Don’t lose Africa

Africa is the continent of the future. Yet Europe and the United States are not paying enough attention to its 1.4 billion people. They are losing influence to China and Russia.

Russian bear Chinese dragon
While China, Russia and even Turkey recognize Africa’s importance, Europe and the United States have not made the continent a priority. © GIS

Lately, Africa has had a procession of high-profile visitors. In July and August, French President Emmanuel Macron toured several nations as did Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan preceded them late last year and again in February of this year while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Rwanda in June for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Probably due to the zero-Covid policy, no high-level Chinese leaders have visited Africa lately.

Africa is a remarkably diverse continent. Northern Africa is divided from the rest of the landmass by the vast Sahara Desert. Northern Africa is a close neighbor of Europe, which lies on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. Thousands of years of easy shipping on the Mediterranean helped establish a common cultural zone among Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. The emergence of Islam in the 7th century divided Northern Africa from Europe.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahel Zone were – except for coastal outposts and the Cape of Good Hope area – terra incognita to Europeans for a long time. Only after remedies against tropical diseases and malaria became available did Europeans start to explore and then colonize Africa in the mid-19th century.

The legacy of colonialism

The colonization, widely accepted then in Europe and the United States, cannot only be reduced to the detrimental effects of exploitation and oppression. Much was accomplished in education, infrastructure and healthcare. The population of the continent increased from an estimated 90 million in 1870 at the beginning of colonization to some 230 million in 1950. Decolonization started in the second half of the 1950s. By 2021, the population had soared to 1.4 billion people.

Africa is a rich continent with a young population. Its arable land could in theory feed much larger numbers than today’s population. It is wealthy in natural resources, such as iron ore, cobalt, lithium, copper, uranium, manganese and many more minerals. 

Africa’s strategic position between the Indian and the Atlantic oceans means the continent could play an important role in future geopolitical developments. There are 54 African countries represented in the United Nations, giving the continent an important position (some 30 percent) in votes, but also in other UN suborganizations.

Read more about Africa

Since decolonization, Europe and the U. S. have unfortunately not focused much on Africa. Beyond some business dealings and poorly allocated aid, the West has been absent from the continent. Fears of mass migration, however, have sparked Europe’s recent interest.

The West promotes values in a paternalistic way.

Meanwhile, China and Russia increased their influence in Africa. Beijing exercised it by mainly developing infrastructure, helping it to secure access to raw materials and agricultural products, and in turn strategic influence. Moscow is strong in military development and security. Turkey has understood the importance of the continent very well. It is active in infrastructure and business, but also in the defense area with a naval base on the Sudanese Red Sea. Turkish Airlines is the largest airline in Africa, serving more than 50 destinations on the continent.

China, Russia and Turkey limit themselves to working within existing structures. They do not criticize the countries on governance, political systems, cultural habits and traditions, be it gender issues, birth control, or equality. The West, however, promotes values in a paternalistic way. This is not always appreciated and, although economic aid is welcome, such paternalism is seen as a new form of colonialism.

Recent high-level visits

Mr. Lavrov visited Ethiopia, Egypt, Uganda and Congo-Brazzaville. This was a demonstration that Russia has the foreign policy power to challenge the West on this continent. In the vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 17 African countries abstained. Russia’s focus on equal partnerships and tangible projects paid off.

In his two recent visits, President Erdogan visited Angola, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea-Bissau. Turkish business is thriving, humanitarian help is forthcoming (such as in Somalia) and infrastructure projects such as a railway from landlocked Ethiopia to the Port of Djibouti are underway. Ankara treats the African nations as true partners worthy of respect.

The Chinese presence is now the strongest foreign one. The country’s policy is to further increase its influence without openly criticizing the host countries.

Mr. Blinken’s trip might have lacked pragmatism. He visited South Africa, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The main purpose was to encourage African nations to join the containment and sanctions policy toward Russia. He did not have an easy task. It was even made more difficult because the U.S. Congress is advancing legislation called the “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act.” His host in Pretoria, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, criticized the act as penalizing African countries and called it “offensive legislation.”

The U.S. commitment is no match for Chinese investment.

Secretary Blinken stressed that Washington will “not dictate” which choices Africa should make and “neither should anyone else.” The U.S. will launch a “Global Fragility Act” of $200 million each year for the next 10 years. This program “will make a decade-long investment in promoting more peaceful, more inclusive, more resilient societies in places where conditions are ripe for conflict.” The U.S. commitment is no match for Chinese investment. Ms. Pandor derided partners “in Europe and elsewhere” for their patronizing and bullying attitudes. The “elsewhere” might have been a diplomatic way to include the U.S. and the “Global Fragility Act.”

A similar impression could prevail in Rwanda. Rwanda has no natural resources besides agriculture.

President Paul Kagame has led a successful transformation of the country. However, instead of focusing on mutually beneficial interests, Mr. Blinken criticized alleged Rwandan support for the M23 militias in Eastern Congo. There is no reason for the U.S. secretary of state to be meddling in this issue, especially as M23 might also have legitimate reasons to defend minorities.

President Macron visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau with the intention “to reboot” France’s postcolonial relationship with the continent. Although the policy of the trip is not to touch issues of governance, the French leader claimed that he would address such issues in conversations. Mr. Macron can be presumptuous in his attitude, for instance, in promoting birth control. This is a touchy subject because children in Africa provide social security for people in their old age.

The main issue for France, however, is to stem the rising influence of the Russian military in some African countries. In Mali, French peacekeeping troops are now replaced by Russians. Russian security forces and mercenaries operate in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Madagascar. Paris also feels threatened by Turkey.

The impact of President Macron’s mission remains doubtful.

What Africa needs

African countries need understanding, equal treatment and respect – which they receive from their non-Western partners.

Specifically, the West can help by giving easier access to its markets for African products. To encourage Western businesses to operate on the continent, their investments need to be legally protected. Protectionism, red tape and regulatory barriers are a big problem, both in Africa and the West.

Africa is important to the West, but the African people should also be masters of their own affairs. As Europeans and Americans tear down monuments and change the names of streets and institutions that have any connection with colonialism, they preserve a patronizing attitude toward Africa that is doing much harm to the continent of the future.

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