The 21st Century ‘Scramble for Africa’: US Counters Russia and China’s Growing Presence
Recent official visits across Africa by US’ First Lady Jill Biden & VP Kamala Harris point to the administration’s desire to re-strengthen relations with the continent in light of China and Russia’s growing influence, argues Abdelkader Cheref.
Early June, the US First Lady, Jill Biden, toured three US dependable allies in the Middle East and North Africa: Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. This visit follows the US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ trip to Zambia, Tanzania, and Ghana last March. This has raised questions about why two prominent White House figures have visited Africa and the MENA in just a matter of months.
This flurry of trips by two big wheels reflects a new type of political strategy and a growing awareness that the US needs to consolidate its foothold in both regions. Indeed, Biden and Harris’ visits came as a continuation of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa, which clearly stipulates that for the administration, “this strategy reframes the region’s importance to U.S. national security interests.”
It was obvious that relations between the US and Africa were fraught during former President Donald Trump’s administration. And President Joe Biden seems to be going all-out to coax African leaders after the ‘tumultuous’ years.
”African nations are not gullible, they are all too aware that the US has a long history of pitting African countries against each other, empowering dictators, assassinating African liberation leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, interfering in African affairs, and enabling US multinationals to plunder African resources.”
Officially, this latest set of visits sought “to promote empowerment for women and youth.” But we have the right to be skeptical given they took place in the context of the US administration’s attempt to restructure its partnership with the African continent and the MENA.
In light of the geopolitical polarisation and the complex economic and political impact of the Russia-Ukraine War, the US is trying to counter the increasing Chinese and Russian presence in both Africa and the MENA as both states are providing vital economic and security assistance.
Upon her arrival in Ghana, and in a patronising tone, VP Harris declared “America wants to keep reassuring the countries and the leaders of Africa, like – ‘We didn’t forget you.’ . . . “We want to say, ‘Hey, we’re back.’”
However, despite what some officials claim, Africa with its immense natural resources remains central as the White House recalibrates its post-Trump foreign policy with an eye on rival powers.
This looks very much like a 21st Century version of the “scramble for Africa.”
In December 2022, and in a bid to be a more active player in Africa, the US hosted the Africa-US summit. And Biden announced that he wanted to commit $55 billion to the continent over three years. This was a hard sell given many African nations are wary of the rationales and sly motives behind the money and the sudden push for a closer cooperation. In this geopolitical competition and tensions between the US and China / Russia, and to further their struggle for global influence, the US is also using the carrot and stick policy. For example, the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act, would be a malleable tool for the White House to sanction any African country.
But African nations are not gullible, they are all too aware that the US has a long history of pitting African countries against each other, empowering dictators, assassinating African liberation leaders such as Patrice Lumumba, interfering in African affairs, and enabling US multinationals to plunder African resources.
Undoubtedly, Russia’s military operation in Ukraine drove Western/NATO countries to bring African countries on their side. While some African nations have officially not taken sides, many have decided to remain closer to Russia. And such an alignment has its objective reasons.
Russia has historical relations with several African countries; rapports that go back to the time of the Soviet Union which backed decolonisation efforts in Africa.
Pro-independence movements ranging from the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA), the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, and the African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) in Zimbabwe, have all been financially and militarily supported by the Soviet Union. Even Egypt benefited from several of tons of aid during the Ramadan War with Israel in 1973 – at the height of the Cold War and Western political hegemony.
This historical background has triggered a widespread opinion among African leaders that the continent should remain sovereign in its dealings with the rest of the world. This was echoed by South African Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, who accused the West of sometimes taking a patronising and bullying attitude.
The same outlook is shared in East Africa: “We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said. And when Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune visited Moscow last week, he told President Putin that “foreign countries may put pressure on us today but this will never affect our ties.”
Besides, many Africans recall the racial bias of the conflict in Ukraine when hostilities broke out. Sub-Saharan African students described several incidents of racial abuse and discrimination when they tried to seek refuge in Poland together with Ukrainian refugees who were warmly welcomed.
Indeed, it seems clear that in Africa, China and Russia are thriving.
Russian influence is growing in several African countries, including the Central African Republic, pre-crisis Sudan, and Mali where the Wagner group is in control while Western military forces led by the French army in the Sahel were forced to pull out.
VP Harris has stated that the US will boost investment in Africa to stimulate economic development. However, China has considerably strengthened its presence in the Maghreb and Sub-Saharan Africa. It has invested massively in countries including Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, DRC, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tunisia, and Zambia. This involves infrastructure building, expanding telecommunication networks, and resource development.
With all of this in mind, the US attempt to consolidate its position in Africa through soft power in order to implement their demands vis-à-vis the conflict in Ukraine, may therefore fail without the materialisation of concrete and valid economic projects and subsequent job creation. Especially given that African nations have shown they won’t be conned by mere diplomatic emissaries or any other geopolitical games.