The Rush For Africa Is Getting Crowded — Who Will Be Shut Out?
African countries have shown through the Ukrainian war that their support should not be taken for granted. Chinese, Americans, Europeans and others are competing for influence on a continent that has become a global prize.
PARIS — There was a time when the great powers of the world would compete against each other to conquer vast territories of the African continent. Today, they are instead vying to seduce, convince, and sometimes buy the support of countries that have never been so eagerly courted.
The 55 African States carry real value (no matter the criterion — be it economic, political, security, demographic) that leaves no one indifferent. Within two decades, China has become the lead partner of the continent, supplanting the former colonial powers; Russia is regaining its areas of influence from the old Soviet days, spearheaded by the Wagner paramilitary group; the Americans are back too; Turkey, India, Japan, and Brazil also have a dog in the fight.
The war in Ukraine has elevated the stakes, with the notable reluctance of numerous African countries to condemn the Russian invasion. This has made clear that Africans will no longer accept to be taken for granted by the West — and resent the massive support for Ukraine where their misfortunes have too often been ignored.
"We" are Africa
This week, China's newly installed Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, made his first foreign trip, and he chose Africa. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, headquarters of the African Union, he had a message that flattered the continent's leaders:
"Our world is changing like never before, and the collective rise of developing countries is irreversible," he said. “The advent of an Asian century and an African century is no longer a distant dream. [...] We should boost the representation and voice of developing countries, especially those of African countries, in the UN Security Council and other international organizations.”
The speech was particularly clever in the way it positioned China — the second largest economy in the world, sometimes criticized for the predatory nature of its companies — as a developing country like those on the African continent. Using the “we” for the countries of the South, well, is a bit forced.
But these remarks by the Chinese minister echo a similar speech heard last month in Washington. “We need more African voices in international conversations,” U.S. leaders said at a US-Africa Summit hosted by President Joe Biden. The name of China was barely mentioned at the summit, but was obviously on everyone's mind.
China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang
Europe or China?
In this “great game” for future influence in Africa, Europe has the handicap of its past and its current shortcomings, but is also guilty of having turned away from the continent in recent decades. France, in particular, has to face a hostile climate among some of the youth in French-speaking countries, as France's Secretary of State for Development, Chrysalys Zacharopoulou, realized this week on a visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Europe has neither the flexibility nor the means of Beijing.
Last year, under the French presidency, a European Union-Africa Summit took place in Brussels, just days before the invasion of Ukraine. EU members launched a “Global Gateway” fund, to compete with the Chinese Silk Roads, but the bloc has neither the flexibility nor the means of Beijing.
This suitors' ball in Africa should push Europe to reinvent its relationship with this continent — remembering it can claim to be the closest geographically, and historically. But for Africa to actually consider France, and Europe, a natural ally for the future, will require a lot of work. It is both necessary, and urgent.