The United States has expressed serious concern over the sway of its two main geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, over Africa, a region Washington is now keen to re-engage with after years of indifference.
A strategy document released this week by the US warned of the growing influence of China and Russia in the continent and promised to advance food security and infrastructure development in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The US sees Sub-Saharan Africa as critical to advancing America’s global priorities. “It has one of the world’s fastest growing populations, largest free trade areas, most diverse ecosystems, and one of the largest regional voting groups in the United Nations (UN),” the White House said.
Washington argues that it is impossible to meet this era’s defining challenges like efforts to end the COVID-19 pandemic, tackle climate change crisis, address global food insecurity and confront the threat of terrorism, conflict and transnational crime without African contribution.
“The world is keenly aware of Africa’s importance, spurring countries to expand their political, economic and security engagement with African states,” the strategy paper said.
The release of the American document on Monday coincided with US secretary of state Anthony Blinken’s three-nation visit in the region widely seen by observers as an effort to rebuild US engagement in Africa to counter China and Russia.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov also embarked on a four-nation Africa visit last month to enlist support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Many important African countries like South Africa have maintained a position of non-alignment in the conflict.
The US insists its re-engagement with Africa is not centred on great-power rivalry. Yet its strategy document is critical of both China and Russia and their expanding footprint in the region.
China sees Africa as “an important arena to challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness and weaken US relations with African people and governments”, the US document claims.
The US has viewed with concern China’s growing military cooperation with African nations, especially in the wake of reports that Beijing was building a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, across the Atlantic Ocean from continental America.
Expressing worries also over Russia’s growing influence, the US accused Moscow of using its security and economic ties as well as disinformation to undercut Africa’s opposition to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
American officials have expressed concerns over the activities of Russia’s private security agency, the Wagner Group that is perceived to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“They are not making the security better. They are committing human rights abuses and focused mainly on extractive industries like diamond and gold,” a US official said.
Though many African leaders receive regular financial assistance from the US, they prefer to purchase Russian weapons. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says that Russia accounted for 44 percent of Africa’s arms imports between 2016 and 2021, more than double the share of the US.
The US Congress recently passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act and directed the secretary of state to develop a strategy to counter activities of Russia and its proxies in Africa.
The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, also visited Africa a few days after Lavrov. During her interaction with African leaders, she told them that Africa can buy Russian agricultural products like fertiliser and wheat. But if a country decides to engage with Russia “where there are sanctions, then they are breaking those sanctions”.
However, most African countries felt that it would be foolish on their part to be against a country like Russia that has not harmed their interest.
African nations also perceive China as offering them greater tangible benefits. One thing that worked in China’s favour was its ability to avoid getting embroiled in domestic policies while presenting itself as committed to Africa’s prosperity. In addition, its no-strings-attached lending has also found favour among African leaders.
However, there have also been reports of Chinese activities being criticised by local people. Many of its projects in Africa have often faced public demonstrations against labour and environment violations by Chinese companies.
The US document acknowledges that many of the longstanding American approaches have become insufficient in a more contested and competitive world.
Washington now wants to double down on its enormous soft-power influence across the continent by roping in support from the American private sector for trade and investment in Africa, where it lags. It proposes to do this by promoting diaspora engagement and participating in important initiatives undertaken by some African countries to encourage investment into the country by its nationals living abroad.
The US also proposes to deal with the growing authoritarianism and military takeovers in African countries through a targeted strategy that calls for a mix of positive inducements and punitive measures, such as sanctions.
Washington feels the new strategy will help push specific policies to support African nations ahead of the summit it proposes to hold in the continent in December to boost its re-engagement with the region.
But observers remain sceptical as such measures have been tried in the past with very little success. For African leaders, America’s renewed interest in their countries only widened their option to drive better bargains with both China and Russia, which are well entrenched in the region.Despite the US effort to curb the growing influence of its adversaries in Africa, no African leader has the stomach for a new Cold War in the continent.