The New Cold War: What Africa’s Political Shifts Mean for US Influence

Bianca Bridger
Bianca Bridger
Bianca holds a degree in Political Science from the University of Otago, New Zealand. As the Africa Desk Chief for Atlas, her expertise spans conflict, politics, and history. She is also the Editor for The ModernInsurgent and has interests in yoga and meditation.

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Exploring the decline of US influence on the continent and the rise of new partnerships.

Analysis on China provided by Joaquin Camarena, our Indo-Pacific Desk Chief.

In 2023, on average, Russia and China ranked higher in terms of approval in Africa than the United States, according to a poll conducted by Gallup Consulting that year. Many variables have contributed to the United State’s diminished image in Africa, including increased Russian arms imports to coup-swept West African nations and China’s policy of non-interference in the politics of nations they invest in through the One Belt One Road Initiative.

By 2050, Africa is projected to house one-quarter of the entire global population. In 2024, 19 African nations, including several Sahelian states recently impacted by coups, are scheduled to hold presidential or general elections. These elections aim to transition from military to civilian rule. Consequently, Africa has re-emerged as a battleground for great power competition, distinctly different from the late nineteenth century ‘Scramble for Africa,’ involving non-colonial powers like China, Russia, and the United States.

Unlike the 1880s, African nations today, rich in resources, youthful populations, and burgeoning economies, are asserting their independence in negotiations with global powers. Political elites in countries like South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, and Angola engage with both China and the United States to maximize benefits from these partnerships. This compels the US, Russia, and China to adapt their ‘Africa policies’ to meet African demands. This evolving relationship, marked by the heightened agency of African leaders, complex security challenges, and shifting motives of major powers, underscores the continent’s critical role in contemporary global security.

US Policy in Africa

Despite lagging behind Russia and China in approval ratings, the United States continues to position itself as the “better option for Africa.” At the AmCham Business Summit in Kenya, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo emphasized that the US believes it offers opportunities aligned with Africa’s values of freedom and democracy, aiming to be the continent’s preferred partner.

Viewing Africa as a ‘partner’ emerged in US policy circles in the early 1990s, shifting from the Cold War realpolitik lens. Academic Ian Taylor noted in 2010 that US alliances with African elites were previously driven by anti-communist posturing, often supporting autocratic leaders like Mobutu Sese Seko and Samuel Doe, regardless of their governance quality.

The end of the Cold War and the US’s ‘unipolar moment’ necessitated a coherent Africa policy to ensure peace and prosperity in the new international order. However, policies under the Clinton and Bush administrations, particularly from 1990 to 1998, revealed the US’s challenges in effectively addressing the evolving security environment in Africa.

The Clinton Administration

The 1993 Battle of Mogadishu, where 18 American soldiers were killed and their bodies dragged through the streets, marked a significant setback for the US government’s Africa policy. The gruesome images broadcast on American television led to public outrage and a swift withdrawal of US troops from Somalia. This reaction, termed ‘Somalia syndrome,’ led to a risk-averse approach to intervention in civil conflicts, contributing to the inaction during the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.

The Rwandan Genocide was a stark failure of the multilateral intervention efforts advocated by the US. The 1998 Al-Qaeda attacks on US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam brought Africa back into American strategic considerations, with counter-terrorism becoming the foremost policy goal after September 11, 2001.

Before this shift, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) was signed in 2000, providing eligible sub-Saharan countries with duty-free access to the US market on over 1,800 products. Tom Sheehy, former Staff Director with the House Subcommittee on Africa, emphasized that “AGOA is more than trade policy; it represents a political partnership.” Recently, AGOA has become controversial as South Africa, its biggest beneficiary, edges closer to the Russian sphere of influence.

The Bush Jr. Administration

Under George W. Bush, US-Africa policy evolved around the ‘Three D’s’ as stated by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense. This led to the establishment of Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti in 2002, the US’s first permanent ‘forward operating site’ on the continent.

In the same year, the African Union (AU) was founded, succeeding the Organization of African Unity (OAU). The AU’s mandate includes defending sovereignty, promoting socio-economic integration, and fostering international cooperation. The AU’s creation signaled a growing awareness among African leaders of their nations’ potential to generate wealth, stability, and improved living standards through increased trade and infrastructure development.

Outside security matters, President Bush emphasized Africa’s health sector, introducing the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, which has saved millions of lives in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2004, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was established to reduce global poverty through economic growth, contingent on rigorous standards for governance and democracy.

