The presence of Chinese in Africa has generated differing debates about the real reason they are there. Some have suggested that Africa is on the verge of re-colonization. The real reason the Chinese are in Africa may have yet to be discovered. However, from their aggressive style of diplomacy, one can quickly notice where they are heading and the extent to which they are committed. Their presence has raised alarms not only in Western circles but also in Africa. On the other hand, the Russian Federation’s presence is not a big concern to the West but can still disinterest the West’s want-to-be partners. Western civilization and its liberal democracy are all threatened by the Chinese and Russians’ presence in Africa.
China’s Debt-trap Diplomacy
China has built an inordinate infrastructure all over Africa to form a solid coalition to confront the United States and any adversary that may hinder this effort. Such a coalition has little or nothing to do with any present or future wars but rather a coalition that will ensure Chinese sovereignty over several disputed territories and waters. The United States and its allies believe the Chinese quest in Africa is for the Africans’ mineral resources, which may be valid. However, the Chinese’s reason for “Chinanizing” Africa is to get their unanimous votes at the United Nations General Assembly to support them over the disputed territories and the Southern China Sea. Building a coalition of this magnitude requires investments, coercion, and bribery, which Joseph Nye, famously known as the founder of neoliberalism, termed soft power. The Chinese have the best intelligence on almost every leader in Africa and their governments and do not need to negotiate with them because they know what they want. China’s debt-trap diplomacy refers to a situation where China provides loans to developing countries, often for infrastructure projects, and these countries subsequently find themselves burdened with high levels of debt that they struggle to repay. This practice has raised concerns about the potential negative consequences for African countries. Here are some critical points regarding China’s debt-trap diplomacy in Africa and its effects:
African countries that have borrowed significantly from China for infrastructure projects now face high debt levels. These loans often come with high-interest rates and short repayment periods, leading to a heavy debt burden that can hinder economic development and fiscal stability.
Some critics argue that China’s infrastructure projects in Africa primarily benefit Chinese companies and workers rather than creating long-term economic benefits for the host countries.
This can lead to limited job creation, technology transfer, and local capacity building, reducing the overall impact on local economies. In cases where African countries cannot repay their debts, there is a risk of China taking control of strategic assets or infrastructure projects as collateral. This raises concerns about losing sovereignty and control over vital national resources like ports, energy installations, or transportation networks. Most of these countries will default because of the rising debt-to-GDP ratio. Due to irregular rainfall, African agricultural economies may be in danger of producing high volumes of produce and crops for export. The below figure shows the growing debts owed by African countries bilaterally, multilaterally, and privately. These debts are significant and threaten African countries’ national security and sovereignty.
The presence of China in Africa does not only raise concerns about their debt-trap diplomacy but also an environmental concern. China’s infrastructure projects in Africa have been criticized for their potential negative impact on the environment and local communities. This criticism came from the West and within African countries where the effects are noticeable. There have been instances of inadequate environmental assessments, displacement of communities, and lack of adherence to labor standards, resulting in social and ecological consequences. The Chinese argue that countries should focus on development before environmental issues because the American economic revolution emanated from technological bursts. This argument may strike a harmonic chord within African society, but it is a misguided characterization. Dependency and Influence: The accumulation of debt to China can create a dependence on Chinese loans and investments, potentially influencing political decision-making in African countries. China’s economic leverage can affect policy choices, voting patterns in international forums, and alignment with China’s geopolitical interests.
Lack of Transparency: China’s lending practices in Africa have often been criticized for their lack of transparency. The terms and conditions of loans are sometimes disclosed publicly, making it difficult to assess the long-term implications and potential risks for African countries. Mitigating Measures: Recognizing the challenges posed by debt-trap diplomacy, African countries and international institutions are working to reduce the risks. Efforts include improved debt management, greater transparency in borrowing and lending practices, and seeking a diversified range of partners and financing sources beyond China. African countries must carefully evaluate the terms and conditions of loans, ensure negotiation transparency, and prioritize projects that align with their long-term development goals. The international community can support African countries in building debt sustainability and promoting responsible lending and borrowing practices.
Russia One Step Forward, Three Steps Backward
A mixed record, with positive and negative aspects, has characterized Russia’s engagement in Africa. While there have been instances where Russia has taken steps forward in its involvement on the continent, it is also true that there have been setbacks and challenges along the way. Here are some key points to consider: Increased Diplomatic Presence: Russia has recently tried to enhance its diplomatic presence in Africa. It has reopened embassies, signed bilateral agreements, and engaged in high-level visits. This demonstrates Russia’s intention to strengthen its ties with African nations. Economic Cooperation: Russia has sought to expand economic cooperation with African countries. It has shown interest in energy, mining, infrastructure development, and agriculture. For example, Russian companies have been involved in mining projects in countries like Zimbabwe and Angola. Arms Sales and Military Cooperation: Russia has been a significant arms supplier to several African countries. It has provided military equipment, including helicopters, fighter jets, and armored vehicles. This has helped Russia maintain a presence in Africa and cultivate strategic relationships with various nations.
