"Reset!" That was the magic word often used during US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's first visit to Africa, with the message that "years of neglect" under the Trump administration were over and that the Biden presidency would see a new golden dawn in US relations with the turbulent continent. At the time, few people remembered that Hillary Clinton had used the "reset" cliché about US-Russia relations during the first Obama administration.
But if it took Clinton's reset ten years to prove be a dangerous illusion, Blinken's reset has turned out to be another monumental gaffe within less than two years. To be sure, the Biden administration did the usual diplomatic charade by organizing a US-Africa summit, providing countless photo-ops coupled with fantastic promises. Washington went even further by sending an expeditionary force to Niger to wipe out "terrorist groups" in the Sahel with the help of French and other European Union forces.
Since then, however, the "reset" has worked against the strategic interests of the US and its European allies. Four of the Sahel countries have experienced military coups that have brought anti-West generals, their chests covered with sundry medals, to power. Gabon, not far from the Sahel, has also seen regime change brought about by what looks like a palace coup. In all the countries concerned, Russian flags and insignia of the mercenary army Wagner Group have appeared in "spontaneous" anti-West demonstrations in support of the putschists.
If seasoned Africa-watchers are right, at least eight other nations in the continent may also experience military coups within the next year or two.
The current United Nations General Assembly session, held in New York, has turned the flashlights on Africa as the latest scene of big power rivalry with China, Russia, France and the US and, on a smaller scale Turkey, trying to expand their influence or at least protect what influence they already have. French diplomats are passing the message that the world may need an international conference to set diplomatic demarcation lines in Africa. This sounds like a cry back to the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, when European colonial powers divided the "black continent" among themselves, with the US given a morsel in the shape of Liberia, a state created by Washington in the hope of persuading African-Americans to "return home".
Today, Africa is no longer a mere object in its own history. Two generations after independence -- an independence marked by many failures and yet inspiring pride and hope among Africans -- it is no longer possible for "big powers" to play the game according to their own rules. Africa today is seen both as a threat and a promise. The supposed threat comes from its demographic explosion that could send endless numbers of would-be immigrants not only to Europe but also to the Middle East. Parts of the continent are also becoming havens for a variety of terrorist, or as Obama would have it "violent extremist," groups replacing the badlands of Afghanistan and war-torn Syria.
The promise comes from Africa's immense and largely untapped natural resources. The continent accounts for around 16 percent of the world's population but has some 60 percent of the arable land on the planet.
And, yet, at least 14 of the continent's 56 nations are only months away from famine, according to World Food Program, while 30 others suffer shortages and chronic hunger. In many cases, the cash crop economy, supplying what the rich nations want, prevents the production of staple foods for the locals. The three C's, coffee, cocoa and cotton, for example, make almost all West African nations dependent on imports of rice, wheat and other grains, hence the devastating impact of the Russian war on Ukraine. Provided its resources are directed at feeding the region, Guinea alone could be the bread basket of its region.
Africa's immense mineral resources, including some of the rarest and most coveted, are arousing as much, if not more, appetite for colonial domination, albeit in new forms including long-term contracts, loans part of which end up in few pockets and, of course, token military forces in more than two dozen countries. Unsure of their future, local ruling elites always try to build a nest-egg for themselves in former colonial capitals. The new military rulers in Gabon have revealed that the toppled dictator, Ali Bongo, and his late father President Omar Ali Bongo, financed all French political parties, left and right (with the exception of the Communist Party) for over half a century.
The trouble is that while "big powers" have built a big appetite for African resources, none of them has the clout, or let's say the teeth, necessary to impose a neo-colonial agenda on the continent. Both China and Russia, newcomers to the Great Game, lack the knowledge, the network of connections and the politico-cultural sex-appeal without which any imperialist or neo-imperialist scheme could succeed.
The European countries, especially Britain and France, that still enjoy such advantages are hampered by the fact that their public opinions are not interested in, not to say hostile to, any special relations with the "black continent". As for the US, it seems so mired in its own cultural-political civil war that few might wish to rely on it as a long-term ally and/or partner.
The idea of a big conference on Africa is a non-starter. Not only it will set alarms ringing about neo-colonialism, but it is also unlikely to win the popular support within the continent and beyond without which the best laid plans are sure to go awry. More importantly, perhaps, African nations have too many bilateral and multilateral problems of their own to be able to present a united front in any international "reset".
Africa today consists of 56 different experiences in nation-building with some remarkable successes and many inevitable failures. In many African countries a new player has entered the game: a younger generation that is better educated, more ambitious and, at the same time, less gullible than its ancestors in the 19th century who looked away while imperial powers carved the golden goose.
With a one-size-fits-all scheme being out of the question, maybe the best way to "reset" relations with Africa is on a bilateral basis. As the nation-state is making a comeback even in old Europe, there is no reason why it should not be seen as the best vehicle for redefining Africa's role in reshaping the global system.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.