The creation of AFRICOM in 2007 further solidified the US’s strategic interest in Africa, aiming to promote a stable political environment supportive of US foreign policy.

The Obama Administration

Despite President Obama’s 2009 proclamation in Ghana that “the 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington but by what happens in Accra as well,” funding for PEPFAR was cut. The ‘Power Africa’ initiative, promising 30,000 megawatts of power, delivered only 4,000 megawatts.

The administration continued Bush-era drone strikes in Somalia and intelligence-sharing with Ethiopia and Sudan, despite their poor human rights records. In 2010, the Feed the Future initiative was launched, aiming to lift millions out of food insecurity. By 2024, it had helped approximately 5.2 million families.

Obama’s first term concluded with the inaugural US-Africa Leaders Summit, signaling a shift toward multilateral engagement with the continent.

The Trump Administration

Under President Trump, US policy focused on increasing trade and investment while countering China’s influence. The ‘Prosper Africa’ initiative aimed to boost US-African trade and investment ties and expand Africa’s middle class. National Security Advisor John Bolton emphasized that ‘Prosper Africa’ would counter predatory practices by Russia and China.

The 2018 BUILD Act established the US International Development Finance Corporation (USIDFC), intended to stimulate private sector investment while advancing US foreign policy and national security interests. However, while the BUILD Act promised $60 billion in funding, China pledged the same amount to Africa alone through the China-Africa Cooperation Forum.

The Biden Administration

The Biden administration’s approach is broader and more pragmatic, likely driven by the assertiveness of China and Russia. By 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had visited Africa three times in ten months, indicating heightened US interest in engagement. Biden hosted the second US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, focusing on health, food security, climate change, and space cooperation.

Biden also announced the African Democratic and Political Transitions (ADAPT) initiative to increase technical and political support for democratic transitions. Through the initiative, and in conjunction with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the US announced its intent to direct resources towards the implementation of a democratic transition in Guinea-Bissau, where the nation’s first democratically elected President was deposed through a coup in September 2021.

The administration’s ‘strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa’, released in 2022, focuses on four pillars; fostering openness and open societies; delivering democratic and security dividends; advancing pandemic recovery and economic opportunity; and supporting conservation, climate adaptation, and transitions to sustainable energy.

In 2023, Biden announced that the Gambia, Togo, Senegal, and Mauritania were eligible for investment from the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC). In September of the same year, the MCC signed a $500 million ‘compact-program’ with Mozambique to ‘promote climate and coastal resilience and improve public services and transport infrastructure,’ despite Mozambique being labeled as ‘partly free’ by Freedom House, scoring just 14/40 for political liberties. It’s likely this investment is part of a wider strategy to ‘have a horse in the race’ in countries traditionally aligned with China.

The Digital Transformation with Africa (DTA) Initiative, launched in December 2022, aims to counter disinformation, expand digital access, support digital literacy, and increase commercial engagement between the US and African companies in the digital sector. Additionally, the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment supports projects like the Lobito Corridor, a rail line aiming to connect the Democratic Republic of the Congo with Zambia’s copper belt to an existing line in Angola. The Corridor is an attempt to expedite the process of getting precious minerals used in the production of electric vehicles to international markets.

The administration has also focused heavily on food security and health initiatives, with $155 million in funding pledged to the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, and the launching of the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS) in conjunction with the AU and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to “boost agricultural production through climate adapted crops and increasing soil health.”

Furthermore, in September 2023, the African Union (AU) became a permanent G20 member with US support. However, the US faces challenges, such as losing influence in Mali, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso as they align with Russia and demand US troop withdrawals.

In 2024, the US has had to grapple with the ‘loss’ of Mali, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso as they forge ever closer ties with Russia and demand the removal of US troops from strategically important bases, such as Niger’s Airbase 201.

While the removal of US troops from Niger does create a logistical issue for the US and its drone operations in the area, the country has a far wider military footprint in Africa than is let on.

This unclassified AFRICOM strategic posture map highlights that while Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier remains the continent’s only US Forward Operating Site, there are at least twelve Cooperative Security Locations (CSL) across Africa. Referred to as “lily-pads,” a CSL is a “host-nation facility with little or no permanent US personnel presence, which may contain equipment and/or logistical arrangements and serve for security cooperation activities and contingency access,” ensuring readiness for various contingencies.

