Major powers are going on a diplomatic charm offensive on Africa with three high-profile visits in quick succession to the continent. First came the visit of China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang who carried a 33-year-old tradition by making Africa the first official visit of the new year. The five-nation sojourn to Ethiopia, Gabon, Benin, Angola, and Egypt served as an opportunity for the new foreign minister to familiarise himself with the continent at a time when Chinese lending to Africa is down and great power competition is up. Beijing’s new foreign policy team is scrambling to drive home the point that China does not view Africa as an arena for major-power rivalry, but as a “big stage for international cooperation.” This echoes the US President Biden administration’s attempts to downplay perceptions of Africa as an arena for rivalry or any form of zero-sum competition.
The US is also trying to sustain the momentum following the US-Africa Leaders Summit held last month in Washington D.C. during which the Biden-Harris administration declared its intention to invest US$55 billion over the next three years. Two high-profile cabinet secretaries—Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield—are touring the continent with the aim of positioning the US as Africa’s true development partner in the long run rather than China. The US’ attempts to woo African countries and reassert Washington’s commitment rest upon improving economic development, deepening trade and investment, and upholding accountable institutions. The diplomatic offensive is, indeed, supercharged and marks President Biden’s resolve to follow through on his declaration at the US-Africa Leaders Summit that he “is all in on Africa and all in with Africa
Russia also wants to play the game and not get left behind. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited South Africa, Angola, and Eswatini this week as it seeks to cultivate closer ties with African countries and highlight Moscow’s clout in the security and energy sector. However, it does not change the fact that Russia’s global image has taken a beating following the invasion of Ukraine. Although the United Nations’ vote on the Russian invasion of Ukraine did expose Africa’s divergent voting patterns, their official position continues to stress neutrality and managing the growing US-China competition.
Against this backdrop, let us have a look.at how are these visits and developments being viewed by African leaders and countries.
There is hardly any lull period in China-Africa relations as new developments continue to unfurl almost every month. The beginning of 2023 is no different with new foreign minister Qin Gang’s visit showcasing the value and importance that Beijing attaches to its friendship with Africa. The visit took place on the heels of a few crucial developments—the successful conclusion of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in October 2022; China’s re-opening of borders after three years of international isolation marked by its ‘Zero-COVID’ policy; and finally following the eighth edition of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation held in Dakar, Senegal in November during which the Dakar Action Plan (2022-2024) was adopted. Interestingly, this is a period when speculations are rife about a possible reduction in Chinese lending for big-ticket infrastructure projects in the continent. The economic fallout of the pandemic and the Russia-Ukrainian war has undermined the ability of African nations to service their sovereign debt. Beijing is, indeed,struggling to recoup its money while maintaining its image as a champion of developing nations.
While speculations of a Chinese retrenchment from Africa continues, the reality on the other hand is totally different. In terms of optics, January 2023 has been a big month for China as African leaders across various countries commissioned several high-profile Chinese-built development projects. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned the new Lekki deep sea port in Lagos. The port is now West Africa’s largest port. In addition, a 27km Blue Line light rail system that is Chinese-financed and built was inaugurated this month. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni commissioned the Kingfisher oil drilling platform on Lake Albert which is expected to help Uganda produce more crude oil. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new Central African Cultural and Arts Centre is presently under construction in Kinshasa.
These are high-scale projects which are visible and could potentially have a transformative effect on the local economy. The day when the West comes close to even remotely outperforming China in Africa seems distant.
The main focus of the US this year is continuity and sustaining the momentum of its Africa policy which got a much-needed boost at the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit. African leaders would be closely monitoring if President Biden’s administration upholds its commitments and truly engages Africa as an equal partner. The U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin during her tour reiterated the US’ support to help Africa realise its true economic potential and the Biden administration’s support for the inclusion of the African Union as a permanent member in the Group of 20.
Debt as usual came up as a talking point during Secretary Yellen’s visit. In Zambia, the African country most heavily indebted to China, Secretary Yellen accused Beijing of acting as a “barrier” in Zambia’s drawn-out debt restructuring process. However, the timing of bringing this issue up and singling out China when the US is itself not raising its own debt ceiling when its national debt is about US$31 trillion seems a bit odd. The process of restructuring debt is difficult. Indeed, China’s opaque loan contracts and continued insistence on approaching debt bilaterally on a case-by-case basis do make it harder for creditors to coordinate. However, nearly three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt is owed to multilateral financial organisations and commercial creditors. According to a new Chatham House report, Chinese lenders account for 12 percent of Africa’s total external debt of US$696 billion.
For the second time in a year, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov returned to Africa in an attempt to portray Russia as a partner in Africa’s development, especially in the security and energy sector. The visit to South Africa was particularly interesting and controversial with the announcement of joint multilateral naval exercise involving South Africa-Russia-China, dubbed as “Operation Mosi”, to be held from 17th to 27th February off the port of Durban. Despite Russia’s war in Ukraine raising fears of a major economic impact across the continent, the African countries continue to choose “neutrality” and remain equidistant from both Russia and the West. The decision by the South African government to partake in the upcoming naval exercise has drawn severe criticism from the opposition and civil society organisations. However, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor deflected criticism by asserting that such exercises with “friends” are the “natural course of relations”.
Despite the overtly propagandistic element of Lavrov’s tour, the visit achieved little in terms of outcomes. The only announcement of any note was made in Luanda of a prospective agreement for Russia to help Angola develop its own atomic energy programme. In terms of security, Russia is the continent’s largest arms supplier and has a large security presence, especially in West Africa. The state-aligned Wagner mercenary group is active in countries like Mali, Mozambique, Libya, Central African Republic, and is even touted to have a presence in Angola and Eswatini. What makes Russia stand out in Africa is its continued insistence on Western double standards, the West’s role in Africa’s colonial legacy, and the fact that the erstwhile Soviet Union did not take part in the ‘scramble for Africa’ and was in fact a proponent of anti-colonial movements. Such narratives resonate with some African countries that are not in a position to burn bridges with Moscow in order to maintain economic ties.