The figure above shows the trade ties in Africa between Russia and the U.S., which reveals that economically, the United States is still the partner of choice based on this figure. This may be why the United States is not deeply concerned about the Russians’ involvement in the continent. However, that may change even if the Russian economy is nowhere close to the U.S. While Russia’s military cooperation has gained some traction, there have been setbacks in certain instances. For example, the controversial activities of the Russian private military company Wagner Group in Libya and the Central African Republic have drawn international criticism and raised concerns about Russia’s role. Despite efforts to expand economic cooperation, Russia’s impact on the African economy remains limited compared to other global powers such as China and the United States. Russia’s investments and trade volumes in Africa are relatively modest and face stiff competition from other countries. Soft Power Challenges: Russia’s soft power influence in Africa, including cultural and educational exchanges, has been overshadowed by other players. Its cultural impact and people-to-people discussions have been relatively limited, which can affect its long-term influence and relationships with African nations. Russia’s engagement in Africa can be characterized as a mix of progress and challenges. While there have been positive steps, such as increased diplomatic presence and economic cooperation, setbacks in the security sector and limited economic impact pose obstacles to Russia’s aspirations in the region.
U.S. Playing Catch-up but Chases the Opposite Direction in Africa
The United States’ approach to Africa has evolved over time and faced challenges in its engagement on the continent. While it is true that the U.S. has been playing catch-up in some respects, suggesting that it chases the opposite direction might be an oversimplification. Here are some key points: The U.S. has been adjusting its African priorities to align with changing global dynamics. Historically, the U.S. focused more on security and counterterrorism efforts, which needs to be evident in the eyes of the masses. However, there has been a greater emphasis on economic engagement, trade, investment, and sustainable development in recent years. The U.S. has been working to enhance its economic ties with African countries only on paper but not in actuality. Initiatives like the Prosper Africa program aim to promote trade and investment, support business partnerships, and facilitate private-sector engagement. The U.S. has also encouraged American companies to invest in Africa, particularly in the energy, infrastructure, and technology sectors. According to the former Liberian minister, W. Gyude Moore, even though the West often encourage their companies or multinational corporations to compete in Africa, the conditions and the cost they set are sometimes too expensive compared to the bid of the Chinese companies. The U.S. faces competition from other global powers, notably China, which has significantly increased its economic presence in Africa over the years. The U.S. is working to catch up and maintain its influence by offering alternative models of engagement that emphasize good governance, transparency, and respect for human rights. However, the Chinese and Russian governments have capitalized on this U.S. engagement by stating that they need to be in a position to tell sovereign countries how to run their governments.
While economic engagement has gained prominence, the U.S. maintains security cooperation with African countries. This includes supporting peacekeeping efforts, providing military aid, and conducting joint training exercises to strengthen regional security capabilities. Development Assistance: The U.S. remains a significant provider of development assistance to Africa. Programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Power Africa initiative have been instrumental in addressing public health challenges and promoting access to electricity across the continent.
Policy Consistency and Implementation Challenges: The U.S. has sometimes faced challenges maintaining policy consistency and effectively implementing its initiatives in Africa. Changes in administration and shifting priorities can create uncertainties, and bureaucratic hurdles can slow down the implementation of programs on the ground. In summary, while the U.S. has been playing catch-up in certain aspects of its African engagement, it is actively working to enhance economic cooperation, promote development, and maintain security partnerships. While facing competition from other powers, the U.S. is adapting to align with evolving global dynamics and prioritize sustainable and inclusive growth on the continent.
U.S. Government’s Poor Messaging Strategy Hurts the Effort
Everybody, or at least every African, knows that Africa is not a priority for the United States (U.S.) in bilateral and multilateral engagements. If this statement is true, why is the American government so bent on keeping China and Russia at bay in the continent that they see little or nothing? This part assesses the inability of the U.S. Government to compete with its adversaries such as China and Russia. The messaging strategy the U.S. government employs can impact its efforts in Africa. Effective communication and messaging are crucial for shaping perceptions, building relationships, and achieving desired outcomes. Here are some points to consider regarding the U.S. government’s messaging strategy and its impact on its African efforts. Inconsistency in messaging can undermine the U.S. government’s credibility and diminish its influence. Shifts in policy or contradictory statements can create confusion among African governments and populations, making building trust and maintaining long-term partnerships challenging. Perception of Self-Interest: The messaging of the U.S. government’s engagement in Africa may sometimes be driven by self-interest. This perception can undermine the U.S.’s efforts to promote its initiatives, as it may be viewed as primarily pursuing its own strategic or economic objectives rather than genuinely supporting African development.
