is equally true that the second camp is predictably swinging in the opposite direction by positioning itself on the side of Russia and China.

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At a plenary session of the Russia-Africa Summit last month, Burkina Faso’s military President Ibrahim Traoré praised Russia in both a historical and contemporary sense for having “made great sacrifices to liberate Europe and the world from Nazism”, claiming both countries “have the same history” and have “one and the same outlook”.

Traoré proposed: “We have the opportunity to build new relationships that will help us build a better future for Burkina Faso”, with Moscow and other non-Western-aligned powers as the guarantors. Urging for self-sufficiency, particularly in fields such as food supplies, he further warned that the: “Heads of African states should not behave like puppets in the hands of the imperialists.” 

Yet, Traoré and other revolutionary leaders seem not to understand that in turning to the likes of Russia or China for development and defence cooperation, Burkina Faso and the wider Global South risk replacing one set of imperial masters for another.

Navigating empires

The challenge for nations in the Global South, especially within the next decade, will be to carefully and tactfully navigate the complex network of competing powers on the world stage in an effort to meet their own interests in terms of development and eventual self-sufficiency. 

It is the fate of developing nations – and some will always be less influential due to certain geopolitical realities – to rely on one hegemon or another. There is a certain level of self-sufficiency and determination that they could reach, however, if they play their cards right.

A nation could, for example, develop its industries with the assistance of a former colonial power’s existing industrial expertise by enlisting such experts’ direct help or sending students and trainees to educational institutions there. Once the experts put into place the necessary mechanisms, train the necessary operators and the successful students return to their home country, the developing nation’s particular domestic industry would be sufficiently able to sustain itself and even thrive.

That is the theory, anyway, and it is a common story of newly independent nations that have aimed to develop themselves in such a way. The struggle in such a journey, though, is to maintain the sharing of expertise while attempting to fend off the assisting foreign power’s efforts to dominate industries.

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Continuing to accept limitless foreign direct investments while failing to advance domestic control of the industries will result in the loss of them to the foreign power or companies, as is the case with China’s exploitation of mineral resources through its vast control and ownership of cobalt and lithium mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Taking control too soon, on the other hand, often results in the failure or collapse of those industries due to the immaturity in domestic expertise. That was seen in Zimbabwe and Uganda in the years following their independence, when nationalist leaders kicked out the white or South Asian industrialists and agriculturalists, destroying their reputation as “breadbaskets” of Africa. The same took place in South Africa after the apartheid regime ended, with black farmers reclaiming the land but with little expertise in generating the same yields and revenue as their white predecessors.

The balance, then, is the gradual transition from foreign-assisted industrialisation to eventual domestic control in a way that neither harms the process nor allows foreign domination. Saudi Arabia and its oil industry are a key success story in this, with the Kingdom’s oil industry and flagship company Saudi Aramco having first been owned by American companies in the early decades of crude exploration in the country, followed by a gradual Saudi takeover of the industry to the point where the government now owns over 98 per cent of Aramco, from which it has notoriously benefitted.

The scramble for Global South partnerships

Putting aside the obvious challenges they will face, a primary aspect to consider when looking at countries in the Global South in 2023 and the rest of this decade is that they are becoming increasingly self-aware of their own importance on the world stage – both geopolitically and economically.

At a summit of business leaders from G20 nations this week, India’s representative to the international group, Amitabh Kant, called out the international financial infrastructure’s lack of focus on the Global South despite the fact that it is predicted to drive two-thirds of global economic growth in the coming years.

“All growth is now going to come from Global South because demographics are young and dependency burdens are low. In the next two decades, two-thirds will come from the Global South,” Kant stated. “And, if Global South is going to drive the global economy… because the population of the western part of the world will be ageing and populations in India and other emerging markets will keep getting younger… you need resources to flow in here.”

The Indian bureaucrat’s remarks were significantly prescient, as the developed world is already awakening to the importance of the Global South and the necessity to invest in it. 

Following this month’s decision by BRICS to expand its membership to a further six countries – Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Ethiopia and Argentina – there were generally two kinds of reactions from Western nations. The first was indifference, with officials saying that developing countries may choose whichever partners they prefer. The other was a push for increased focus on investment in the developing world.

The president of the European Investment Bank, Werner Hoyer, expressed his concerns over the BRICS expansion and aim for its New Development Bank as a potential alternative to traditionally dominant Western lenders. 

“It should be a cause for concern that an increasing number of smaller developing world countries, especially in Africa, are looking to countries like China and other emerging market nations to give them support rather than the traditional Western institutions,” Hoyer said. He warned: “We are at risk of losing the confidence of [the] Global South unless we take more action and get more visible there.”

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The fact is that, amid the increasing recognition of the Global South’s potential, various powers are currently attempting to garner the attention and affection of developing nations. Russia and China have made the most significant strides in that regard so far, creating a kind of mythos amongst developing populations of them being saviours of Western neo-imperialism.

But other emerging powers – formerly rather insulated and non-expansive – have also taken the lead in those efforts, such as Gulf heavyweights Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have together pumped almost $100 billion in investment into Africa in recent years in an effort to gain influence over the continent’s infrastructure and maritime routes. That is not to mention their even greater efforts to back and control governmental or militant players in the likes of Sudan, Libya and now possibly even Niger, in the process of establishing their own “soft empire” or regional order.

Whether it be US, French, Russian, Chinese or Emirati overlords wreaking havoc in their territories and political systems, there is a scramble for the Global South and developing nations that has already begun and will only accelerate from here.

This decade will determine the foundation of how those countries deal with the scrambling powers, and through their long journey to self-sufficiency and self-determination – or at least a certain degree of those – developing nations in the Global South will have to carefully navigate between the competing powers and hegemonic blocs in order to maintain their sovereignty, resources and stability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.