Welcome back. Scarcely a week passes without political leaders in Europe, the US, China and Russia visiting or hosting their African counterparts. All the big powers want Africa on their side — but Europe is finding it hardest to make new friends and promote its interests. I’m at email@example.com.
First, the results of the poll in last week’s newsletter. Asked if President Emmanuel Macron would be able to continue his reforms in France, some 41 per cent of you said yes, 33 per cent said no and 26 per cent were on the fence. Thanks for voting!
The competition for Africa’s friendship is heating up. This is not just about securing access to the continent’s immense natural resources. It is about winning the political support of African countries in an era when the US and its European allies are at odds with China and Russia over the apparatus, rules and values of the international order.
First and foremost, western governments are dismayed at the reluctance of many African countries to line up with them in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister, summarises:
The west got a wake-up call last March, when 25 of Africa’s 54 countries abstained or didn’t participate at all in a vote on a United Nations resolution demanding that Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine . . .
For a continent that has all too often watched the world’s great powers use international law to advance their own interests, western criticisms of Russia rang hollow.
In an effort to win African hearts and minds, the US and Europe are stepping up their engagement with the continent — but so are Beijing and Moscow. Let’s take a look at who’s been on their travels.
Africa: never a more popular destination
At the start of the year, Qin Gang, China’s new foreign minister, made his debut on the world stage by paying a week-long visit to the African continent. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, recently visited South Africa, Sudan, Mauritania, Mali and other countries.
This week, US vice-president Kamala Harris was on a tour of Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. Other recent US visitors to Africa include secretary of state Antony Blinken, who went to Ethiopia and Niger, and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who was in Senegal, South Africa and Zambia.
As for the Europeans, Paolo Gentiloni, the EU’s economy commissioner, travelled to Tunisia this week. In Brussels, commission president Ursula von der Leyen hosted President William Ruto of Kenya.
A few weeks ago, French president Emmanuel Macron was in Angola, Gabon, Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo — and it was in the DRC, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest state, that we saw Europe’s diplomatic difficulties in sharp relief.
Patronising and hypocritical Europe?
In this commentary for digital publication Social Europe, Jérémy Lissouba, a Congo-Brazzaville opposition politician, asserts that Macron, while visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, refused to condemn “Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC — a situation comparable to Russia’s covert support for Donbas separatists in recent years”.
Lissouba says Macron compounded this alleged error by lecturing DRC president Félix Tshisekedi on freedom of the press:
His outburst brought yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s enduringly paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent.
Arguably, Lissouba is too harsh on Macron, who, despite France’s close ties with Rwanda, made it clear he didn’t support the rebels in DRC. “There cannot be a double standard between the tragedy being played out in Ukraine on European territory and that being played out on African soil,” Macron said.
Still, Lissouba is correct that African leaders often see Europe’s postcolonial involvement with the continent as a long story of grand promises mixed with inconsistent implementation and missed opportunities at best, self-interest and hypocrisy at worst.
Lidet Tadesse Shiferaw, an Ethiopian specialist in African peace and security issues, comments:
The EU-Africa partnership is not new to disappointments, certainly for African states. However, the blows from the past few years hit differently. Commitments of the partnership are preceded by pompous branding and high-level fanfare . . . casting doubt on intentions and credibility as well.
High hopes, meagre results
The EU routinely describes its relationship with Africa as a “key priority”. So what has gone wrong?
Underlying everything is the legacy of European imperialism in Africa. It affects not only the attitudes and behaviour of each side, but the structure of their economic relationship.
As the chart below shows, the EU in 2021 was still — just — Africa’s largest partner for trade in goods. But raw materials continue to account for most African exports to Europe — other African products face a myriad of non-tariff barriers protecting the EU market.
The larger picture is one of many meetings, declarations and action plans — but too few concrete results, as W Gyude Moore and Ovigwe Eguegu explain in this article for the Center for Global Development.
The first EU-Africa summit was held in Cairo in 2000. There have been five more since then, most recently in Brussels a year ago. However, the widespread view in Africa is that, 23 years on from Cairo, “little in the relationship has changed for the better”, Moore and Eguegu write.
Apart from economic issues, one serious disappointment in recent times is what African states see as a slow and insufficient EU response to the continent’s need for Covid vaccines.
Next, African governments are concerned that Europe’s emphasis on supplying military and financial aid to Ukraine is causing it to neglect peace operations in Africa — a problem of which some African policymakers were, in fact, complaining even before Russia’s invasion.
Finally, African countries contend that the EU has rowed back on promises of opening pathways for legal migration to Europe, focusing instead on suppressing migrant trafficking and deporting unwanted arrivals.
Clearly, the EU has every right, not to mention duty to its citizens, to control its borders. But a common African perception is that the EU and its member states use their combined economic development funds — about €25bn in 2019 for Africa — partly as an instrument for migration control.
Limits to Russian influence in Africa
All this provides opportunities for expanded Chinese and Russian influence in Africa. Giles Merritt, of the Friends for Europe research group, says:
China’s involvement tended to be dismissed as the opportunistic asset stripping of raw materials, while Russia was seen as an unscrupulous supplier of weapons to a few tinpot African dictators.
Both characterisations are wrong because for many Africans Beijing and Moscow make positive contributions. This European prejudice also underestimates the speed and degree with which Europe’s influence has declined.
Over the past two decades, Russia has indeed been the largest arms supplier to Africa, as shown in the chart below, compiled by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
Russia also benefits from a certain goodwill in Africa as the successor state to the Soviet Union, which provided military and diplomatic support for national liberation movements fighting western colonialism.
Some African states are sympathetic to Russian arguments for loosening the west’s grip on the global order, and perhaps even to Russia’s self-proclaimed role as a defender of conservative, traditional values.
However, there are limits to Russian influence in Africa. Many of the continent’s leaders are perfectly aware that Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is an example of neo-imperialism in its own right.
And as Vadim Zaytsev points out, Russian trade and investment in Africa are considerably smaller than those of the EU, China and the US.
China’s search for African alliances
As for China, it is now well understood in Africa that countries lacking the fiscal capacity and growth potential to service loans from Beijing risk falling into a chronic “financing curse”, as Shirley Ze Yu writes in an London School of Economics blog.
But she makes a good case that, from Beijing’s point of view, the aim is not to turn African states into helpless debtors. Rather, it is to forge political alliances that will help it overturn the western-designed global order, and economic partnerships that will secure access to resources and protect China against a decoupling of business ties with the US and its allies.
Where does Europe stand in the great power rivalry in Africa? With a lot to do to catch up. As Merritt puts it:
Much is made by EU officials and European leaders of close historical ties, but the reality is that the EU and its member states have to seriously up their game.
Russia’s growing footprint in Africa’s Sahel region — an analysis by Paul Stronski for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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