The Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road is One of China’s Master Plans for Africa
The word “Africa” conjures vivid images in the minds of many, with most unaware non-Africans reactively recalling stereotypical images of war, famine, and poverty that they were introduced to on a wide scale during the 1990s “African World War” in the Congo, but the present-day reality is markedly different than what most people might imagine. Instead of being a ‘third world’ ‘basket case’ of all the world’s worst problems like the mainstream media persistently tried to present it as for decades, today’s Africa is relatively stable and boasts a high rate of growth which has attracted billions of dollars of Asian investment.
In the context of the New Cold War between the unipolar and multipolar worlds, Africa takes on a premier importance as an unavoidable proxy battleground between these two camps, economically led by the US and China, respectively. Each side wants to harness the continent’s production and consumption capabilities in order to tap into this promising marketplace, eager to take advantage of its cheap labor and growing need for diverse imports. This is less important for the US as it is for the EU, since Washington always has Latin America which it can rely on for this, but Brussels’ Eastern European and Balkan backwaters are no longer as sufficient as they once were in serving as dumping grounds for the Western EU’s excess products and as loosely regulated regions for cyclically producing even more of them. France is at the vanguard of the EU’s African policy, though the US behaves as the “Lead From Behind” ally in providing discrete military assistance whenever necessary, thus heightening its unipolar worth to the EU as a whole.
China, on the other hand, isn’t as exploitative as the Europeans are, contrary to its controversial history of relations with Africa (which was admittedly filled with more than enough cultural and economic shortcomings) and what the Western mainstream media still writes about it in this regard. Beijing, unlike Brussels, genuinely needs mutually beneficial development to occur in Africa in order that the continent can function as a large-scale economic partner for sustaining China’s own growth by profitably channeling its overcapacity and serving as a destination for much-needed outbound investment. While it’s true that China also desires reliable access to Africa’s many natural resources, it’s also now just as equally important for the People’s Republic that the continent’s extractive material industry contributes to the development of a viable commercial economy, and to this end, China has reinvested much of its capital in forging a network of multipolar transnational connective infrastructure projects that can assist with this goal. It’s not just Africa either, but the whole world that’s playing host to China’s many One Belt One Road projects commonly referred to as the New Silk Roads.
Qualifying Caveat/Introductory Disclaimer
The author concisely elaborated on the transcontinental projects that China is advancing through East and Central Africa in a previous piece for Oriental Review, but now it’s time to explore the northern analogues that collectively constitute the Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road from Senegal to Sudan. It’s important for the reader to keep in mind that most of these projects aren’t even built yet, and it’s very possible that this vision will never be actualized in full due to internal corruption, ‘budgetary management’, and the Western-provoked use of Hybrid War to disrupt these projects, the last of which is comparatively easier to pull off in Africa than most other places in the world in seeking to spark divisive identity-driven conflicts. Having said that, this article is intentioned to provide the reader with the bigger picture behind China’s New Silk Road strategy in Africa, particularly as it relates to the transcontinental Sahelian-Saharan. The projected routes of these various infrastructure projects will also provide a clue about where the next Hybrid Wars might break out and could explain why certain ones such as Boko Haram and the civil war in South Sudan have already transpired.
Since most readers will probably be overwhelmed with the details presented in this article, the last part of it ends with a map that illustrates each of the Silk Road projects that are discussed below and concludes with a few strategic observations about the bigger picture being presented.
Bringing Giants Together
In the grand scheme of things and from the perspective of China’s New Silk Road vision, natural economic logic suggests that the continent would be best served if its two most populous countries were connected to one another, which would help each of them benefit from the other’s growth as well as encourage more intra-African trade in general. In practice, this means that a transport corridor would have to be constructed between Nigeria and Ethiopia (and its Red Sea maritime outlet of Djibouti), with the quickest route being through the resource-rich states of South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Cameroon. Unfortunately, the first two of the three transit countries were purposely destroyed by the US’ meddling intrigue and therefore logistically unreliable and horrendously unsafe.
