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Global powers engaged in struggle to secure bases of influence in Africa

The U.S., China, Russia and the EU are all seeking to strengthen ties on the continent as changes in the international order and new alliances emerge over the war in Ukraine

Kamala Harris Zambia
US Vice President Kamala Harris after landing in Lusaka, Zambia on March 31.Salim Dawood (AP)
Óscar Gutiérrez

A new scramble for Africa is in full swing between the United States, China, Russia, and Europe, with regional players such as Turkey and the Gulf nations also in contention. Among the countries jostling for position, the U.S. has started to pull out in front. Several high-ranking members of the Joe Biden administration, including the First Lady, Jill Biden, have visited the continent during the first four months of the year, a frenetic agenda no other country has been able to match. Russia’s drive to gain influence in the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa has been ongoing for some time, with the mercenary Wagner Group spearheading Moscow’s operations. Meanwhile, China rules the roost in terms of trading partners, albeit with increasingly low-key investments. Europe, on the other hand, is lagging behind. “I notice a greater effort by the major powers to get African countries on their side in order to gain credibility and build ties,” says Ronak Gopaldas, a consultant for the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa. Among the reasons for this, Gopaldas adds, is the new “fragmentation” of the international order that has resulted from the war in Ukraine.

Between Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Washington has paid visits to a dozen African countries since the turn of the year. Joe Biden is expected to travel to the continent this year for the first since taking office, although no dates have yet been set. Last December, the U.S. president kicked off Washington’s diplomatic offensive by hosting the second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the White House, bringing together 49 African heads of state and senior officials.

It had been eight years since Barack Obama hosted the first summit in 2014. In the interim, relations between Africa and Washington deteriorated during the Donald Trump administration, which displayed absolute indifference toward the continent. Biden’s White House is now engaged in a determined effort to get Africa back on side. “There is an impetus to repair the damage caused to U.S.-Africa relations during the previous period,” Gopaldas says, “as well as a change in the manner of the relationship, with more balance and higher-level visits and summits.”

There has also been a significant shift in the amount of money the U.S. is willing to spend. Vice President Harris traveled to Accra in March and announced a $100 million, 10-year security plan to combat violent extremism in Benin, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Ghana. Washington also pledged a further $139 million to Ghana, which is attempting to pay off its debts to China, for economic and cultural programs. Also in March, Blinken visited Ethiopia and presented a $331 million humanitarian aid package to alleviate the effects of the war between government troops and Tigray militias.

Chinese investment

“Concern about China,” notes analyst Alex Vines, who heads up the Africa Program at the London-based Chatham House think tank, “is the key driver of U.S. policy toward Africa today.” According to Vines, Washington is disquieted by the foundations already laid by Beijing on the continent, but also about its acquisition of “critical and strategic minerals for Chinese supply chains.”

Beijing’s interest in Africa is long-standing. The new Chinese Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, visited Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin, and Egypt in January. It was his first trip since taking office - a statement of Beijing’s intentions - but also nothing new. For the past 33 years, the Chinese highest-ranking Chinese diplomatic representative has continuously chosen Africa as his first destination, and President Xi Jinping visited the continent on a dozen occasions between 2014 and 2020. Beijing has been investing heavily in Africa in recent years and leads the way in terms of financial immersion in the continent, the last stop on its New Silk Road, based on trade, investment in infrastructure and loans. However, this model is beginning to show some signs of slowing down.

According to the latest China Belt and Road Initiative Investment Report, compiled by a business school at Fudan University in Shanghai, funds for sub-Saharan Africa suffered a record drop of more than 50% last year — 44% in construction and 65% in investment — in favor, above all, of countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. “Since Covid,” says Gopaldas, “China has changed its approach to the continent to be more selective.” Underlying this trend is the inability of many African countries to take on more debt and the continent’s vulnerability to the effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the grain trade, which is vital for many markets in the region.

The war in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a good scenario to assess the revival of Moscow’s interest in Africa, which began around 2015. The United Nations General Assembly held on February 23 in New York passed a resolution calling for an immediate end to the conflict, with 141 votes in favor, seven against and 32 abstentions. Of the latter, 15 came from African countries, many of them with strong ties to the Kremlin, especially in security matters. Among the seven that rejected the U.N. resolution were Mali and Eritrea.

Mali, where the influence of the Wagner Group is particularly acute, was one of the stops made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last January. The veteran diplomat also traveled to Mauritania and Sudan, where an armed power struggle between government forces and paramilitary militia is engulfing the country. A month earlier Lavrov visited South Africa — with which Russia maintains excellent relations — Angola and Swaziland. Last July, he travelled to Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda, and Ethiopia, where he met with the leaders of the African Union. This overt effort to revive the strong ties developed during the Cold War will culminate in July with the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg. The first, held in 2019, brought together 43 African leaders.

While Europe has not been as active in attempting to retain its place on Africa’s radar, there is mutual interest in developing relationships. “African countries,” notes Vines, “do not want to be pigeonholed and therefore also seek to maintain diversified international partnerships, including with EU member states.” However, relations between Africa and European countries remain burdened by the atrocities of the colonial era. French President Emmanuel Macron visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Angola and Congo-Brazzaville in March amid growing anti-French sentiment in the Sahel, especially in Mali and Burkina Faso, where French troops have been forced to withdraw.

Also in March, U.K. Home Secretary Suella Braverman traveled to Rwanda to put into effect a controversial plan to deport migrants to the country. The issue of migration, as well as energy, was on the agenda when Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni traveled to Algeria and Libya in January, and more recently to Ethiopia. “Europe’s relations with Africa are not as strong as they could be,” Gopaldas notes. “They are still marked by the past. African countries want to be treated as equals.”

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