Natural topography shares a complex relationship with the economy, polity and society of a country. Representing the geographical aspect— which includes physical landscape (mountains, waterbodies etc.), human elements and natural resources— it plays a critical role in shaping the international relations of States. This is reflected specially in case of Africa which is well endowed with natural resources, and has significant reserves of minerals and raw materials in comparison to the world; sometimes of minerals unique only to the continent, such as coltan. This has enabled the African nations to build strategic foreign relations and form geopolitical equations with countries world over.
However, availability of natural resource wealth does not necessarily transform into a stable economy or generate development. In fact, as in case of Africa, exploitation of resources is increasingly a source of violence and tension, negatively impacting the continent’s peace and stability. Notably, the poorest country rankings feature African nations, such as Democratic Republic of Congo. This African nation owns variety of significant natural resources like diamonds, gold, copper, oil, uranium, cobalt, coltan etc., world’s second largest river Congo, benign climate and fertile soil. And yet, this nation which is potentially one of the richest countries on earth is the world’s poorest, and has consistently received low ratings on the UN Human Development Index. Evidently then, the availability of resource wealth poses a challenge for nations and their political relations, studied under Geopolitics.
Geopolitics takes into consideration the existing geographical data and political relations between states, intra-state and supra-national entities. Specifically, Africa’s geopolitical realties can be understood as:
- Regional fragmentation, domestic disparities within zones and intra-state conflicts leading to separatist tendencies as illustrated by creation of South Sudan, which is very rich in oil. It gained independence in 2011 from the North. However, this new entity as well is threatened by the civil strife between factions (constituting to destabilization), who are driven by desire to control the oil wealth.
- Foreign interest in the resource wealth is a salient feature of the African geopolitics. This covetousness is well demonstrated by foreign powers of both the East and the West through their development aids, grand infrastructural projects and soft diplomacy among others. If earlier Africa was made an issue by colonial powers, post the end of World War II the continent transformed into a place of economic interest with the classical powers joining in. China serves a case in point here.
- Inter-state disputes over border, land and sea territories too have been linked to presence of natural resources. For instance, the Agacher border area, a 30 kilometers semi desert strip led to two armed clashes of 1974 and 1985 between Burkina Faso and Mali. One cannot rule the economic interest here, as the strip contains natural gas and mineral resources which can help meet the developing needs of the two countries.
- Lastly, continuous international research and cooperation for natural resources leading to international pacts such as that of Montego Bay Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982. It has allowed uninterrupted series of hydrocarbon discoveries in the Gulf of Guinea from mid-90s; thereby reinstating the need for special economic zones in the continent and driving attention of states towards their maritime borders.
Roland Pourtier in his 2012 article titled “Natural Resources and Conflicts in Sub Saharan Africa” has written:
“The world history of conflicts teaches us that they are always multidimensional; although there is no unambiguous determination, the question of the links between resources and conflicts nevertheless remains.”
He further cites UNEP 2009 report which states:
“Africa accounts for one third of the world’s documented conflicts and the majority of them have a direct link to mining and oil production (Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, DRC and Sudan). “Oil curse,” “blood diamonds, these expressions used by NGOs, strongly express this causal link, which should nevertheless be relativized”
Clearly, natural resources play a critical role in influencing the geopolitics of a region, but they do not necessarily bolster their development or economy. Often, rather they have become a potential source of conflict as exhibited in the case of Africa. The continent’s resource wealth has manifested in form several conflicts, resource mismanagement and dysfunctional corrupt regimes— and therefore impacting Africa’s overall geopolitical reality.
To be further continued…