World powers on a charm offensive in Africa

February 2023

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Africa is becoming the destination of choice for senior officials from the world’s superpowers. Since the beginning of 2023, China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have all visited the continent. French President Emmanuel Macron also embarks on a four-country African tour this week, while US President Joe Biden has pledged to travel to Africa this year.

Coming on the heels of the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in December, and ahead of the second Russia-Africa Summit in July, these high-level visits highlight growing competition between major powers in Africa. From pushing a narrative on the Ukraine conflict or Africa’s debt, to pursuing security partnerships or securing access to critical minerals, China, Russia, the US and the EU are all vying to strengthen – or retain – their diplomatic, economic and military influence on the continent. Africa Matters Limited explores below some of the ways in which this competition is playing out today.

Wanted: diplomatic allies

As the Ukraine conflict has exacerbated the rivalry between the West and the Russia-China camp, both sides have been looking for diplomatic allies. On 23 February, the 193-member UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of “comprehensive, just and lasting peace” in Ukraine, and for Russia’s immediate withdrawal from the country. Africa accounted for 23 of the 52 countries that did not back the bill, with 15 abstaining, six absent, and two – Mali and Eritrea – voting against.

Although only two African countries voted with Russia, the high number of abstentions and absences are in themselves a victory for Moscow, in that they mean fewer voices backing the Western narrative on Ukraine. More broadly, it means many African countries are hesitant to pick a side in the tussle between Russia and the West. This may be because of long-standing relationships with Russia’s Soviet predecessor, or because Moscow’s recent charm offensive on the continent is slowly paying off. In their search for allies, Russia and China will continue to call for enfranchisement of the Global South, including via the – albeit underperforming – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) bloc. In response, the West will need to offer Africa an alternative avenue to have its voice heard. This is highlighted by recent US and EU support for the African Union (AU) to have a seat in the G20 and a permanent presence on the UN Security Council.

The “Chinese barrier”

Meanwhile, Yellen’s trip marked an effort to challenge China’s “economic statecraft” in Africa, a promise she had made during her 2021 confirmation hearing. Backed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese banks and companies in recent years have invested billions of dollars towards infrastructure projects across Africa. As such, Chinese lenders now account for USD 700 billion – or 12 percent – of Africa’s public and private external debt. However, the West has accused Beijing of opaque and predatory lending practices, while blaming China for dragging its feet in restructuring some countries’ debt. Yellen notably called China a “barrier” to ending the debt crisis in Zambia – the country defaulted on its USD 17 billion sovereign debt in 2020, a third of which is held by China.

However, Africa’s debt issue does not rest on China alone, with private creditors – including commodity traders – also holding a sizeable part of Africa’s debt. Meanwhile, Beijing in recent months seems to have shown some willingness to address the African debt issue, at least on a case-by-case basis. It notably endorsed (with some hesitancy) the G20 Common Framework – intended to provide a medium-term alternative to assist countries in debt distress – and also forgave 23 interest-free loans for 17 African countries in August 2022. While maybe justified in voicing concerns with China’s “abusive economic practices” – to quote Yellen – the US thus needs to acknowledge these dynamics. More importantly, if it hopes to lure African countries away from China’s ‘debt trap diplomacy’, it will need to offer African governments and businesses alternative sources of funding, something that Washington has, so far, only partially delivered.

Pursuing military partnerships

Additionally, Russia and China in recent years have sought to expand their military influence across Africa. On 17-27 February, the two countries led joint naval exercises with South Africa off the coast of Durban and Richards Bay, prompting concerns from US and EU officials. More broadly, Moscow in recent years has signed military cooperation agreements with over 20 African countries, while operatives from Russia’s Wagner Group, active in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali, are making overtures elsewhere. Meanwhile, China in 2017 established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, while Washington is concerned Beijing is eyeing other bases in Angola and Equatorial Guinea – giving them influence over the Western seaboard.

Growing Russian and Chinese military influence comes at the expense of some of Africa’s traditional military partners. In particular, amid growing anti-French sentiment in West and Central Africa, France in recent months has withdrawn its troops from Burkina Faso and Mali, and ended its counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane in the Sahel. Although France retains several bases across the region, and will continue to provide intelligence, logistical, or military support to some of its allies, it no longer enjoys the military influence it had enjoyed since independence.

Accessing critical minerals

More strategically, major powers are increasingly scrambling for access to the critical minerals that will power the clean energy transition. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), demand for these minerals – including cobalt, copper, lithium, and other minerals used in electric vehicle batteries and other green technologies – is expected to quadruple by 2040. However, while China only accounts for a third of the world’s rare earth reserves, it currently controls 60 percent of global production and 85 percent of processing capacity. Western partners are thus increasingly keen to reduce their dependence on China, highlighted by the launch in June 2022 of the Minerals Security Partnership (MSP), a US-led multilateral initiative to bolster critical mineral supply chains.

With Africa holding some of the largest deposits of critical minerals, Western powers have been busy building alliances with mineral-producing countries across the continent. In December, the Biden administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Zambia to jointly develop the supply chain for electric vehicle batteries. The DRC produces over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, while Zambia is the sixth-largest copper producer globally. A month earlier during COP27 in Egypt, the EU and Namibia signed an MoU for Namibia to export rare earth minerals and green hydrogen to the EU. Further similar deals are likely over the coming months.

A new ‘Scramble for Africa’?

In many ways, global powers are thus still scrambling for Africa. However, unlike a century ago, African governments and societies are today active players in that scramble, with the bargaining power to choose how to vote at the UN or where to send their much-coveted mineral resources. Symbolising this new paradigm, DRC President Félix Tshisekedi earlier this month stressed that his country would pursue “mutually beneficial agreements” with foreign partners to ensure “win-win” solutions – a concept popular amongst Congolese decision-makers.

Perhaps more importantly, as independent actors looking out for their own interests, African countries are resisting pressure on them to take sides in this global power struggle. Responding to Western concerns about Russian and Chinese naval exercises off its coast, South Africa said it was free to conduct exercises with allies, and pointed it had held similar exercises with US and EU partners before. South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor last year also stressed her country would not let itself be “bullied” into taking sides on the Ukraine conflict. This echoed broader African frustrations with the planned US Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, which seeks to sanction African countries that evade Russian-targeted US sanctions. As Africa revives the non-aligned stance it embraced during the Cold War, global powers should therefore be careful not to frame their courtship as an “us or them” proposition. For businesses looking at Africa, understanding this new paradigm will also be key to operating successfully on the continent.