As the war in Ukraine continues in Europe, a new Cold War dynamic of the East and West tensions and strategic geopolitical alignment between powerful nations have heightened. As global proxy wars intensify, so does the competition over control of Africa’s vast natural resources and strategic trade routes, which is likely to shape Africa’s future geopolitical dynamics.
Africa, the Land of Opportunity
In recent months, it has become clearer that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping’s long-term goals are to secure and restore their countries as great powers in the 21st century. To attain this objective, they aim to implement hybrid strategic alliances in order to maximize their influence, increase their diplomacy, geopolitical, and economic gains globally.
Not surprisingly, Africa has again become a key instrument and playground in this game. A game, in which a transition within the international order from a unipolar system dominated by the USA, to a multipolar or Triangulation structure where both Russia and China are playing strategic roles, is taking place. A key question, therefore, is: how are these two emerging superpowers conquering the African continent to the detriment of Western powers?
Russia in Africa: New Tools, Old Playground
Africa is not a new playground for Russia’s diplomacy. Although the configuration has changed since the end of the Cold War, and the tools used by the then Soviet Union in Africa has been readjusted, Russia is now back in Africa after more than a decade of absence, as one of the key bilateral partners. Russia is not a new actor in Africa’s foreign policy, what is new, however, is the approach Russia is taking to increase its geopolitical influence and maximize its economic gain in the continent.
Russia’s strategy in Africa is both opportunistic and calculating. It is opportunistic in the sense that it is willing to take risks and quickly deploy Private Military Companies (PMC) such as the Wagner Group to crisis contexts when the opportunity presents itself.
By using PMC as a tool to increase its influence in Africa, Putin and his associates have re- introduced the concept of mercenaries into the modern international system. Africa, with its fragile states, weak governments, and abundant natural resources has become more and more the battlefield for terrorism activities. The incapacity of African states to protect their territories against jihadist groups, push these governments to negotiate with PMC to protect their territories and train their army. In return, the PMC are remunerated through the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, gas, and minerals.
This has been observed in conflict contexts such as the Central African Republic and currently, in Mali. In this way, Russia is redesigning a new path on which isolated leaders or proxies will compromise their sovereignty. As a result, Russia thereby sees Africa as a means to balance Western influence through asymmetric tactics.
China’s Development – Security Nexus
As for China, its strategy is not dependent on their government’s position on the Russia – Ukraine war, but rather on common economic interest (The Diplomat, March 28). Their level of engagement with African leaders has increased since the war in Ukraine, indicating China’s continuing interest to increase its economic cooperation through various bilateral agreements relating to infrastructure projects, natural resources and agricultural exports to China.
Over the past decade, through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Chinese leaders have extended their economic cooperation to various African countries. In 2019, an estimate of total trade of $200 billion was made, making China Africa’s biggest bilateral trade partner.
China’s economic policies towards Africa focus on the following factors:
- extracting Africa’s vast natural resources (e.g. raw materials
- expanding the Chinese consumption market by exporting its manufactured goods to the African market with Africa’s growing population
- ensuring both economic and political stability for China to attain its wider geopolitical interests
Furthermore, through soft power (e.g. language), China is expected to gain more influence in Africa (ORFOnline, August 25, 2021).
As a proactive global security actor, there has also been growing Chinese engagement in other African affairs, particularly in peace and security issues including fights against insurgency and its spill-over effects (Cambridge, May 18, 2021).
In this context, China’s keen interest is to provide support to the region’s countries in tackling extreme terrorism while ensuring economic prosperity and stability. As China continues to mediate disputes in the continent, this likely will give them leverage on various security-related issues in the future (Global Times, June 21).
Declining Powers: The Case of France
While Chinese economic and Russian military goals in Africa are becoming more and more integrated into development plans in Africa, this has led to the demise of Western domination over former colonies.
The presence of French military operations in Africa through mechanisms such as the G5 Sahel are viewed as tools aimed to safeguard France’s carrot-stick relationship with its former colonies. This way, the French can continue to protect their economic interests and access valuable natural resources in the region.
Through military operations and anti-terrorist campaigns, France legitimizes its presence in the region and continues maintaining its dominant position.
However, lack of economic development combined with other factors including long-lasting instabilities has led to a rise in anti-French sentiment in many parts of the Francophone West and Central Africa.
In the 2020 G5 Sahel Summit, which took place in Pau, many political analysts viewed French President Macron’s request for more public support for its military operation such as Operation Barkhane in the Sahel by African leaders as a sort of “neo-colonial summoning of clients” (RFI, January 13, 2020). For most of these involved governments, there exist challenges for how to navigate between the dilemma of mobilizing public support for France’s continued operation, and at the same time not being regarded as another pawn in France’s political game in Africa.
For new local leaders such as the Malian Military Junta, mobilizing anti-French sentiment among the population has been used as a tool to legitimate their military rule. What this new trend may lead to, remains to be seen.
- Vamo Sako is a Geopolitics Analyst and Consultant at Sackson Consultant Group focusing on Africa. He has a Master’s degree in Political Science and International Development from University of Paris – Sorbonne. He also holds a Business Administration and Management degree from INSEAD.
- Bintu Zahara Sakor is a Doctoral Researcher at PRIO.