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  • Anoushka Jha

Barriers to Influence - Challenges for the United States - Africa Strategy

‘[Africa has] suffered enough of the burden of history [and] does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War’

South Africa's foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, and Mr Blinken after their meeting in Pretoria, South Africa (source: New York Times, 08/10/2022)

This quote is by Macky Sall, chair of the African Union, in response to President

Biden’s address to the United Nations General Assembly and his expressed concern of

Russia. By appealing to Africa’s ‘historical’ strain, how it had been of the central peripherals

of the US-Russia space race and agritech development rivalry, Sall expressed the need for a

stable, progressive partnership with the US.

In his 3 nation tour, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken outlined the US’ strategic points in

Africa, which included democracy, pandemic recovery and clean energy. Yet he also stated

the "African nations have been treated as instruments of other nations' progress, rather than

the authors of their own," and that Washington will "not dictate" which choices Africa

should make. This is certainly a positive stance, offering agency to a nation which does not,

as Blinken states, require ‘solutions’ from the West. By acknowledging the orientalist

perspective of this, Blinken is allowing sovereignty and the election process and policy

makers of Africa, such as in the upcoming elections of Kenya and Nigeria, to engineer their

own success.

But the caveat lies in the extent to which the US can pursue an effective strategy. Challenges

such as the oppressive impacts of Russia-Africa relations and the increasing presence of

Chinese economic and diplomatic power in the region suggests the US must define ‘peace’

as a positive active goal. My article will outline the geopolitical tensions the US currently faces in securing a stable partnership with Africa, looking specifically at Africa’s relations

with China and Russia. Lastly, I will contextualise and comment on the White Paper released

with regards to the US and Sub-Saharan Africa strategy. Overall, the strategy requires careful

consideration and implementation.

Africa’s relations with China

Due to its ongoing Belt and Road initiative, China is an attractive partner for Africa, as it is

based largely on commercial logic. China offers concessional loans with little conditionality,

and is part of several nations, such as India, Japan, and the Gulf States, who have increased

their investment activity in Sahel to Somalia, as part of their ten-year diplomatic strategy.

Despite some tailwinds on China’s end, such as the increasing cost of their loan repayments,

a 2022 Youth Survey revealed that only 26% of Africans, aged 18-25, believed the US was

the most prevalent external actor on the continent. China gained the majority of votes.

Since 2012, Xi Jinping’s leadership in China has placed value on initiatives to transform

Africa into an export ground for the political system of state-led growth under an

authoritarian rule. Whilst a motive for this may be China’s dependency on African fossil fuels

and commodities, this apparent inter-dependency is tilted by Beijing’s strategic direct

investment in African oil-fields and through resource-backed loans that demand in-kind

payments of commodities. The US-Africa strategy must therefore address the ability of

American companies to access key supplies and maintain diplomatic relations with African

leaders, through contributing to its state development and infrastructure projects.

Africa has been a leitmotif of the China-US superpower rivalry since the Cold War. From the

establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China has engaged in agricultural

modernisation and cultural communist projects in Africa, whilst also being involved in the

African national liberation movements in the dawn of its independence era. From the 1980s

onwards, political support, reinforced through allusions to both regions’ historic ties, led to

further international and political support.

The main aims of the US-Africa strategy should thus be as follows. Firstly, it must recognise

that post-colonial Africa are intelligent agents who observe various alternate avenues for

cooperation. For example, the Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa and

projects such as the Kafue Lower Gorge Project in Zambia, are both supported by China and

counter the dwindling action taken by the West to buffer Africa from rising fuel and

infrastructure prices. Secondly, as the US Commission recommends, the US Trade

Representative must prepare a report on China’s use of rules to benefit countries eligible for

the African Growth and Opportunities Act; the AGOA must not be used to subvert US trade

policies or exploit African production for national ends.

Africa’s relations with Russia

Simon Rynn of the Royal United Services Institute described the Russian threat to the US-Africa strategy not as a direct competitor, but a ‘spoiler’. The distinction lies in considering Russia’s national policies. The global sanctions and policies preventing audit accounting for Russian clients and companies, due to the Ukraine War, means that Russia is seeking commercial and security assistance through intermediaries such as Egypt, Libya and

South Africa.

There are several examples underscoring this challenge. In Libya, Russia retains a Wagner

mercenary force, in support of the warlord Khalifa Haftar. This military presence, alongside

its access to deep water ports in the Mediterranean and NATO’s southern base, means it has

leverage in superintending presidential elections, and controlling a preferred political

outcome to support geopolitical ends. This is further reinforced by Russia’s strategy in

Angola, where Russian forces have expressed support for President Joao Lourenco. Lourenco

has been responsible for the country’s recession, authoritarianism, and divisions within his

party. Yet his historic ties with the Soviet Union and offering of mineral/oil resources, means

Lourenco is a mechanism in Russian aims to secure geopolitical backing, however


The US-Africa strategy must therefore present itself as an attractive and stable alternative to

Russia, but also provide the economic, diplomatic and social means by which authoritarian

leaders’ influence is dettterd.

With regards to the Ukraine war, the US faces additional challenges. In South Africa for

example, the minister of International Relations openly criticised a US draft Bill, the

Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act. The increased ability to plan ahead and

handle western demands means that many African states are neutral to the Ukraine war.

Significantly, the dynamics of Russia’s influence is different to China’s highly systematised,

commercial model. For Russia, the threat to the US lies in Russian forces abilities in nations

such as Libya, Angola and Sudan (where there is increasing support for the Bashir regime), to

rally undemocratic support. Through providing corrective funding, the US must provide

protection to African citizens who are enduring institutionalised corruption and diverted

public revenues, and divert economic and political power from the deeply ideological and

self-interested power of unaccountable leaders in Russia and African states.

To what extent does the White Paper suggest substantial support?

Looking specifically at the White Paper on the strategy invites some commentary. Statements

such as ‘promoting stronger growth trajectory to support the region’s economic recovery,

through the Partnership for Global Investment, Feed the Future’ and ‘promoting government

transparency...and rule of law’, are well said. The aim is to encourage greater civil society

engagement, transparency around contracts, and scrutiny of deals from authoritarian nations.

There has been some already evident progress. For example, between 2014 and Q1 2022,

climate-tech startups in Africa raised over $2.1 billion in funding, accounting for 14.7% of

total investments raised by digital start-ups in the same period. Moreover, the US climate

envoy John Kerry announced financial support for an African Development Bank program,

which will provide in total $10 million to reduce methane emissions in Africa. These

examples, and statistics revealing solutions to reduce agricultural efficiency, suggest that the

US-Africa strategy is both ambitious and attainable. Yet other provisions, such as improving

‘the rule of law’, are more ambiguous. This will require an uprooting of unstable political

leaders in Africa, many of whom are a product of the extractive colonial economic machinery

of the twentieth century.

Overall, the US must not only provide enlightened rhetoric, but use transactional politics and

active diplomacy to ensure the actions of Russia, and the dubious commercial motives of the

China Belt and Road Initiative, do not infringe the security of African citizens and their social

structures . There have certainly been initiatives in the last decade, such as the American

Rescue Plan Act 2021, aid USAID HIV-related funding since 2017 and the 2015 Electrify

Africa Act. Yet as shown, the challenge lies not only in generating policies, but to ensure

effective implementation that is palpable to the African population, in the midst of

geopolitical rivalries.

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