Critical Highlights of the U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa in the Face of Growing Chinese and Russian Interests

US, Chinese and Russian Interests in Africa

Africa has always been a playground for major world powers. The history of Africa’s relations especially with the West has always proven to be unjust to Africa. Even though international relations are said to be a game of self-interest, consciously or not, it can be argued that the continent has benefited little when relating with other continents. This accounts for why she is still grappling with poverty and underdevelopment and yet is significantly endowed with natural resources that should constitute the bulwark for her growth and development. Ironically, due to her significantly limited industrial base (either by default or by design), these resources continue to attract other countries. This is the case of the U.S., many European countries, China and Russia. Recent trends have brought to light the fact that U.S-Africa relations became highly frozen during Donald Trump’s Presidency (2017 – 2020). However, the coming to power of President Joe Biden in 2021 brought with it, the renewal of the relationship between the U.S. and Sub-Saharan Africa. More so, America’s drive in improving and enhancing relations with Sub-Saharan Africa became stronger at the dawn of 2022. Certainly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has again renewed the interest of these global powers in strengthening ties with Africa.

Reasons for U.S.’s Renewed Interest in Sub-Saharan African

The U.S. has, for a long time, been a strong partner, ally, and actor in Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, the U.S. considers Africa critical in advancing its global priorities. Nevertheless, her renewed interest in Africa in recent times has been driven by a number of factors underscored below.

1. Foster Openness and Open Societies

Despite the historical contact of the Africa with the rest of the world, the continent is yet to tap from the full benefits of globalisation. The White House (August 2022), therefore believes that “open societies are generally more inclined to work in common cause with the United States, attract greater U.S. trade and investment, pursue policies to improve conditions for their citizens, and counter harmful activities by the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), Russia, and other foreign actors.”

2. Deliver Democratic and Security Dividends

The US believes, and perhaps rightfully so, that advancing democracy is essential in resolving the many conflicts that characterise Africa. The White House Report (2022) reaffirms this by indicating that “there are strong linkages between poor and exclusionary governance, high levels of corruption, human rights abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence, and insecurity, which are often exploited by terrorist groups and malign foreign actors. By simultaneously addressing these challenges and reaffirming that democracy delivers tangible benefits, the United States can offer choices to Africans as they determine their own future, limit openings for negative state and non-state actors, and obviate the need for costly interventions.”

3. Advance Pandemic Recovery and Economic Opportunity

According to the U.S., there is a need to strengthen ties with sub-Saharan Africa in order to advance the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and to create economic opportunities for both continents. The White House Report (August 2022) notes that these “challenges have been compounded by supply chain problems and food insecurity stemming from Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine.” This, according to the report, is essential as “U.S. support for the region’s equitable recovery is a prerequisite to regaining Africa’s trust in U.S. global leadership, increasing U.S. trade and investment, and creating the U.S. and African jobs.”

4. Support Conservation, Climate Adaptation, and a Just Energy Transition

Though contributes minimally to the climate crisis (with extremely low emissions per capita), Africa’s rich biodiversity which is under threat is critical in climate change mitigation. In this regard, the U.S. sees its relationship with Africa as essential in tackling the climate crisis through biodiversity conservation and helping the continent to transit justly into cleaner and renewable energy. The White House Report (…) notes that “as Africa’s energy demands increase to support economic growth, we will use our influence, development assistance, and financing to help African partners adapt and build resilience to climate impacts and promote mitigation strategies to achieve a sustainable and low-carbon future.”

Why the Growing Interest of Major Powers in Sub-Saharan Africa

The U.S.’s cold outlook towards Africa particularly during Donald Trump’s Presidency created either diplomatic lacunae that began to be filled by other major world powers, particularly China and Russia, or avenues for them to reinforce their already established ties with Africa. With

President Joe Biden coming to power, however, several factors have renewed U.S.’s interest in Africa. Principally, these include the population, natural resources, and biodiversity hotspot (which is crucial in climate change mitigation through carbon sequestration) and influence, especially at the United Nations (UN). First, the continent has the fastest growing and most youthful population. With more than a billion people and a high population growth rate of more than 2 percent, it is estimated that the continent will host a quarter of the world’s population by 2050. Second, Africa “hosts vast natural resources, including the world’s second-largest rainforest and 30 percent of the critical minerals that power our modern world. Moreover, it is situated along major sea lines of communication and trade in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Gulf of Aden” (White House Report, 2022). Third, “the region holds three non-permanent seats in the UN Security Council, and it represents one of the largest regional voting groups (28 percent) at the UN and other multilateral bodies. Africans currently sit at the top of several of the most important international institutions, including the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization” (Ibid).

The growing dynamics and complexities of recent world politics have again revived the scramble for Africa. The devastating effects of the scramble for Africa during the colonial period should not repeat themselves.. As independent states and within a strong political and economic Union, it is necessary for Africa to take advantage of the current situation while engaging with these powers, especially the U.S., China, and Russia.

How should Africa Position Itself in the Face of the Renewed Scramble?

The growing importance of Africa has spurred many nations especially global powers to establish political, economic and security ties with the continent. However, like in the past, to what extent will these ties benefit Africa? From the political perspective, the democratization process in Africa continues to witness shocks to the recent spike in the trend of military junta takeovers, and corrupt and opaque electoral processes that provide avenues for endemic election rigging mostly in favour of incumbents among others. While the West, especially the U.S. has always (though largely in theory) emphasized the need for a free and fair electoral process in Africa as essential in determining democratic leaders, others such as Russia and China consider doing so as interfering in the internal affairs of African countries. This position of the latter has attracted African leaders, especially those considered dictators and strong violators of the fundamental human rights of their citizens to establish cooperation ties with them. To these African leaders, increasing cooperation with Russia and China is critical in ensuring that they remain in power for as long as they want.

For Africa to position itself to benefit from its importance in the global arena, African governments and the African Union need be more strategic. From an economic perspective, the effective implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AFCFTA)which is the world’s largest new free trade agreement after the creation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will significantly bolster Africa’s economic development. For this to happen, there is the need for effective regional integration of African states in order to make intra-African trade effective and beneficial. However, for this to happen, Africa needs to address the factors which have been responsible for growing conflict and insecurity. This can be done by effectively implementing national, regional, and continental policies linked to democracy and public participation in the governance process among others. The African free trade agreement will encourage more investments only in a stable, peaceful, and secure environment in Africa.

Conclusion

The growing interest in Africa by global powers such as the U.S., China, and Russia has been persistently driven by the advantages Africa offer especially in terms of the rich natural resource base that form the basis for industrial transformations. This interest, unfortunately, has not resulted in commensurate gains by the continent. This can be accounted for by the African leadership which seems constrained by several limitations to leverage this importance in fostering the growth and development of the continent. If that was not the case, none of these global powers will be the one to indicate to African leaders the limitations of their opponent’s policies towards Africa. It is therefore essential for African leaders to develop a policy with the rest of the world that is mutually beneficial rather than engage in any relationship that will continue to promote the exploitation of the continent. Before engaging with other nations, effectively implementing the continental free trade agreement which will enhance intra-African trade is a key to bolstering economic growth in the continent. Together with industrial transformations, this is critical is making the continent largely self-reliance.

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Dr. Tata Emmanuel SUNJO is an expert in Governance and Regional Integration. He is equally a specialist in Environmental Politics and Policy

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