Pragmatism Necessary for Continued US Policy Influence on the Continent

The United States advocates for liberal democracy and human rights in the nations it supports and invests in. While many African nations have embraced these values, many others have not. Despite this, for strategic reasons, the US may choose to continue relations with them, albeit in a diminished capacity. This ‘carrots and sticks’ strategy has hindered the United States’ ability to adequately negotiate with Sahelian nations currently under military rule. In recent times, it can increasingly be seen that African elites, particularly in nations with low political freedom and civil liberties, have continuously shown their preference for Russia or China when seeking partnerships with the world’s great powers.

Furthermore, the United States’ strategy in Africa focuses on “bottom-up” support, aiming to address the root causes of instability, poverty, and food insecurity with less emphasis on extracting resources. In comparison, Russia provides African nations with arms and support for autocratic regimes, and China engages in extensive bilateral trade and infrastructure building (at a price). It is easy to see why many African political elites, who intend to enrich themselves at the expense of their nation’s populace, either decide to “play the game” with all three great powers to ensure maximum benefits or cement themselves in a given bloc based on their immediate requirements, as seen in Mali, the Central African Republic, and now Niger.

US policy on foreign military coups, first legislated in 1984 through a clause on an appropriations bill to limit foreign aid, has in recent years hindered its ability to stand as an equal negotiator in coup-swept nations. Section 7008 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act states that ‘any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by a military coup d’etat or decree shall automatically be prohibited from receiving a broad package of congressionally appropriated foreign assistance.’ Although some leeway is given in the Act, as what constitutes a ‘coup’ is not defined.

However, Robert E. Gribbin, former US Ambassador to Rwanda and the Central African Republic, in an essay for the Wilson Center claimed, “the policy of cut-off hampers America’s ability to engage with new leadership, to leverage, lead, cajole, or guide them into behaviors consistent with objectives of respect for human rights, regional security, and the maintenance of a bilateral relationship that is the foundation for the promotion of American goals in Africa—peace, prosperity, even democracy. If we don’t have an oar in the water, it is hard to row.”

While America’s strategy may yield positive results in various African sectors in the long term, the rapid development of partnerships between African nations and China or Russia calls for a more pragmatic US approach.

The New Cold War: China and Russia in Africa

China and Russia are increasingly influential in Africa, leveraging their respective strategies to gain footholds on the continent. Russia, with its ‘no questions asked’ arms sales, military training, and economic initiatives like grain donations, positions itself as a crucial ally to many African nations. Meanwhile, China’s approach focuses on bilateral economic agreements, extensive infrastructure investments through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and strengthening diplomatic ties through forums like the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). Both nations aim to counter Western influence, but their methods and the responses they evoke from African countries differ significantly.

Russia’s approach to Africa centers around high-reward, low-risk strategies, utilizing disinformation campaigns, mercenaries like the Wagner Group, and cultivating relationships with African elites. This method allows Russia to foster instability, which aligns with its policy goals on the continent. On the other hand, China’s strategy is built on strengthening bilateral relations, reaffirming the One China Policy, and portraying itself as a partner in the Global South. Through infrastructure projects and economic agreements, China aims to integrate African nations into its Belt and Road Initiative, enhancing its influence while presenting itself as a non-colonial ally. Both countries exploit Africa’s underrepresentation in multilateral institutions to further their agendas, but their influence and the reception from African nations vary.

Russia’s Africa Model

Despite Russia only re-engaging with Africa in the late 2010s following a long period of disengagement after the end of the Cold War, by 2023, Russia was exporting more arms to Africa than the US, France, and China combined. Since 2014, at least 19 African countries have signed military cooperation agreements with Russia. In March 2018, Russia provided ‘free military aid’ to the Central African Republic and sent 175 instructors, presumed to be Wagner mercenaries, to oversee the training.

By working through ‘low-cost intermediaries’ such as private military companies like Wagner and local political elites, Russia cements itself as a key lifeline for the survival of many of Africa’s autocratic regimes. While Russia’s economic footprint in Africa pales in comparison to that of China and the United States, many African countries had come to rely on Russian and Ukrainian imports of grain, oil, steel, and fertilizer by the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

To foster stronger ties with nations it views as susceptible to falling into autocracy, Russia has made several grain ‘donations’ to countries like Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, and Eritrea, compensating for grain imports that would have otherwise been received through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which Russia terminated in July 2023.

This Africa model is particularly attractive to authoritarian African governments because Russia interferes little in their domestic politics as long as they remain firmly in the Russian bloc, enabling Russia to maintain access to the nations’ resources. As Abhishek Misra, a junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, posited, “whenever an African authoritarian government faces United Nations sanctions, allegations of fraudulent elections, or criticism for human rights abuses, Russia would cast itself as the beleaguered regime’s defender on the global stage.”

