Why Are Foreign Powers Scrambling to Court Africa?

There’s a new scramble for Africa going on. But unlike the infamous conference of Berlin of 1885 that saw European powers carve up the continent for their aggrandizement and exploitation, today’s great power competition is more of a courtship. Becoming Africa’s “partner of choice” on everything from growing their economies to protecting their borders is Washington’s stated objective, but preventing others from doing the same remains an even higher, if unspoken, priority.

Last month, Vice President Kamala Harris became the fifth high-ranking U.S. official to visit the continent just this year, who have combined to visit fully one-quarter of the continent’s 54 countries. But the United States is not the lone courtier. Russian, Chinese, French and English officials are crisscrossing the continent too with their own promises of political partnerships, humanitarian assistance, splashy development projects, and reforms to postwar international institutions that for decades have been seen by Africans as perpetuating paternalist power dynamics.

Framing the U.S. approach is the Biden administration’s recent U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa. Announced last August in South Africa, it correctly puts its finger on the present and future conditions on the continent that underpin Washington’s current interest.

Africa is home to many of the rare earth critical minerals essential to powering the next generation of innovation and green growth. From copper to cobalt, the supply chains for products ranging from solar cells to next-generation batteries all start in Africa and securing reliable access to these minerals, currently dominated by China, is imperative to U.S. economic and national security.

Secondly, Africa is experiencing a population boom unequaled in the world today. Many cities and countries most Americans have never heard of will soon feature among the largest population centers on Earth. The Sahelian nation of Niger, where Antony Blinken recently concluded the first ever visit by a U.S. secretary of state, has among the highest population birth rates in the world and its population will double from 26 million to 54 million in only the next twenty years. By the end of the century, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital city, Kinshasa, is projected to have a population equaling that of present-day Germany: a single megacity of 82 million people.

As age pyramids in the Global North invert, Africa’s population boom could help power future economic growth globally. And if not managed properly, could sew dissent and political instability whose ripple effects could be felt on American shores—reason enough to hold Washington’s attention.

But more relevant to immediate U.S. interests, African countries represent the largest voting block of UN member states, with more than one-quarter of the world’s voice. No power without Africa in its corner can credibly claim the title of global leader.

Washington has been reminded of this stark fact over the last year since African countries have repeatedly shown their ambivalence to lining up behind the Western alliance to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Leading that nonaligned bloc is South Africa. Last month it concluded military exercises with both Russia and China and it is now debating whether it will detain Russian president Vladimir Putin should he proceed with a planned visit to the country as required under Pretoria’s obligations to the International Criminal Court. 

Recognizing Africa’s growing geopolitical value and importance to U.S. economic and national security, President Biden declared at last year’s U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit that he was “all in on Africa’s future.” But while for many African leaders that declaration is a welcome departure from President Trump’s seeming disregard, and even disdain, for African countries, is Washington’s newfound commitment simply too little, too late?

Despite Washington’s renewed attention, Africans are decidedly skeptical when it comes to Biden’s efforts to mend ties, responding to U.S. entreaties with more of a shrug than a hug. Because unlike Washington, whose political memory is washed clean every four years, Africans are grounded in their own painful histories in ways Americans are not.

Centuries of Western imperialist policies from slavery and colonialism to Cold War support for undemocratic regimes in the name of anti-communism, rightfully continue to color the way Africans perceive U.S. policy. Today, modern-day challenges like climate change, debt distress, and pandemic response and recovery continue to be viewed through the lens of that history—problems emerging or made worse by powerful, developed nations, but that are imposing unfair costs on Africans. 

And while Biden espouses a forward-looking gospel of green energy and democratic reforms in his discussions with African leaders, they see his approval of the massive CO2-producing Willow oil development in Alaska or his administration’s continued support to many of the continent’s most authoritarian rulers as a persistent reminder that Washington can rarely be counted on to practice what it preaches.

Perhaps in recognition of this, President Biden has tried to offer Africa a “new partnership” that would give the continent’s 54 nations a greater voice in shaping the global response to challenges affecting them, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and formal representation at the G20. But so too have Russia and China, which even earlier recognized Africa’s importance to their own geopolitical and economic ambitions.

In response to this growing competition, administration officials responded, “We're not asking our partners in Africa to choose. We want to expand African options, not limit them.” But in the same breath, officials also warn Africans not to do business with Russia or risk “having actions taken against them.” More pointed still was the president’s national security spokesperson, who in a press conference in advance of the vice president’s recent African tour argued that “one of the things that came out of the African Leaders Summit was a growing recognition that we perceived by African leaders that they’re beginning to realize that China is not really their friend . . . African leaders are beginning to see that China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, as opposed to the United States.”

But these warnings, even when well-founded, suggest either that Africans are foolish for seeking diversified partners or were duped into picking partners other than Washington. Ultimately, such criticism does more to highlight Washington’s own failings, not Africa’s. After all, many of the governments now seeking Russian security assistance were only just recently U.S. security partners. And those benefiting from newly built Chinese roads, ports, and stadiums are doing so not because Beijing made the best bid, but because they were oftentimes the only bid. These choices say more about the United States’ priorities than Africa’s.

President Biden likes to argue that “America is back,” and yet for many Africans it is as if Americans were never there. That’s largely because the gleaming new infrastructure dotting the continent’s fast-growing capitals today bear no American flags and the smartphones in the pockets of Africa’s youth are mostly Huawei’s $100 version, not Apple’s $1,000 model. Even the United States’ soft power juggernaut seems to be fraying, as U.S. movies and songs that used to dominate Africa’s cultural landscape are giving way to Chinese blockbusters and award-winning, locally produced music content.

The challenge for President Biden is that one can still see those American flag labels on bags of food aid that feed more Africans in dire need than any other country. They are also on the antiretroviral drugs that have saved more than 25 million lives, mostly African, from the scourge of AIDS since the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiative was launched 20 years ago. While these billions in assistance are noble and impactful, it also promulgates an “aid not trade” approach that has dominated Washington’s agenda with Africa for decades and which Africans themselves are trying to shed. In today’s global competition for influence and access, trumpeting that aid feels anachronistic and discordant with the new tone the administration is trying to set. More importantly, it does not resonant with African audiences the way it once did.

As administration officials continue to fan out across the continent, they should humbly approach the challenge of simultaneously pursuing two seemingly contradictory goals: earning back a privileged relationship with African leaders while also trying to keep geopolitical rivals at bay. As part of that effort, they would do well to remember that less moralizing about the inroads U.S. competitors are making and more attention to the kind of “kitchen table” issues that Africans care about would do more to head off a new Cold War on the continent—a war the United States is increasingly placed to lose.

Cameron Hudson is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.