The term “the Great Game” was used to describe the rivalry between Britain and Russia as their spheres of influence in Central Asia moved the two world powers towards conflict. The Great Game began in 1830 and lasted throughout the 19th Century. The phrase itself was made famous by Rudyard Kipling in Kim which visualised it in terms of an Anglo-Indian boy and his Afghan mentor foiling Russian intrigues along the highways to India.
For the British, at first it was France whose intentions were questioned. Then it was Russia that moved along the caravan routes of the Silk Road and threatened to establish a new world monarchy on the ruins of the ancient trading routes. Whilst successive British governments were worried by the inexorable southward advance of the Russian empire in Asia, in the early part of the century, the focus of strategic concern was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). Later, as czarist armies overran Central Asia, attention shifted to Persia (Iran), to Afghanistan and finally to the mountain passes of the Himalayas bordering modern-day Pakistan. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, it was a common assumption in Europe that the next great war-the inevitable war-was going to be a showdown between the British and Russian empires.
As it turned the “war to end all wars” or “the Great War” out did not take place in Central Asia but in Europe and across the Ottoman Empire. In more recent times it is the American empire which took on Soviet empire’s advance into Afghanistan but ultimately, as we have witnessed in the past few weeks, the United States has been withdrawn from Afghanistan bringing about the end of almost two hundred years of external intervention in the region.
But just as the Great Game appears to be drawing to a close in Central Asia, it seems that in keeping with any successful reality television show, we are witnessing the start of “The Great Game – Africa Edition”. This version of the franchise is, as the name implies, being played out across the African continent between the People’s Republic of China and the United Sates of America.
China has based itself in Djibouti on 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 Venezuela and in the process has 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 Chinese Yuan. This has placed significant amounts of natural resources at the disposal of China along with significant commercial opportunities that will fall to Chinese technology and manufacturing companies and the large Chinese banks will finance the infrastructure and trade that will follow economic development.
Before the Great Game Africa Edition can begin in earnest, however, the United States needs to declare its home base and all the indications are that it is the ten-island archipelago of Cape Verde which has been doing all it can to show that it should be that base.
For the past year, Cape Verde has been attracting many negative headlines. First, it has actively participated in the arrest and detention of Venezuelan diplomat Alex Saab, secondly, it defied the ECOWAS Court of Justice by failing to comply with decisions of that court requiring Alex Saab to be unconditionally released and, third, it has openly gone against a request from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Geneva, which indicated that Alex Saab should not be extradited until it has had the opportunity to fully investigate allegations of torture and denial of access to health care made by Alex Saab and his defence team.
For a small nation state which proclaims itself 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 to ignore the instructions of a prestigious United Nations body is unprecedented. It can only be concluded that there must be some very compelling reasons for it to behave in this way.
This is where the forthcoming Great Game Africa Edition comes in.
In October 2020 during Senate confirmation hearings, then-nominee Assistant Secretary of Defence for Strategy Planning and Capabilities Victor Mercado called Africa a challenge. He said "We know China is very interested in Africa. Not only in the base they established in Djibouti, but we know they're interested in the west side, like Cape Verde, Equatorial New Guinea."
In an article from February this year, Nikkei Asia noted “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made four calls to Africa since assuming office last month. First to his South African counterpart, followed by a conversation with the chair of the African Union. His third call was to Ethiopia.
On Tuesday, he spoke with Rui Figueiredo, the foreign affairs and defense minister of Cape Verde. The Republic of Cape Verde, or Cabo Verde, is a tiny island nation off the west coast of Africa with a population of around 550,000.
The decision to phone the archipelago, ahead of 52 other members of the African Union, is a strong message from the administration of President Joe Biden that it is serious about the "great power competition" with China.” (Underlining added)
So, it would appear the United States wants to base its participation in the Great Game Africa Edition in the Cape Verdean archipelago. The strategic value to the United States is very clear. Cape Verde lies 600 km off the coast of Senegal and any shipping that comes out of the Mediterranean, or from Europe, passes between Cape Verde and mainland Africa. Importantly, Cape Verde is also the closest point of Africa to South America. Throw into the mix that the United States has announced on 4 July it intends “subject to negotiations” to invest an improbable $400 million (representing over 25% of the GNP of Cape Verde) in the building of a new embassy complex, then perhaps we can see what exactly it is that has tempted Prime Minister Ulisses Correia to abandon every moral principal which the archipelago claims to be represent and acquiesce to the demands of the United States.
It is important, however, to note the “subject to negotiations” caveat placed on the proposed mega-investment by US Ambassador Jeff Diagle. Local commentators are clear about what this means. The only “negotiations” which need to take place are about the United States’ request to have Venezuelan Alex Saab extradited to Miami. Saab was arrested on 12 June 2020 when his aircraft made a refuelling stop in Cape Verde whilst en route to Iran during a Special Mission.
Many irregularities have come to light during the legal process which has been underway in Cape Verde for over a year now and the matter has reached the Constitutional Court of the island nation. In the interim, as noted earlier, the matter has been dealt with by the ECOWAS Court of Justice, the United Nations and Saab’s status as a lawfully 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 is due to 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 or not it seems is down to how far Cape Verde is prepared to bend to political pressure cast as in the form of shameful and illegal request. The implication for Cape Verde of Ambassador Diagle’s words is clear. No extradition means no money.