The CCS Detour
An alternative route had to be blazed which made the best out of the given circumstances and still endeavored to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, which is why China went ahead with funding the oft-delayed Cameroon-Chad-Sudan (CCS) Silk Road from Douala to Port Sudan (via N’Djamena). Still, this project doesn’t directly link up with Nigeria, which was supposed to be the main purpose behind the entire vision, though it does get very close to doing so in both the Chadian capital and the Cameroonian port, leaving space for northern and southern branch lines (whether rail or highway) to extend into the country whenever the situation is deemed safe enough. Security is an issue in Northeast Nigeria because of Boko Haram, which coincidentally became a major problem right around the time that both South Sudan and the Central African Republic descended into chaos, while Southeastern Nigeria is recently experiencing a surge of violence from criminal gangs and self-proclaimed separatists, thus explaining why the CCS Silk Road isn’t the NCS Silk Road and doesn’t formally include Nigeria.
The Nigerian Silk Roads
The purpose of the three Nigerian Silk Roads is therefore to connect the country to the CCS Silk Road via the branch lines that were spoken about above, taking care to run through the most important and economically promising areas of the country in order to best utilize this game-changing series of infrastructure investments.
The first project of significance is the $11 billion Lagos-Calabar Silk Road that was agreed to in July and which plans to run along the entirety of the Nigerian coastline, though dangerously through the oil-rich southeastern region currently beset by low-intensity criminal-separatist violence. Although ending right before the Cameroonian border, a short interconnector could foreseeably be built one day in linking Calabar with Douala and thus joining the Lagos-Calabar Silk Road with the CCS one. Functionally speaking, this would accomplish the goal of connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Red Sea, and while the CCS Silk Road (which itself isn’t yet built) doesn’t penetrate into Ethiopia, a branch line could be constructed one of these days in finally fulfilling the master plan of bringing the Nigerian and Ethiopian giants together.
The second Nigerian Silk Road route is the one between Lagos and Kano by means of Abuja, which will connect the two largest cities in the country via the capital when it’s finally completed. This is a strategically crucial route because it doesn’t run through any ongoing Hybrid War-afflicted areas, as in it’s not affected by Boko Haram nor any of the Southern separatists. That isn’t to say that its long-term security is inherently guaranteed and couldn’t be offset by a future conflict between the central authorities and the Yoruba-nationalist Oodua People’s Congress, but that it’s generally the safest of the three Nigerian Silk Roads and the least likely to be destabilized in the short term.
The last branch of the Nigerian Silk Road runs from the southeastern oil capital of Port Harcourt to the capital of Boko Haram’s Borno State, Maiduguri, in the northeast of the country. This corridor is the eastern counterpart of the Lagos-Kano line, but unlike its western analogue, it passes through the doubly destabilized regions of the criminal-separatist Southeast and the Salafist Northeast, making it the most strategically risky of the three routes but also the one which would most directly connect Nigeria with N’Djamena and thenceforth with the rest of the CCS Silk Road up until its Red Sea terminus. It’s for this reason, alongside corruption and other related challenges, that the route’s modernization has been beset by numerous delays and will probably be the last of the three to enter into operation.
Just like how the Lagos-Calabar Silk Road need a short interconnector to link it up with the CCS Silk Road terminal of Douala, so too does its perpendicular portions of Lagos-Kano and Port Harcourt-Maiduguri need their own for joining together and reaching N’Djamena. While this isn’t officially in the cards at the moment, it makes complete sense for it to eventually be built, but only after all three lines are up and running first. Additionally, Boko Haram needs to be defeated beforehand and Northeastern Nigeria needs to be pacified in order to ensure this project’s lasting security.
The Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road And The West African Rail Loop
Nigeria is one of the most crucial countries for China’s New Silk Road, strategy in Africa not just because of its own promise as the most populous country on the continent and its second-largest economy, but because of the geographically facilitating role that it plays in extending OBOR all across Africa. Nigeria is approximately midway between Senegal and Sudan, and given the existing infrastructure investments that China is partaking in all throughout West Africa’s main state, it makes sense for any additional projects west of Nigeria to pass through it en route to Sudan (or eventually Ethiopia one day).
