The new scramble for Africa begins

Fifty years ago the decolonisation of Africa began. The next half-century may see the continent recolonised. But the new imperialism will be less benign. Great powers aren't interested in administering wild places any more, still less in settling them: just raping them. Black gangster governments sponsored by self-interested Asian or Western powers could become the central story in 21st-century African history.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Take Zimbabwe. In the Western news media the clichés about Robert Mugabe's “despotism” roll, but this is a despotism crippled by monumental incompetence. The BBC's audience must have been bemused in recent weeks by John Simpson's reports from within a country where, as we are always being reminded, the BBC is banned. I yield to none in my respect for Mr Simpson's courage and ingenuity but only modest quantities of either will have been required to enter the country, move within it or broadcast from it.

Our own correspondent, Jonathan Clayton, was unluckier, but there are journalists in Zimbabwe reporting what Mugabe would stop them reporting if he could. It is chance whom his thugs stumble upon. They may be easily capable of beating to a pulp those poor, anonymous Zimbabweans who cross them, but when it comes to the apparatus of a modern state - effective policing, surveillance, restriction of movement, or censorship which works - the regime in Harare has plainly lost what control it ever had.

Zimbabwe is not Iraq. Any great power could pick a leader in Zimbabwe today, send in a modest military support force to sustain him in power, and follow this up with ten jumbo jets filled with economic, technical and political advisers and half-a-billion-pound's-worth of reconstruction aid. Within a couple of years the intervening power would be sponsoring something tantamount to a puppet government there. In modern management-speak, there exist bunches of low-hanging fruit, overlooked, on the African continent.

If Zimbabwe had oil the Americans would be plucking this fruit already. If the country's mineral resources were greater, if the persistence of white settlers there were not throwing an international spotlight on the news, and if China were not embarrassed by Tibet and the forthcoming Olympics, I think the argument in Bejing for sponsoring either Mugabe or the most amenable available opposition leader would be strong.

It may yet prevail. I had just left school in Africa when Maoist China tried something similar in the early 1970s, constructing a 1,160-mile railway from Zambia to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania to transport copper to the Indian Ocean port. But Tanzania's Julius Nyerere was wily, the construction proved fraught with difficulty, and Chinese advisers and workers did not make themselves popular with local people. China never recovered a decent return on that economic and political investment. China may well yet do so, however. Meanwhile, China's support for a vicious Sudanese regime in Khartoum has been too widely commented on to need rehearsing. Hydrocarbons are the prize.

But enough of China: simply a little hungrier, a little more opportunistic and a little less scrupulous than some of its competitors. This is not about China, but about vacuums into which, if Beijing does not move, then someone else surely will. If modern British governments still had the stomach for this kind of thing we could be more or less in charge of Sierra Leone today, and accept northern Somaliland as a client state tomorrow.

The American neocons were unlucky in the pilot projects they chose. For those seeking the creation of biddable states, Iraq and Afghanistan proved among the least amenable places to pick. But there is something more than the awful bloody nose received in both these Asian interventions, and America's earlier disaster in Vietnam, that may have temporarily blocked Western minds from thinking about neo-imperialist opportunities in sub-Saharan Africa. It is the myth that black liberation movements were formidable. They were not. They were no Vietcong or Algerian FLN. The lesson from 20th- century sub-Saharan Africa is not how irresistible were the forces faced by European imperialism, but how easily, and for how long, they were resisted.

Remember that America was on the other side in this conflict, fanning the flames of African nationalism and undermining the European powers. Yet Belgium - Belgium - managed to hold on to a colony 76 times its size, the Congo, from 1908 (after its rapine private ownership by King Leopold II) until 1960. Contrary to widespread belief, Britain was never beaten by the Mau Mau in Kenya, and in most of the African colonies and protectorates relinquished between 1957 (Ghana) and 1968 (Swaziland) we had been meeting little if any armed resistance. Britain was not drummed but shouted out of Africa.

Portugal, meanwhile, hung on to two territories (now Angola and Mozambique) the first twice the size of Texas, the second twice the size of California, until 1975. For years an impoverished and virtually Third World European tinpot dictatorship sustained two wars simultaneously against nationalist insurgencies in both countries without going under. Meanwhile. a tiny force of white renegades denied victory to Mugabe's Patriotic Front for nearly eight years until 1980: yet there were 20 times as many blacks as whites in Rhodesia, and the breakaway regime of Ian Smith was under international economic siege throughout.

Why then did the great (and lesser) powers of the day turn their backs on empire in Africa in the 20th century, and why in the 21st might their successors return to an interest in acquiring political grip?

European imperial powers lost the will rather than the capacity to own and govern overseas resources. A world in which all could buy and sell on the global market was arriving. It is a world, however, which is now feeling the pinch in the natural resources with which Africa is richly endowed. Meanwhile, the continent is in many places run by outfits that resemble gangs rather than governments. At their most dysfunctional (as in Congo) this disintegration seriously impedes the extraction of resources, because security, communications and infrastructure break down.

But a solution beckons: buy your own gang. You hardly need visit and are certainly not required to administer the gang's territory. You simply give it support, munitions, bribes and protection to keep the roads and airports open; and it pays you with access to resources. You dress up the arrangement as helping Africans to help themselves. The French, who have been doing this in their former African possessions for years, lead the way. But it is when China, then America, and perhaps even Russia or India follow, that the scramble for Africa will truly be resumed.

Hypocrisy, they say, is the homage that vice pays to virtue. During the last scramble for Africa, colonial administration was the homage greed paid to responsibility. But greed may be less sentimental during the next. From a resource-starved industrialised world in the 21st Century, reponsibility for Africa will get no more than a passing nod.

Matthew Parris