Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang and U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all embarked on African tours within the past month.
Yellen met with South African officials including President Cyril Ramaphosa last week, just days after the country’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor stood alongside Lavrov and vowed to strengthen bilateral relations between Pretoria and Moscow.
Yellen’s three-country African tour, which also included stops in Senegal and Zambia, was presented as an effort to build trade and investment ties with the continent, accompanied by discussions about sustainable energy and food security initiatives and debt relief.
Yellen noted last week that Africa would “shape the future of the global economy,” signaling the U.S. motivation to re-engage with the continent of 1.4 billion people, but she also said Friday that she had discussed adherence to Russian sanctions in each of the three countries visited.
Earlier in the week, Pandor refused to reiterate any calls for Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine, and took a subtle swipe at Western attempts to influence other countries’ choice of allies. South Africa was one of 17 African nations to abstain from the U.N. vote in March to condemn Russia’s war of aggression.
Perhaps more controversially, South Africa last week announced a joint military exercise with Russia and China next month, coinciding with the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, which drew concern from the White House.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also toured sub-Saharan Africa last year, while U.S. President Joe Biden held a U.S.-Africa Summit in December, perceived as an effort to recoup some of the economic and trade influence Washington has lost to China over the past decade or more. Blinken also stopped off in Egypt on Monday on the first leg of a planned tour of the Middle East amid a renewed spate of Israel-Palestinian violence.
Diplomatic analysts told CNBC last week that the flurry of diplomatic activity should not be seen as a “scramble for Africa,” but rather a demonstration that the continent’s economic and geopolitical bargaining power means it now firmly occupies a seat at the table.
African governments resist taking sides
In the backdrop of Yellen’s trip is Washington’s concern about its waning influence on a continent that has increasingly pivoted toward bilateral relations with global powers that do not overtly exert pressure to adopt certain geopolitical positions.
As such, China has massively expanded its economic presence on the continent in recent years, while Russia has been able to build military and diplomatic influence in certain regions, particularly those beset by civil conflict or insurgency.
Chinese involvement on the continent began in earnest with Beijing’s backing of liberation movements challenging colonial rule, with commercial engagements intensifying from the late 1990s and culminating in the formalizing of the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013.
The Biden administration’s U.S. sub-Saharan Africa strategy was published in August 2022, and frames China’s view of Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken U.S. relations with African peoples and governments.”
Prior to Biden’s U.S.-African Leaders Summit in December, Thomas P. Sheehy, distinguished fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), highlighted that over the decades since the Cold War, China’s presence and influence in almost every African nation has increased significantly, while U.S. influence has “flatlined.”
“China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, hitting $254 billion in 2021, exceeding by a factor of four U.S.-Africa trade. China is the largest provider of foreign direct investment, supporting hundreds of thousands of African jobs. This is roughly double the level of U.S. foreign direct investment,” Sheehy said.
However, he highlighted that most African leaders remember with concern the U.S.-Soviet proxy wars conducted on the continent during the Cold War, and are therefore reluctant to become part of a global power struggle. As such, many African nations desire a strong relationship with both the U.S. and China, and U.S. diplomacy will be more effective when not framed as an “us-or-them” proposition.
“Russia views the region as a permissive environment for parastatals and private military companies, often fomenting instability for strategic and financial benefit,” the strategy paper claims, referring to private military contractors such as Russia’s notorious Wagner Group, which has been increasingly active in politically unstable nations such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
“Russia uses its security and economic ties, as well as disinformation, to undercut Africans’ principled opposition to Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine and related human rights abuses,” the policy paper adds.
Eleonora Tafuro, senior research fellow at the Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia Centre at Italy’s Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told CNBC last week that there was an increasing realization among Western powers that African nations have “their own agency” and it is up to them to decide whether relationships with China, Russia or Turkey, for instance, are in their interests.
“It’s very easy to fall into comparisons with the Cold War and talking about a scramble for Africa, but I think it’s certainly true that the U.S. in particular is trying to make up for certain disengagement,” Tafuro said.
“Africa is not a region that the U.S. wants to be or should be absent from if it wants to keep being a superpower, so I think there is this realization in Washington that it has to be present or at least it has to give the impression that it is present — of course it is present in economic and security terms, especially with some African partners, but it has to show it.”
The increasing appeal of China’s apparent separation of trade and investment from geopolitical requirements was evident in South Africa’s refusal to be “bullied” into adopting a position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sentiment shared across much of the continent.
China and Russia building influence
Alex Vines, managing director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, said in a report last week that China had positioned itself as a contrast to Western governments in its African investments.
“It characterizes its loans as mutually beneficial cooperation between developing countries, promising not to interfere in the internal politics of those it loans to,” Vines said.
“In this respect it presents itself in contrast to Western countries, who are accused by China and some African governments of arrogant, democratic posturing — often by former colonial powers that looted African resources during the 18th and 19th centuries.”
Some Western politicians have voiced fears that China’s loan financing in Africa amount to “debt trap diplomacy,” in which unmanageable debts are racked up so as to allow Beijing to request access for resources as collateral.
China staunchly denies this, and Vines highlighted that while some African nations with extensive Chinese loans — such as Kenya and Zambia — are suffering spiraling debt burdens, their situations “cannot be entirely blamed on Chinese loans.”
“Meanwhile, other African countries have created realistic, manageable debt arrangements with China without the tremendous risk and uncertainties that characterized some major BRI projects,” he highlighted.
Vines also noted that the deluge of loans made during the initial boom of the Belt and Road initiative poses a problem for China, as it may struggle to collect repayments while maintaining its image as a friend of developing nations.
What’s more, the BRI projects were “largely uncoordinated and unplanned,” he said, with competing Chinese lenders offering credit to African nations, challenging the notion of a coherent centralized “debt trap” policy from Beijing.
“However, the idea that China may use debt strategically, to expand its influence in the African content and secure access to resources, cannot be completely dismissed,” Vines said.
“China is an emerging superpower in strategic competition with the U.S. Building stronger economic relationships in Africa would be a logical step in its aspirations to be a global power.”
Mahama: Western arms to Ukraine ‘probably a good thing’
In a Q&A session in London on Friday, former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama noted the resistance among African nations to be drawn into the conflict by Western powers.
“Europe and NATO, I would say, have been occupied with the Ukraine-Russia war, and several times again we are called on to choose which side we’re on,” he told an audience at Chatham House.
“When Tigray and Ethiopia are fighting, we don’t ask you ‘who do you support?’ When two African countries are fighting, we don’t ask anybody in the world ‘who do you support?’ We try to intervene and resolve it. I think that the priority should be how to resolve the conflict.”
Although he called for the conflict to be addressed via international bodies such as the U.N., Mahama did go some way to condemning Russia’s invasion, a step many governments on the continent have been reluctant to take.
“Of course, I don’t believe that it is right for one country to make an incursion into another because if we condone that then you don’t know where it is going to end, so after Ukraine, who else?” Mahama said.
In contrast to South African Foreign Minister Pandor’s loaded remarks on how Western arms supply to Ukraine had changed South Africa’s position, Mahama — who served as president of Ghana from 2012 to 2017 — seemed to view the intervention as necessary.
“NATO and the West will continue to pour in arms to help Ukraine to hold its own, which probably is a good thing, to defend themselves, but this war is not winnable. If eventually it will be solved by dialogue, why would you eat up more human lives before we sit and talk?” he said.
Ghana was one of 28 African nations to vote in favor of the U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, and Mahama noted that Accra retains strong ties with the U.K., U.S. and France with regards to military training and anti-terror support.