Cultural sensitivity is crucial in messaging to engage with diverse African populations effectively. Failure to understand and respect local cultures, languages, and traditions can lead to misinterpretation or alienation, hampering the effectiveness of communication efforts. Misconceptions and misinformation about U.S. policies and intentions can circulate widely in Africa. The U.S. government’s messaging strategy should include proactive steps to address these misconceptions, clarify its objectives, and emphasize the positive impact of its initiatives on local communities. While security cooperation is essential, an overemphasis on security and counterterrorism in messaging can create the perception that the U.S. views Africa primarily through a security lens. This can overshadow other aspects of engagement, such as economic development, governance, and human rights, which are equally important to many African countries. The U.S. government should utilize effective communication channels that resonate with African audiences. Traditional media, social media, local influencers, and community engagement are essential avenues to convey messages and foster two-way communication. Improving the U.S. government’s messaging strategy in Africa requires consistent, culturally sensitive, and transparent communication. Engaging with local communities, addressing misconceptions, and demonstrating a genuine commitment to African development can help strengthen relationships and enhance the effectiveness of U.S. efforts on the continent.
What Should the U.S. Do to Compete?
American foreign policy should not exclusively be based on human rights and the democratization of African countries. But rather engage the continent with the diplomacy of equality, a win-win situation, and strong cultural tolerance. To effectively compete against Russia and China in Africa, the United States can consider the following strategies: Enhanced Economic Engagement: The U.S. should strengthen its economic ties with African countries by increasing trade and investment. This can be achieved through targeted initiatives, preferential trade agreements, investment promotion, and support for private-sector partnerships. Emphasizing fair business practices, transparency, and respect for labor and environmental standards can differentiate the U.S. from other competitors. Infrastructure Development: The U.S. can prioritize infrastructure development in Africa, including transportation, energy, and digital connectivity. By offering technical expertise, investment, and support for sustainable infrastructure projects, the U.S. can contribute to Africa’s development and position itself as a reliable partner.
The U.S. should continue to implicitly emphasize good governance, democratic principles, and respect for human rights and explicitly espouse social policies, developments, and equitable diplomacy in its engagement with African countries. This can include promoting transparency, anti-corruption measures, and strengthening institutions. The U.S. can foster an enabling economic growth and stability environment by supporting accountable governance.
Washington can bolster its security cooperation with African nations by providing training, equipment, and intelligence sharing to address shared security challenges effectively. Collaboration in areas such as counterterrorism, maritime security, and peacekeeping efforts can strengthen relationships and demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to African stability.
Prioritizing cultural exchanges, educational programs, and scholarships to foster people-to-people connections between American and African communities. This can promote mutual understanding, build long-term relationships, and help counter misperceptions about U.S. policies and intentions. The real issue is that China was never a choice of destination for Africans, but they received perceived equal treatment from the Chinese government. Especially, small or big African governments get a red-carpet welcome once in China, unlike in the U.S., where most African students and government officials are denied visas entry to the U.S.
Washington can leverage its technological expertise and innovation capacity to support African countries in sectors such as healthcare, agriculture, renewable energy, and digital solutions. Sharing knowledge, promoting entrepreneurship, and supporting research and development collaborations can contribute to Africa’s sustainable development and position the U.S. as a partner of choice. The U.S. can enhance its engagement in Africa by working closely with its allies and partners who also have interests in the region. Though this may seem palatable, every country has its own national interests, and many African countries would not want to see the United States cozying up with them while attempting to pacify them. Especially, France’s association with the U.S. is the reason why Africans prefer to look in the Chinese direction. The U.S. needs to ease this perception of Africans and move towards meaningful cooperation and engagement with the continent. Coordinated efforts with like-minded countries can amplify the impact of initiatives, share the burden of investment, and present a unified front in promoting shared values and interests.
It is important for the U.S. to approach its engagement in Africa with a long-term perspective, sustained commitment, and an understanding of local contexts. By leveraging its strengths, prioritizing sustainable development, and building genuine partnerships, the U.S. can effectively compete with Russia and China and foster mutually beneficial relationships with African countries.
 Gabrielle Debinski (2023) writes that bilateral trade relations between these African nations with Russia and the US, separately, shows that in most cases, two-way trade in goods with the US is way more lucrative. https://www.gzeromedia.com/the-graphic-truth-russia-vs-us-trade-ties-in-africa
 Mr. Gyude Moore was speaking at the University of Chicago’s Speaker Series. Mr. Moore is also the former Liberian Minister for public works and is currently a Senior fellow at the University of Chicago.