While Russia’s impact on the continent should not be understated, given recent developments in the Sahel and particularly Niger, its influence still trails behind that of China and the US. Only the most autocratic of governments tend to cement themselves fully in a given bloc, instead of ‘playing the game’ with the great powers to reap the most benefits. This can be seen in the massive drop in attendance at Russia’s Africa summit, with just 17 heads of state attending in 2023 compared to the attendance of 43 heads of state in 2019. This decline could partially be explained by the lack of gains made against Islamic extremism in nations where Russia is a primary supplier of arms and training.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker, violent extremism has exploded in Africa, jumping 20 percent in 2023, with 80 percent of deaths related to Islamic insurgency occurring in the Sahel and Somalia. These statistics counter Russian claims that its military aid is helping Sahelian nations effectively combat insurgency.

Furthermore, civilian casualties as a result of the introduction of Wagner/Africa Corps personnel have skyrocketed. In Africa, Wagner/the Africa Corps employs a ‘three-tiered’ strategy. As outlined by Abhishek Misra, “Wagner operatives conduct disinformation campaigns, including fake polls and counter-demonstration techniques. Second, the group mostly secures payments for its services through concessions in extractive industries, particularly precious metal mining operations. Third, Wagner becomes involved with the country’s military, launching a direct relationship with Russia’s military forces which involves training, the personal security of African leaders, and advising and conducting anti-insurgency operations.”

However, the effectiveness of Wagner/the Africa Corps is yet to be seen, with civilian casualties much higher in nations in which they operate. According to Armed Conflict Location and Event (ACLED) data, “violence perpetrated against civilians in Mali and the Central African Republic is not only frequent but far more deadly to non-combatants than state-led or rebel force attacks.”

Chinese Relations in Africa

When discussing China’s Africa policy, one of the most significant differences between it, Russia, and the United States is that China has no set strategic policy for how it interacts with the continent. China chooses to interact with African countries on a bilateral basis because it allows the country to have greater leeway in developing relations.

China hopes to achieve several foreign policy objectives by increasing its diplomatic relations with African countries. These objectives range from recognizing and reaffirming the countries’ commitment to the One China Policy, increasing its influence in the wider Global South, and gaining influence in various international organizations such as the United Nations (UN). China achieves these objectives through bilateral relationships and multilateral forums such as the China-Africa Leaders’ Dialogue and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).

The rationale behind China’s push for African countries to reaffirm their commitment to the One China Policy is to continue its narrative that Taiwan’s ‘reunification’ is inevitable. This narrative is especially important as China attempts to entice Taiwan’s 12 remaining allies into switching recognition. Furthermore, China hopes to show Taiwan’s allies that switching recognition would significantly improve their economies and security, offering inclusion in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese-led regional multilateral forums, and access to Chinese-developed technologies.

China views its diplomatic relations with African countries as an opportunity to increase its influence in the Global South. Emphasizing its role as part of the Global South, China positions itself as a partner in Africa’s modernization efforts. For example, Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi has stated that the Global South, including both China and Africa, “is growing fast and profoundly shaping the course of world history.” This narrative allows China to present itself as a developing country aligned with African interests, contrasting with the perceived imperialism of Western countries.

Another notable method China employs to strengthen diplomatic relations is through state visits, particularly to smaller African countries that may not receive similar attention from other major nations. Additionally, China’s tradition of having its Foreign Affairs Minister begin their overseas visits in African countries underscores its commitment to the continent. For instance, in January 2024, FAM Wang Yi visited and met with leaders of Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, and Tunisia. China also uses regional forums like FOCAC to increase its diplomatic influence.

China’s narrative of a shared history of struggle against imperialism and colonialism further solidifies its ties with African nations. By portraying itself as a brother to Africa, China differentiates itself from Western and Russian influence. This narrative facilitates greater diplomatic relations, which China leverages to enhance its economic and security engagements. Xi Jinping’s call for a “China-Africa community with a shared future” exemplifies this comprehensive approach, encompassing diplomatic, economic, and security realms.

Finally, China aims to translate its diplomatic relations into increased influence in organizations like the African Union (AU) and the UN. Viewing the Global South as vital for its goal of reshaping the international order to better serve its interests, China seeks to bolster its standing in these institutions. Increased influence in the AU, for example, could open further economic and security opportunities for China.

Economic Relations

Economic relations between China and Africa are driven by bilateral economic agreements, BRI loans for infrastructure development, and participation in the BRICS organization. Through bilateral agreements, China enhances investment, trade, mineral extraction, and other economic ties with African countries. These agreements often include loans for critical infrastructure projects, such as ports, roadways, and railways, facilitating easier movement of resources and boosting economic development.

