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America has handed Africa to China

President Mobutu during a 1978 visit to Paris. Hulton Archive/Getty

In April 1997, says Howard French in Foreign Policy, I joined the US Ambassador to the UN on a trip to Lubumbashi in Zaire (or the Democratic Republic of Congo, as it is today). Protracted civil war between America’s “longtime Cold War client” Mobutu Sese Seko, the declining president, and rebel leader Laurent Kabila had grounded commercial air traffic. But as we came in to land, there was hardly any space to park our plane. In anticipation of Kabila’s victory, private jets that had flown in executives from Western mining companies “occupied almost every spot”. There was so much talk of the riches that awaited these firms that many locals believed the US sponsored Kabila’s takeover, in order to dominate its mineral wealth “into the indefinite future”.

How things change. Just a quarter of a century later, “China owns most of the cobalt mines in Congo”, effectively giving it control over the global supply of a crucial component in batteries. Not only did the US firms fail to keep up, many sold their mines to Chinese rivals. Yes, the “erratic policies of the Kabila government” made it an unforgiving business environment. But America’s failure was really down to its “chronic inability” to pay attention to Africa. China, with a greater appetite for risk and a “longer-term vision about the continent”, ran with the ball. If America wants to compete, it is going to have to reinvent the way it engages with the “world’s fastest growing population centre”, and soon.

🛩🥤 Back in the 1970s, says Dionne Searcey on The Daily, President Nixon did everything he could to keep Mobutu happy: a state dinner at the White House, a trip to Disneyland, and even a C130 cargo plane filled with bottles of Coca-Cola.