Africa in the Era of a New Cold War: Alliances and Challenges

When 26 African nations failed to support a UN resolution denouncing Russia’s activities in Ukraine, it caught several Western governments off guard

In the era of new cold war, Africa is feeling the heat of cold geopolitics. The heightened diplomatic activity that has been noticeable in recent months that is directed at the continent is a first indication of this.

At the US-Africa Leaders Summit in December 2022, President Biden met representatives from 49 African nations as well as the African Union. US Secretary of State Blinken stressed that “Africa is a major geopolitical force” at the event.

African Union headquarters
New Cold War
 African Union headquarters building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Pic Credit: Reuters

The foreign ministers of China, Russia, Germany, and France, as well as the US treasury secretary and the EU’s high representative for international affairs and security policy, visited fourteen African nations during the first two months of 2023.

Africa has the potential to become the next great frontier and a major force in world politics and economics. It is not at all unexpected that a number of strong countries have refocused their attention on the continent.

The trips are intended to forge new alliances and tackle shared problems. Some of these objectives were demonstrated by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s June trip to Senegal, Niger, and South Africa. It had a strong undercurrent of opposing Russian ambitions in Africa while concentrating on investments, energy, and food security problems.

The UN Mission in Mali has deployed German soldiers there. Following the withdrawal of French forces in August, Germany emerged as the main obstacle to Russian paramilitary groups’ growing support for the Malian government.

France has considerable obstacles in Africa, which have been apparent for some time. The goal of the July trip of French President Emmanuel Macron to Cameroon, Benin, and Guinea-Bissau was to “renew” ties with the continent. This renewal effort, however, has faltered, as seen by the Malian junta’s criticism of Macron‘s strategy, which it dubbed “neo-colonial and patronizing.”

Emmanuel Macron announces French and European troops' departure from Mali amidst disagreements with military junta|
New Cold War
Emmanuel Macron announces French and European troops’ departure from Mali amidst disagreements with military junta| CREDIT: Shutterstock

In contrast Russia’s and China’s expanding influence in the continent, especially while tensions over Ukraine and Taiwan persist, Germany, the US, and France shared a similar objective during their travels to Africa.

Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of Russia, made a symbolic trip to Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Ethiopia in July to show that it had not been isolated by Western sanctions. Lavrov portrayed Russia as a considerate ally rather than as a domineering Western power with a colonial outlook. Additionally, he attempted to refute the Western understanding of the global food crisis by blaming it on sanctions rather than on Russia’s Black Sea grain export blockade of Ukraine.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor | Credit TASS

Whilst former colonial powers such as France and Britain remain involved in Africa for economic and security considerations, and the EU recently concluded, together with the African Union, a Joint Vision for 2030 as part of the Africa-EU Partnership, rising powers have also made deliberate attempts to strengthen their foothold in the continent.

Russia, through the activities of the notorious Wagner Group, has also been active militarily in the Central African Republic, Mali, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, and Madagascar, supporting the incumbent regime or particular groups in exchange for mining concessions. India, as one of the champions of the Non-aligned Movement, is presenting itself as an alternative to Western and Chinese involvement, and has supported Africa’s call for a permanent seat on the UN’s Security Council, which is also referred to as the Ezulwini consensus.

China, with the vast majority of African countries having signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative, has expanded its investment in infrastructure across the continent. The Kampala-Entebbe and Nairobi Expressways, together with the Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, are the most visible signs of Chinese investment in Africa. However, critical voices have criticized the Chinese presence in Africa as it has led to a new form of dependency, luring countries into a ‘debt trap’.

Top Source Country for the Import in Africa | New Cold War
Top Source Country for the Import in Africa | Source: Statista
China Debt Trap in Africa
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China’s infrastructure in African countries, mostly in the form of high-interest-rate debt, is referred to as the ‘debt trap’ by some | Source: whs-blogs
China FDI in Africa | Credit: DW news

External involvement in Africa is undoubtedly important, but developments in the continent also have important geopolitical dimensions. The European Union Institute for Security Studies recently reported on the ‘new geopolitical frontlines’ in terms of four geographical spaces (sands, oceans, cities, and peripheries) and four functional domains (trade, digital, jobs, and information). Africa currently faces a broad array of geopolitical opportunities and challenges driven by the continent’s economic dynamism.

The African Continental Free Trade Area (AFCFTA) is an obvious opportunity to redraw the (regional) economic boundaries that are dividing the continent. The agreement could be a motor for economic development, creating a larger intra-African market, and reducing economic dependence on other parts of the world. The AFCFTA aims not only to liberalize continent-wide trade but also to establish the free movement of persons, capital, and services.

The various geopolitical spaces contain noticeable centripetal forces that may have a positive influence on the African geopolitical landscape, while certain centrifugal developments could lead to more adverse outcomes. The Sahara is both the area that connects the countries of North and sub-Saharan Africa and a fertile ground for criminal activity, including human and drug trafficking, and the rise of transnational terrorist networks.

Likewise, the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea are areas of trade and military activity while also attracting groups involved in piracy and armed robbery. African cities are the hotbed of growing middle classes and economic dynamism, but they also contain the potential for political mobilization and resistance to the dominance of political and economic elites.


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