Whom Does Africa Really Need?

Africa emerges as a new geopolitical battleground

Countering Russian influence in Africa is becoming a priority for US foreign policy. On March 31, 2022, the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act was submitted to the US Congress. The bill is designed to assist the State Department in creating a specific program to combat Russian influence and activities in Africa.

The fact that Congress is targeting Russia despite Moscow’s relatively modest presence in Africa shows that the continent is emerging as a key battleground. There is growing concern that Russia may squeeze the United States, France, China, Great Britain and Turkey out of Africa to become the continent’s most important partner.

As soon as the new bill is enacted, the State Department will have 90 days to develop a strategy and an implementation plan to contain Russia in Africa. In addition, the State Department will have to provide regular reports on Russia’s "diplomatic, military and security priorities". These include Russian engagement with "strategic sectors such as mining, military basing, information and communications technology".  

Among other things, the bill requires "an identification of African governments and government officials that have facilitated payments and other prohibited activities that benefit United States-sanctioned individuals and entities tied to Russia", as well as an assessment of Russia’s military involvement in Africa, particularly the Wagner Group’s activities in Sudan, the Central African Republic, Lybia and across the Sahel.

Commenting on the bill, US. Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said it was important that countries in Africa do not become "sanctuaries for oligarchs' ill-gotten gains, for them to stash their aeroplanes and their yachts". Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York and one of the bill's sponsors, stated that special attention should be paid to "unaccountable private military contractors, embedded political operatives and disinformation troll farms".

The bill is not only about tracking Russian activity in Africa. It focuses on programs "to strengthen democratic institutions and improve standards related to human rights, labour and anti-corruption initiatives."

The values, institutions, education and investment opportunities brought by the Americans still have some fans among Africa’s general population and elite. However, the neoliberal economic model, an aura of "white" neocolonialism and the ease with which the US surrenders its local allies make the American way of doing things less appealing.

The US has fallen far behind China in terms of trade with Africa. Beijing's turnover tops $200 billion a year, while US trade with Africa is merely one-third of China's. Unlike Western countries, China heavily invests in mining and infrastructure projects: Beijing is building railways, ports, hospitals, and similar facilities across Africa. As a result, China has become the leading trading partner for dozens of African nations that used to rely on the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. It would be no exaggeration to say that China effectively controls the economies of several African countries. There is no "victory march" of the Chinese across Africa as "a new Soviet Union" or a new model for African developing countries to follow.  

The Chinese approach tends to alienate African peoples and elites alike. On the surface, China invests a lot in local economies. In reality, though, Beijing awards contracts to Chinese companies, pushing African countries further into debt. When it comes to repayment, Beijing is very demanding. If African countries are unable to pay China back for some reason, Beijing requires new projects. 

The Chinese are known for corrupting local officials and looking down on the local population, which in turn causes pushback from the Africans. The locals view the newcomers from Asia as more brutal colonizers than the Europeans.

It should be noted that Beijing cannot defend its interests across Africa by using force. All of this limits China's options in Africa: Beijing is rich, but it remains alien to Africa culturally and mentally and is, therefore, less appealing as a partner than Europe.

The role played by Africa on the world stage is set to grow significantly in the coming years. Boasting vast natural and human resources, the continent has always been open to the outside world, both in terms of outgoing migration and giving foreigners access to its resources. By 2050, 2.5 billion people will live in Africa, a quarter of the world's population.

This is not to say that African countries are doomed to neocolonial exploitation. Nor does this imply that they cannot determine their fate or develop independently. Rwanda is perhaps the most striking example. After years of war and genocide, it has become a rapidly growing, clean and safe country.

Africa's enormous economic and social potential, combined with room for improvement across the continent, presents tremendous opportunities. It is no surprise that Turkey, India, Japan, Israel, the UAE, Indonesia, Russia and other countries are working hard to expand their presence on the continent.

This list of countries is quite long, yet only Russia has merited a dedicated US policy of containment even though Moscow has long since lost its portfolio of "Soviet-African cooperation".

Targeting Russia and its African allies is mainly since Moscow may play a unique role in helping Africa grow. Firstly, the Africans have not perceived the Russians as an imperialist threat since the days of the Soviet Union, and the Russians have always been given the green light to work around the continent. 

Secondly, Moscow has shown unprecedented effectiveness during the complex military conflicts in the Central African Republic and Mali. Employing relatively small forces, Russia has managed to ensure stability and security that these areas have not seen in decades. The French were either unable or unwilling to address the situation. Russia’s role in resolving the conflicts has made a lasting impression across Africa.

Thirdly and most importantly, Russia can provide Africa with food and energy. Many African countries are already highly dependent on grain and sunflower oil imports from Russia and Ukraine. Africa's energy independence may be achieved by working with Rosatom to build dozens of nuclear power plants.

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