- Africa is home to at least 47 foreign military outposts, with the US controlling the largest number
- Djibouti is the only country in the world to host both American and Chinese outposts
- Currently, China is Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade exceeding US$200 billion per year
The geopolitical contest for Africa by two of the world’s biggest powers, the US and China that has sparked a rivalry between the two countries.
On the global stage, this is somewhat reminiscent of the scramble and partitioning of Africa, which took place between 1880 and the onset of the First World War in 1914.
However, this time around, Africa’s voice will be heard, having a prime seat at the table and getting to decide who to partner with to pertinently advance Africa’s interests and to spur the much-needed economic development and the green transition revolution.
Many traditional and emerging global powers are racing to capture Africa’s tremendous economic potential by seeking strategic partnerships. The IMF declared Africa the world’s second-fastest-growing region, well on its way to becoming a US$5 trillion economy, with household consumption expected to increase at a 3.8 per cent yearly clip to US$2.1 trillion by 2025.
Can Africa get the best of both worlds? Or does the existing tension spell impending doom of a sequel to the cold war period where African countries aligned themselves with either the West or the Soviet bloc and suffered the dire consequences of the division?
The recent announcement by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi that Beijing will soon appoint a special envoy for the Horn of Africa coming after the newly appointed US special envoy for the region, David Satterfield who is scheduled to visit conflict-riven Ethiopia to assist in the peace process, all goes to show the ambition by both countries to stamp their footprint in the region.
Wang made the announcement during a recent visit to Kenya to see the Kipevu oil terminal, a multi-million dollar oil pipeline project being built in Mombasa at a cost of US$400 million. In addition, exacerbating this tension is the construction of a proposed Chinese military base, said to be soon established in Equatorial Guinea—a move that the US is countering on the basis that it might jeopardize its military ambitions in the Atlantic Ocean.
Africa is home to at least 47 foreign military outposts, with the US controlling the largest number. Djibouti is the only country in the world to host both American and Chinese outposts.
A recent survey by Afrobarometer across 34 countries indicated that 63 per cent of the population see China’s influence in Africa as positive, whilst 60 per cent made similar comments about the US. Are there benefits to be extracted from this searing rivalry?
Africa’s Agenda 2063 on the ‘Africa we want’ set by the African Union, advocates under its first aspiration, a ‘Prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development’ and ‘A Strong, United, Resilient and Influential Global Player and Partner’ under aspiration 7.
For the fruition of both aspirations, Africa needs to forge transformative partnerships aligned to its national development goals.
China vs US investments in Africa
Both China and the US have a deep presence in the continent, with an ever-broadening investment footprint that has been brewing tensions.
Currently, China is Africa’s biggest trade partner, with Sino-African trade exceeding US$200 billion per year. There are an estimated 10,000 Chinese enterprises in Africa, which generate US$180 billion a year in revenues and are projected to reach US$250 billion by 2025.
The establishment of the Forum on China-Africa Co-operation (FOCAC) in 2000 further increased commercial opportunities for the continent.
Africa has surpassed Asia as the largest market for China’s overseas construction contracts, with the continent being the largest regional component of the US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to revolutionize infrastructure development, with 46 nations having already signed. African countries have been inclined to sway to the east, deepening economic ties with China and in tandem, China has entrenched its military and security framework in Africa.
On the technology front, China has been additionally keen to expand its digital footprint in Africa, with its tech giants Huawei, ZTE and Cloudwalk reported to be investing US$8.43 billion as part of its Digital Silk Road Initiative.
China has made massive investments in the continent, from national infrastructures such as airports, railway lines and hydroelectric plants. In Southern Africa, China is financing the construction of four coal-fired power plants despite its September 2021 pledge to cease supporting such infrastructure overseas.
In addition, at least five African countries have had their railway systems funded by China: Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway; Angola’s Lobito-Luau Railway; Nigeria’s Abuja-Kaduna Railway; Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit and Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway. The state-of-the-art African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and the ECOWAS headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria were built by China.
In terms of hydropower projects, Angola signed a deal with China in 2017 for the construction of the Caculo Cabaca Hydropower project in Dondo set to produce 2172 megawatts of electricity and projected to be completed in 2024.
Similarly, China has funded the ongoing Kaleta Hydroelectric facility in Guinea. Nigeria signed a deal with China to build an oil refinery in Edo State and also build an upmarket residential district in Egypt. The country will also be investing in the Republic of Congo’s Special Economic Zone, to be built in Pointe Noire.
In the same breath, the impact of US presence in the continent cannot be ignored. The most prominent indicator is the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) enacted in 2000, which has since been renewed to 2025, to spur trade and enhance market access to the US for qualifying sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries.
In the past decade, an estimated 70-75 per cent of annual US aid to Africa has sought to address health challenges, notably relating to malaria, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, and nutrition.
This aid has been dispensed through disease-specific initiatives, including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI).
Peace and Security have been another key area that the US has assisted Africa in, pertinently to counter-terrorism against groups like the Al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Being a founder and advocator of democracy, the US has also greatly helped in bolstering democratic institutions, improving government accountability and strengthening the rule of law through activities such as supporting electoral institutions and political processes.
The US has also succoured Africa in terms of human rights and other humanitarian needs, sustainable natural resource management and good governance.
Into the bargain, the US has offered support in improving access to education through programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), which supports young African businesses, science and civic leaders through training and mentorship, networking and exchange-based fellowships.
USAID supports four Regional Leadership Centres on the continent in Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa which offer training and professional development programmes. Other US assistance programmes include enhancing the access to and delivery of social services, such as improved water and sanitation facilities.
The US has also greatly aided in environmental conservation such as in DRC, with the implementation of the Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment (CARPE), which promotes conservation, sustainable resource use and climate change mitigation in Central Africa’s Congo Basin rainforest.
The Trump administration saw the launch of an Africa-focused trade and investment initiative, known as Prosper Africa but in tandem recorded a sharp reduction of US assistance to Africa.
However, the Biden administration seeks to reset the US relationship with the continent, demonstrated by the massive coronavirus vaccine donations to 43 countries coupled with announcements of a variety of financial investments in health, education and climate adaptation projects in Africa, as highlighted by the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his recent visit to the continent.
Africa’s opportunities amid the rivalry
Africa needs to meticulously analyse opportunities from the rival partners, which align with national development priorities first by steering clear of the numerous loans, grants and donations that eventually end up in a debt trap.
African governments should ensure that any loans taken fully realize their intended development purpose, which should directly ameliorate the living standards of citizens. African governments should incorporate strategic policies that dictate criteria, upon which to choose foreign partners that are capable of executing their priorities.
This could be largely boosted by African students who have studied in tertiary institutions of these foreign countries, to provide strategic expertise and additionally language translation skills and cultures of these nations and how they operate.
Geopolitical rivalry not being a new occurrence should present an opportunity for African nations to further bolster their strategies by learning from other regions across the world experiencing the same hurdles, such as Southeast Asia and Latin America.
African nations should milk the opportunities from this rivalry by multiplying and diversifying their partners both traditional and new and seizing the best of what each trilateral or quadrilateral co-operation has to offer. The collaboration would inarguably deepen pools of finance, which could spill over to other development projects.
“Africa needs all partners. We need to be smart and eclectic, picking what works for us depending on time and context,” noted former Director of the UN Industrial Development Organization, and development economist Kandeh Yumkellah of Sierra Leone.
Both the US and China can on the other hand greatly benefit through increased meaningful ties with Africa in a win-win situation because the continent is rife with business opportunities that need to be urgently seized.