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US NSS: Why China, Russia are making headway in Africa

On October 12, 2022, the United States Government released its latest National Security Strategy in which President Joe Biden laid out America’s plan to achieve a better future of a free, open, secure, and prosperous world. According to him, the strategy is rooted in US’ national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and to realise and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life.

Notably, the report did not talk about Africa much, except for a four-paragraph reflection on page 43 of the document entitled “Build 21st Century US-Africa Partnerships” and a handful of other mentions scattered across the document’s 48 pages. With reference to the continent, the document says, “Africa’s governments, institutions, and people are a major geopolitical force, one that will play a crucial role in solving global challenges in the coming decade. African countries comprise one of the largest regional voting groups at the United Nations and their citizens lead major international institutions.”

The document further stated, “Advancing America’s national interests will hinge, in part, on working more closely, not only with African nations, but also with regional bodies, such as the African Union, sub national governments, civil society, and private sector and diaspora communities.” In conclusion, the strategy read, “We will continue to invest in the region’s largest states, such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, while also deepening our ties to medium and small states.”

Of course, it is important to appreciate the fact that the US, like all countries, carefully chooses its geo-political priorities. It has done so in its 2022 NSS, including the tools to achieve them. We should respect that. The US is not naïve. The name of the game, as Foreign Policy experts know too well, is national interest. In essence, the NSS is geared towards the protection and promotion of America’s national interests and if by coincidence Africa will facilitate the realisation of the same, good luck and so be it, otherwise it is America first. It does not matter who and which political party occupies the White House, the essential thing to note is that the partnership may only gain traction if there are opportunities in the relationship for the US. The same scenario is true for the other big powers except that the newcomers to the continent see the strategic relevance and future in the relationship, and are ready to outwit the entrenched partnership that are no longer serving the needs of the continent.

While the United States, United Kingdom, and France have always been present in Africa one way or the other in the last six decades, providing the needed investment and other support, the reality of Africa’s predicament is that these relationships have not being impactful, especially in the provision of needed infrastructure that would transform the economic conditions of the people and provide the quantum leap in the overall standard of living. To that extent, there is little in the current NSS to suggest that the United States appreciates the situation on the continent and how it intends to deliver an impactful programme for the benefit of the citizens.

In the meantime, Russia’s presence in Africa is limited but increasing. It has become the largest military arms supplier in Africa and its companies have invested heavily in the continent’s extractive industries. Russia has also increased its military presence in Libya, Sudan, Mali and the Central African Republic, often in the form of the Wagner Group, which provides security for governments – or coup leaders, in the case of Mali and Burkina Faso – and also trains militaries. However, the strategy says America will “counter democratic backsliding by imposing costs for coups and pressing for progress on civilian transitions” and “push back on the destabilising impact of the Russia-backed Wagner Group.” One can only assume that this pushback will have the desired effect.

China’s presence, on the other hand, is a challenge to the United States because the country is establishing a strategic foothold across Africa, and it is increasingly not just an economic but also a security and defence presence. In addition to the military base in Djibouti, China’s arms sales to Africa have been on the rise. China’s security actions in Africa are part of its agenda to build political, diplomatic and strategic influence on the continent. It is pertinent to note, therefore, that any opportunity China seizes to advance its influence is indirectly seen as a threat in the US because it feeds into the spiral of bilateral strategic rivalry taking place on the continent and ultimately across the world as a whole. China and Russia understand very well Africa’s strategic significance or so it seems. They now offer African countries a more diverse set of international partners to secure arms and weapons outside the conditions imposed by the United States and European nations, which are often related to concerns over human rights abuses.

The United States has itself to blame if countries such as China, Russia and even Turkey are making inroads into the continent. Africa is being left out in the present global economic and political arrangements except for the extraction of natural resources such as uranium, gold, oil, weapons sale and counter-terrorism issues. In fact, America is always getting it wrong in Africa. Once upon a time, a former US President referred to Africa as a nation instead of a continent with 54 very diverse countries, each with its own unique history and characteristics.

Another former President had nothing but awful things to say about Africa. It is tragic if the President of the United States as recent as 2018 still had this kind of perception about Africa even with the executive briefings he must have received, then something is wrong somewhere. It is therefore safe to assume that US policy makers are still stuck with the perception of 20th century Africa even with the new NSS which suggests that the continent is still not in the US strategic priority. Overall, Africa is still seen as a humanitarian case, racked by conflict, terrorism, corruption, disease and in need of aid. There is little doubt that all of these things are true, but the problem is that those are incomplete pictures of where Africa is today.

Perhaps that is the reason for the almost non-existent political engagement at the highest level between the US and the continent, except when votes are required at the United Nations and the direction of support in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. The last US-Africa Summit was in August, 2014. While President Biden has travelled to Europe, Asia and the Middle East, there is no indication that he will visit Africa soon. Of course, President Trump did not even visit Africa throughout his tenure. At the level of economic engagement, investment and trade, the numbers are declining precipitously. For example, trade between the United States and Africa was about $180bn in 2010, but actually declined to about $70bn in 2021. Besides, most of the components of the trade were in the extractive industry, the oil and gas, which cannot directly transform African economies.

On the other hand, the economic engagement with China actually reached an astronomical level of $250bn in 2021 with components including infrastructural development, education and technology, which are helping to transform African economies. Furthermore, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation Summit, which provides opportunity for personal contact with the Chinese leadership, is held regularly every two years except for the covid period. The implication is that China has become the single largest trading partner and built mega infrastructure projects in Africa through its Belt and Road Initiative.

But come to think of it, why should anyone be worried if China, Russia, Turkey or any other country is successful in Africa? According to some analysts, bring them on, let the competition begin, the more the merrier for Africa. However, they ask if Africa would rather exchange US long standing support for democracy, human rights, HIV/AIDS, malaria etc. for alleged China’s predatory loans, extraterritorial security stations, or Russia’s Wagner mercenaries notorious for shoring up African despots and coup plotters and exploitative dealings in the extractive industry across the continent.

Nonetheless, it would seem that there is a new awakening in the United States. In August 2022, a new strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa was published by the Biden administration that envisions a new partnership between the US and African countries. Of course, there is the US-Africa Summit scheduled for December 2022, a follow-on to the first one that took place under President Barack Obama. All of those are good, but they are not enough and more needs to be done. Africa is the future. The world will be relying on young African workers in the next 50 years. There are fast growing tech hubs across the continent. The Internet has opened the world even further and young tech workers are now working for the big tech companies, including Google and Microsoft.

America does have more appeal among the “continent’s booming population” and the comparative advantage in terms of language, private capital, digital technology and the Silicon Valley. Africa needs close to $150bn every year to fix the continent’s infrastructural deficit, which the American private capital can easily raise and deploy. These are what other countries cannot provide, including the opportunity to migrate and be part of the growing tech industry. Africa is no longer a basket case of crisis despite the issue of governance in some countries. America should therefore, first acknowledge the strategic relevance of the continent and ‘outcompete’ the other big powers by investing more in those areas that will transform and improve the living standard on the continent. The time is now.

Oloko, a policy analyst, lives in Lagos and writes via [email protected]

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