Throughout the 19th century, Britain was haunted by the fear that one of the other European powers would take advantage of the political decline that followed the decline of Islamic Asia, or what is now sometimes referred to as West Central Asia.
The term “the Great Game” was used to describe the rivalry between Britain and Russia as their spheres of influence in Central Asia brought the two world powers closer to conflict. The Great Game began in 1830 and lasted throughout the 19th century. The phrase itself was made famous by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, who visualized it in terms of an Anglo-Indian boy and his Afghan mentor thwarting Russian intrigues along the roads to India.
For the British, at first it was France that questioned his intentions. Then it was Russia that advanced along the Silk Road caravan routes and threatened to establish a new world monarchy on the ruins of the old trade routes. While successive British governments were concerned about the inexorable southward advance of the Russian empire in Asia, at the turn of the century, the center of strategic concern was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Later, when the tsarist armies invaded Central Asia, attention shifted to Persia (Iran), to Afghanistan, and finally to the Himalayan mountain passes bordering present-day Pakistan. In the last quarter of the 19th century, it was a common assumption in Europe that the next great war – the inevitable war – was going to be a confrontation between the British and Russian empires.
But the “war to end all wars” or “the Great War” took place not in Central Asia, but in Europe and the Ottoman Empire. In more recent times it is the U.S. empire that faced the advancing Soviet empire in Afghanistan, but ultimately, as we have seen in recent weeks, the United States has withdrawn from Afghanistan ending nearly two hundred years of foreign intervention in the region.
But just as the Great Game seems to be coming to an end in Central Asia, it seems that, in keeping with any successful reality show, we are witnessing the beginning of “The Great Game – Africa Edition.” This version of the franchise, as the name suggests, is set on the African continent between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America.
China has set up shop in Djibouti, in the eastern part of the continent, with immediate access to the Gulf of Aden, just south of the Red Sea, which in turn leads to the all-important Suez Canal. The United States, which for decades has been preoccupied with all things Middle Eastern and Venezuelan and in the process vacated its seat at the head of the moral compass of the Western liberal order, has found that most of the continent has succumbed to the lure of the Chinese yuan. This has made significant amounts of natural resources available to China along with significant trade opportunities that will fall to Chinese technology and manufacturing companies and large Chinese banks will finance the infrastructure and trade that will follow economic development.
However, before the Great Africa Edition Game can begin in earnest, the United States needs to declare its base of operations and all indications are that it is the ten-island archipelago of Cape Verde that has been doing its best to demonstrate that it should be that base.
Over the past year, Cape Verde has grabbed many negative headlines. First, it has been actively involved in the arrest and detention of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab; second, it has defied the ECOWAS Court of Justice by not complying with that court’s decisions demanding Alex Saab’s unconditional release; and third, it has openly gone against a request by the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Committee that Alex Saab should not be extradited until there has been an opportunity to fully investigate the allegations of torture and denial of access to health care brought by Alex Saab and his defense team.
For a small nation state that claims to be a model of democracy for the African continent to deliberately defy international conventions, defy the binding decisions of a respected human rights court and disregard the instructions of a prestigious United Nations agency is unprecedented. One can only conclude that there must be very compelling reasons for him to behave in this manner.
This is where the next edition of The Great Game Africa Edition comes in.
In October 2020, during Senate confirmation hearings, then Under Secretary of Defense nominee for Strategic Planning and Capabilities Victor Mercado called Africa a challenge. He said, “We know that China is very interested in Africa. Not only in the base they established in Djibouti, but we know they are interested in the western part, like Cape Verde, Equatorial New Guinea.”
In a February article this year, Nikkei Asia noted that “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made four calls to Africa since taking office last month. First to his South African counterpart, followed by a conversation with the chairman of the African Union. His third call was to Ethiopia.
On Tuesday he spoke with Rui Figueiredo, Cape Verde‘s foreign and defense minister. The Republic of Cape Verde is a small island nation off the west coast of Africa, with a population of about 550,000.
The decision to phone the archipelago, ahead of 52 other African Union members, is a strong message from President Joe Biden’s administration that it is serious about ‘great power competition’ with China.” (Emphasis added)
Thus, it appears that the U.S. wants to base its participation in the Africa Great Game edition in the Cape Verde archipelago. The strategic value for the United States is very clear. Cape Verde is 600 km off the coast of Senegal and any ship leaving the Mediterranean, or Europe, passes between Cape Verde and the African continent. Moreover, Cape Verde is the closest point in Africa to South America. If we add that the United States announced on July 4 its intention to invest, “subject to negotiations,” an improbable $400 million (representing more than 25% of Cape Verde’s GNP) in the construction of a new embassy complex, perhaps we can see what exactly has tempted Prime Minister Ulisses Correia to abandon all the moral principles that the archipelago claims to stand for and acquiesce to U.S. demands.
However, it is important to note the caveat “subject to negotiations” that U.S. Ambassador Jeff Diagle has placed on the proposed mega-investment. Local commentators are clear on what this means. The only “negotiations” that need to take place are over the US request for Venezuelan Alex Saab to be extradited to Miami. Saab was detained on June 12, 2020 when his plane made a refueling stop in Cape Verde while en route to Iran during a special mission.
Many irregularities have come to light during the judicial process that has been ongoing in Cape Verde for over a year now and the matter has reached the island nation’s Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, as noted above, the matter has been dealt with by the ECOWAS Court of Justice and by the United Nations, and Saab’s status as a legally appointed diplomat and the fact that this entitles him to immunity and inviolability has been publicly highlighted by Russia, Iran and China. The Constitutional Court must decide on the dozen irregularities and whether Alex Saab is extradited in the coming days.
Make no mistake, the Great Game African Edition is almost here. Whether or not Cape Verde has a role to play seems to depend on how far it is willing to bow to political pressure exerted in the form of a shameful and illegal request. The implication for Cape Verde of Ambassador Diagle’s words is clear. No extradition, no money.