The first project of repute is what the author has dubbed the Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road, which is pretty much just Trans-African Highways 5 and 6, the former being from Dakar to N’Djamena and the latter being from the Chadian capital to Djibouti. Trans-African Highway 6 mostly overlaps with the Chadian-Sudanese parts of the CCS Silk Road, with the main exception being that the Chinese-invested rail project breaks with the continental-wide highway one in veering off to Port Sudan instead of Ethiopia, at least for the time being. As for the Trans-African Highway 5, its projected modification is that it has the very real chance of accommodating rail transport just like its eastern is eventually envisioned to, since the Dakar-Bamako portion between the Senegalese and Malian capitals is presently being built with Chinese assistance. If this railroad were extended to the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou, then it would successfully link up with the West African Rail Loop, which connects to the Nigerien capital of Niamey, Nigeria’s Lagos (and thus to the Lagos-Caladan Silk Road), the largest Beninese city and only seaport of Cotonou, and the Togolese, Ghanaian, and Ivorian capitals of Lomé, Accra, and Abidjan.
Concerning the remaining portion of Trans-African Highway 5 between Niamey and N’Djamena, that too has the chance to be developed into a railroad and all that it takes is yet another short line being built, though this time between the Nigerien capital and the second-largest Nigerian city of Kano. After that, the Kano-Maiduguri-N’Djamena Interconnector written about above would suffice for completing the last part of Trans-African Highway 5. There is, however, a possibility that a workaround could be constructed between Kano and N’Djamena, especially if Northern Nigeria falls deeper into violence and the original direct route to the Chadian capital becomes unviable. In that case, it might be necessary to construct a detour from Niamey and Kano to the second-largest Nigerien city of Zinder, and thenceforth continue along Niger’s densely populated southern border belt all the way to Lake Chad, choosing either to go around it by cutting through the northeastern tip of Nigeria (which might not be feasible amidst the prolonged circumstances of destabilization that gave rise to the rerouting in the first place) or via the longer way around the Chadian section.
In summary, Nigeria forms the irreplaceably crucial juncture of China’s Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road in linking the Atlantic country of Senegal with the Red Sea-bordering state of Sudan. In principle, Nigeria still functions as a very important node on China’s New Silk Road even without its various interconnections to the rest of West Africa or further across the eastern reaches of the continent, in that each of the three Nigerian Silk Roads are economically sound and strategic investments on their own. When all three are taken together as an integrated infrastructural package, the unified project acquires a significance much larger than the sum of its total parts, and this is exponentially multiplied with each of the other Silk Road projects that it ultimately connects to (CCS Silk Road, West African Rail Loop, and Trans-African Highway/Railway 5).
Red: CCS (Cameroon-Chad-Sudan) Silk Road
Gold: Trans-African Highway 5
Lavender: Ethiopia-Nigeria Silk Road (the most direct projected route through resource-rich territory)
Pink: West African Rail Loop
Blue: Lagos-Calabar Silk Road
Green: Lagos-Kano Silk Road
Yellow: Port Harcourt-Maiduguri Silk Road
Several salient conclusions can be reached from the above map:
* The Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road is pretty much just a slightly modified and rail modernized version of Trans-African Highways 5 and 6 that aims to connect Dakar with Djibouti;
* The Chadian capital of N’Djamena will acquire heightened significance as a crucial juncture and transit point along the Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road due to its geographically central location;
* Boko Haram’s terrorist insurgency in the Lake Chad basin threatens to sabotage China’s transcontinental plans through the formation of a black hole of chaos right in the middle of the route;
* Burkina Faso and the Sudanese region of Darfur lie in the middle of the Western and Eastern parts of this transcontinental corridor and could thus become prime Hybrid War targets for splitting each half;
* and the West African Rail Loop and Nigerian Silk Roads essentially serve as southern branches of the Sahelian-Saharan Silk Road, and the latter is a means for linking the Gulf of Guinea and Red Sea markets.
By Andrew Korybko