09/29/2015 05:25 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The Second Scramble for Africa


With international leaders gathering for the UN General Assembly in New York this week, they are addressing the usual woes of the world and wonder how to fix them: wars, fanaticism, the global market meltdown and the migration crisis. They should be urgently adding the Second Scramble for Africa to their list. Make no mistake; the dire consequences of this unabated rush to plunder threaten to be just as damaging as those of the first.

There are important differences and ominous parallels between the colonial-era Scramble for Africa and its counterpart today. The first was led by predatory European states. Today's is directed more discreetly, away from the glare of publicity and corridors of power, in multinational boardrooms, offshore front companies and hotel lobbies.

The greatest similarity between the two is the targeting of African resources for foreign extraction and exploitation. At the Conference of Berlin in 1884, Belgium"s King Leopold II was given his "piece of the African cake," the rights to the Congo, from which he duly extracted a fortune, exporting rubber to European and American markets hungry for everything from tires to condoms. An estimated 10 million were killed in the quest for rubber and ivory under Belgian rule. Further south the British imperialist and mining tycoon Cecil Rhodes, in pursuit of gold and diamonds, launched the Jameson Raid against the Transvaal Republic, Africa's first resource-driven attempt at regime change, which led to the Boer War in which 75,000 died. In 1870, before the Great Powers arrived to plunder the continent, 10 percent of Africa was under European control. By 1914, only 10 percent lay outside it.

More recently, Africa is again falling victim to commercial exploitation on a grand scale. Lured by its myriad of resources, foreign companies have been striking deals that do not stand the test of scrutiny.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has warned, Africa loses twice as much in illicit financial outflows as it receives in international aid. Many companies routinely use "unethical tax avoidance, transfer pricing and anonymous company ownership" to maximize profits while millions of Africans go without proper food, healthcare and education. Analysis by the Washington think tank Global Financial Integrity shows that in seven of the last 10 years the global volume of illicit financial flows was greater than the combined value of all official development assistance and foreign investment into poor nations. Annan is right. It is "unconscionable."

Foreign commercial interest in Africa is inevitable. The continent contains 88 per cent of the world's diamonds, 42 percent of its gold and 10 percent of its oil. Yet some companies behave in Africa in a way they would never dream of doing elsewhere or would never be allowed to. Take Guinea-Conakry, where a previous military regime awarded a highly controversial mining deal to an international company.

The democratically elected president, who is trying to revisit the contract over allegations of bribery, has accused the foreign investor of interfering in local governance and possibly even planning a coup.

Africans pay the heaviest price to satisfy the international commercial appetite for their resources. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where 5.4m have died in a devastating, resource-based war, the UN calls foreign multinationals exploiting coltan, a mineral used in electronic devices, "the engine of the conflict."

They included major commercial groups from the U.S., China, Germany and Belgium.

The Pentagon's Africa Center for Strategic Studies recently published a damning report on the mysterious Chinese 'Queensway Group'

and its multi-billion dollar resource and infrastructure deals across the continent through a complex network of offshore front companies. The report branded Queensway "the prototypical predatory investor" adding the company has had a "disastrous impact on governance" in Africa.

One of the most destructive results of the Second Scramble for Africa is the political instability it causes. Commercial coups and attempted coups for profit are an on-going problem. In Equatorial Guinea in 2004, shadowy overseas business interests hired mercenaries to overthrow the government in the hope of gaining oil contracts.

In Guinea-Bissau, dubbed Africa's first "narco-state," Colombian drug cartels have interfered in governance and reportedly backed army factions jostling for power. As the UN reported last year, "West Africa is under attack, from within and especially from abroad."

When the Great Powers launched the First Scramble for Africa, the continent was divided and weak. Today its 52 states, united under the African Union, can fight back and give foreign privateers a bloody nose. Africa needs to box clever by coming to the AU ring and knocking out the Second Scramble with a meaningful deterrent: a purpose-built African-based tribunal with an appropriate, investigative, judicial and asset-tracing platform, with punitive, truth and reconciliation, and compensatory capacity. The international community should reserve front-row tickets to show their support for Africa and take the strongest action against their own corporate transgressors.

African resources must generate wealth for Africans -- not ruthless foreign profiteers. Commercial coups for profit must be consigned to history and the perpetrators of illegal acts brought to justice. International leaders in New York now have the opportunity to stop the Second Scramble for Africa dead in its tracks.