With Moscow increasingly seen as a key power broker in the Middle East, it was a different continent that Russian President Vladimir Putin had his eyes set on Wednesday and Thursday. He hosted the first ever Russia-Africa summit, seeking to restore his nation’s influence in the region that faded after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Yet, Putin is far from alone in its growing interest in Africa with several other key powers, including China, focusing ever more intently on the continent. Beijing’s top leadership (the president, premier and foreign minister) have reportedly made a staggering total of around 80 visits to over 40 different African countries over the past decade.
Economically Africa is coming of age, boasting an increasing number of key emerging markets. The growing economic weight of the continent is illustrated by the fact that it houses six of the world’s fastest growing countries: Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania and Rwanda.
Moreover, the International Monetary Fund also asserts that in the half decade to 2023, Africa’s overall growth prospects will be among the best in the world. In part, this is because much of the continent has embraced international trade opportunities at the same time as many key industrialised countries, led by the United States, are adopting greater protectionism.
Given Africa’s forward growth potential, it is small wonder that nascent superpower China is showing perhaps the greatest interest of all in Africa, aiming to better connect its Belt and Road Initiative increasingly with the continent’s development. Trade between the two powers has risen from $765 million (Dh2.81 billion) four decades ago to around $170 billion dollars today with around 40 African countries having signed onto Belt and Road.
With Africa rising, it is not just China and Russia that are showing greater interest in the continent. Many other key nations — India, the Arabian Gulf states, as well as Turkey and top European Union nations such as France and Germany — are also showering Africa with greater interest, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing and Washington moving forward
As well as leadership trips to individual countries, Beijing is also a frequent host of China-Africa Summits, including last year’s session which at least 50 heads of state attended. This is a model that Putin now appears keen to embrace to entrench Moscow’s foothold in the continent. Russia’s trade with Africa has already risen from around $5.7 billion dollars in 2009 to $17.4 billion in 2017.
In this context, United States President Donald Trump has — rightly — been criticised for not having a coherent or clear Africa policy. And this despite his former national security adviser John Bolton’s assertion last year that Beijing and Moscow are already “interfering with US military operations and pose a significant threat to US national security interests” in the continent.
Take the example of key US ally Kenya, whose President Uhuru Kenyatta is one of the few African leaders invited to the White House during Trump’s presidency, and whose nation’s external debt is largely (around 70 per cent) owed to Beijing, and where many large infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese firms. Kenya is a key US partner in the region, including in the campaign against terrorism.
With Africa rising, it is not just China and Russia that are showing greater interest in the continent. Many other key nations — India, the Arabian Gulf states, as well as Turkey and top European Union nations such as France and Germany — are also showering Africa with greater interest, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing and Washington moving forward.
Under Emmanuel Macron, for instance, Paris is seeking to double down ties with its former colonies while embedding relations with the continent’s biggest economies, including South Africa and Nigeria. Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is a relatively frequent visitor to the continent.
And it is in this context that the United Kingdom is also, with its anticipated withdrawal from the EU, is raising its profile in the continent too. Last year, for instance, Theresa May made a prime ministerial visit to three key Commonwealth countries: South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya (the first visit to that country by a UK prime minister since 1988) in what she called “a unique opportunity at a unique moment”.
This underlines that for the UK, the continent has assumed new importance with the Brexit project as London seeks to consolidate ties with key non-EU nations as it potentially leaves the Brussels-based club. Given the long-standing historical ties that Britain has especially with Commonwealth countries, UK ministers regularly cite that they want to marry the UK’s heritage “as a great global trading nation” with a “prosperous, growing ... Africa”.
However, it is not solely through the lens of economics that London views the relationship with the continent. Instead, UK policymakers also highlight the need for greater African security ties with the West “to tackle instability across the region”. This includes the threat of Boko Haram, and Al Shabab militants, which UK troops are playing a part in countering of part of an alliance of countries.
This exemplifies that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa by western powers and China largely reflects economic calculations, broader political considerations are also in play too. From Brexit to the great power game underway between Washington, Moscow and Beijing, interest in the continent is only likely to grow into the 2020s, especially if it continues to fulfil its significant economic potential.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.