The BRI is central to China’s economic engagement in Africa. Since 2013, at least 39 Sub-Saharan African countries have joined the initiative, receiving development loans for various public projects. While these loans have significantly improved transportation networks and governance, they have also led to concerns about debt sustainability. The resource-intensive countries of Angola, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia account for the largest amount of bilateral debt to China.

China’s Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Africa has also risen sharply since the early 2000s, with FDI reaching approximately 23 percent by 2021. However, this investment is concentrated in resource-rich countries like Angola and Nigeria. China’s use of BRICS as a vehicle to increase economic relations allows it to access Africa’s natural resources and markets through initiatives that promote trade and investment.

Military Relations

China leverages military relations with African countries to increase its influence on the continent through weapons sales, joint exercises, and training opportunities. African countries are attracted to Chinese-produced weapons due to their lower prices compared to Western counterparts. For instance, countries like Benin, Mali, Nigeria, and Senegal have purchased Chinese equipment such as Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFVs) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

China also enhances military relations through donations of equipment to African countries and regional organizations. Examples include a $28 million equipment donation to Zimbabwe in December 2023 and four UAVs to Benin in March 2023. China also donated substantial resources to the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique in November 2023.

Joint military exercises and training opportunities allow African countries to familiarize themselves with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) operations and doctrines. Professional Military Education (PME) opportunities expose African officers to China’s military and governmental practices, fostering long-term relationships. These efforts aim to position China as a top security partner in Africa, despite challenges related to the quality and reliability of Chinese equipment.

China’s Africa Policy is Multi-Front

China’s Africa policy emphasizes bilateral relations as the foundation for its interactions with the continent. This approach is evident in its diplomatic, economic, and military engagements. China aligns African countries with its wider foreign policy objectives, such as denying recognition to Taiwan and becoming a leader in the Global South. Diplomatic relations form the basis for enhancing economic and military ties, with economic forums and military cooperation furthering China’s influence.

The Belt and Road Initiative exemplifies China’s strategy of integrating economic and infrastructure development to exploit Africa’s natural resources. However, concerns about debt sustainability and the quality of Chinese equipment pose challenges to this approach. While BRICS provides additional economic opportunities, competition within the organization may limit China’s influence.

In the military realm, China’s goal is to become Africa’s top security partner through weapons sales, joint exercises, and PME opportunities. However, issues related to the quality of Chinese military equipment and limited technology transfer hinder this objective. Despite these challenges, China’s comprehensive approach to diplomatic, economic, and military engagement positions it as a significant player in Africa’s development.

For Africa, Complexity Rules

By the end of the 1880s, Africa was largely under colonial rule, except for Liberia and Ethiopia. Today, the major powers—Russia, China, and the United States—interact with Africa in ways that differ from historical colonialism. Despite being seen as ‘system-ineffectual’ by some scholars, African nations have significant agency in their interactions with these powers. Many African countries leverage their resources and strategic importance to maximize benefits from relationships with China, Russia, and the US.

While China provides extensive infrastructure and economic investment, its approach has faced criticism due to xenophobia and exclusion of local workers. Russia, on the other hand, supports authoritarian regimes through military aid and political alliances but faces challenges in reducing extremism and maintaining influence. The United States promotes liberal values but often faces pushback for perceived interference in African governance.

African nations adeptly navigate these complex relationships, ensuring they benefit from multiple great powers. This strategic positioning allows them to access infrastructure, investment, and military support while maintaining a degree of autonomy. The evolving dynamics between Africa and these major powers highlight the continent’s significant role in global geopolitics.

The evolving dynamics in Africa highlight a complex interplay between major powers and African nations. Russia and China leverage their historical narratives and strategic policies to deepen their influence, yet face significant challenges. Russia’s military support and economic initiatives appeal to authoritarian regimes but struggle with efficacy and broader acceptance. China’s extensive infrastructure investments and diplomatic engagements boost its presence, though concerns over debt and local discontent persist.

African countries, aware of their strategic importance and resource wealth, adeptly navigate these relationships to maximize benefits, often playing the major powers against each other. This strategic maneuvering allows them to secure infrastructure, investment, and military support while maintaining a degree of autonomy. As the continent continues to develop, its role in global geopolitics becomes increasingly significant, shaping the policies and strategies of the world’s leading nations.

What do you think about the evolving influence of Russia and China in Africa? How do you see this impacting the continent’s future?