The neo-colonial powers of Europe kicked off their tradition of the “Scramble for Africa” policy in the 1880s after finding that the adjacent continent was endowed with resources. It was a monument to the dynamics of power and the deft political maneuvering of the world’s superpowers that this period was one of intense rivalry and a motivated desire for dominance. A new arena of imperial ambition emerged as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, but this time it took place across the enormous expanse of the African continent rather than on the battlefield. A frenzy of colonialism that forever changed the fate of Africa and the trajectory of world history was sparked by the desire for territorial expansion, riches, and geopolitical advantage. Control over Africa’s immense resources, key sea connections, and potential for economic exploitation were the evident driving forces. The diversity of the continent, both in terms of its people and its wealth, has attracted the world’s superpowers. The consequences of these decisions, which were made with a callous disdain for pre-existing tribal and cultural boundaries, can still be felt today.
Since the 1950s, China has partnered with anti-colonial and anti-apartheid organizations, and this has helped China successfully advance its One China policy throughout Africa. Under the auspices of the Goodwill Mission, the then-Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai traveled to ten African nations in 1963–1964. For the past few years, China has been paying close attention to Africa. China believes that by strengthening its position in Africa, it can offset the loss in its production. Due to the expectation that Africa will soon become a major player worldwide. The majority of African nations don’t have the resources, armed forces, or international clout needed to become superpowers. However, after a few decades, hopefully, the situation will change. According to estimates, Africa will be home to 42% of the world’s youth in 2030 (the continent will benefit from the demographic dividend caused by the additional population growth rate). Moreover, it is anticipated that by 2050, 25% of the world’s population will come from Africa. It is somewhat astonishing that the birth rate is 1.24 in Italy, a highly developed European nation, but 5.31 in Nigeria, a West African nation.
The war to rule Africa pits the present superpowers against one another. Africa can also be carried along by the tide of economic progress, similar to how China has done over the past 40 years; thanks to its abundant human resources. The path to an export-oriented economy opens for a nation when its enormous labor force can be transformed into competent human resources while also being made available at competitive wages. This is precisely what occurred in 1978 in China. Large businesses throughout the world are now looking for new locations where they can operate inexpensively, even though the wages of workers in China have climbed several times in the past several years. Mexico thus became a significant market for America. The factories of large American companies are being relocated from China to Mexico. In addition to competitive labor, security, and integrity are also important. It is crucial to remember that, except for South Africa, no other African nations have experienced industrialization. Over 60% of people in Africa still solely rely on agriculture. Because people are accessible there at reasonable wages, the largest businesses in the world can establish a presence there.
The superpowers are investing billions of dollars in Africa because it still lacks the solid institutional framework and robust economy that were anticipated. About 300 billion dollars have been invested in Africa, primarily by China. For the sake of defending its interests, Beijing has never questioned the legitimacy of democracy or the state of human rights in African nations. In that area, China has constructed 100,000 km of roadways, 13,000 km of railways, 1,000 bridges, and 100 ports. About 10,000 Chinese businesses are operating in Africa. As a result, China’s commercial activity with Africa surged from 2021 to 2022 by 11%, reaching 282 billion dollars. This continent has been transformed into a market for Chinese goods. India is also attempting to develop investment there as a challenger to China.
Additionally, Turkey collaborates with Muslim nations in Africa. Russia’s influence over the continent is growing along with everything else. The involvement of African nations in the ongoing crisis in Ukraine is a clear indicator of Russian influence in Africa. A sample resolution to suspend Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council due to “special military operations” in Ukraine received support from only 10 out of the 54 African nations. In addition, nine nations refrained from voting, leaving the remaining nations without representation. The largest African ally of the US, South Africa, abstained from the vote as well. One-fourth of the 193 United Nations members are from Africa. Analysts contend that these nations should sit next to the United States at the UN in light of the shifting global situation.
Russia’s resurgence as a dominant player in Africa has raised significant concerns about the nature of its involvement and the motivations driving its activities on the continent. Amid the evolving landscape of global influence, Russia’s presence in Africa is becoming increasingly pronounced, yet its intentions appear to echo a pattern of resource exploitation rather than a genuine commitment to sustainable development or partnership.
One striking example of Russia’s expanding influence in Africa is the intricate web of connections it has established with various governments and non-state actors. The insidious connection between Russia and coup leaders, as seen in Niger, illustrates a concerning willingness to support undemocratic regimes that serve Moscow’s interests. In Niger’s case, the overthrow of a democratically elected president in favor of leaders sympathetic to Russia’s resource demands presents a disheartening reality: the erosion of democratic norms in favor of opportunistic resource extraction.
The exploitation of mineral resources is a cornerstone of Russia’s approach to Africa. The Wagner Group, a shadowy private military organization with alleged links to the Russian government, has been at the forefront of securing mining rights in Sudan and other countries. To manage its operations in the African nation, the private military group established Meroe Gold, a Prigozhin-controlled business that was subsequently sanctioned by the US. It soon started looking into Sudan’s gold resources. As a result, Wagner started to establish ties with General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, and his paramilitary RSF. Locals in Al-Ibaidiya said that RSF members protected Russian businessmen looking to purchase gold from miners. Additionally, it is repssorted that a number of RSF paramilitaries who collaborate closely with Russian security officers thought to be from the Wagner Group guard the Russian-owned gold processing facility. This raises concerns about the transparency and ethics surrounding these resource deals. The Wagner Group’s involvement highlights a broader strategy that revolves around leveraging political instability to secure lucrative contracts, often to the detriment of local populations and sustainable development.
While President Vladimir Putin has masterfully portrayed Russia as Africa’s new partner, the reality remains clouded by opportunism. Putin’s public diplomacy campaigns and high-profile engagements mask the underlying motives of Russian interests. This rebranding effort serves as a smokescreen for the pursuit of strategic resources and geopolitical influence, harkening back to the era of colonial powers that sought to exploit Africa for their own gains.
Four unique characteristics of Africa might be recognized from a military perspective. These are: a) the Geographical position of Africa; b) the Availability of raw materials for the manufacture of military equipment; c) the Possibility of converting African manpower into military manpower; d) the Position of Africa in terms of the distribution of military armaments. From the experience of World War II (1939–1945), the United States adopted four characteristics appropriate to military power. The Mediterranean Sea, connected to North Africa, has always been considered strategically significant. The United States has worked to establish strong connections with the nations of northern Africa to establish control over the Mediterranean.
The African colonies sent an enormous amount of troops to support the Allies during World War II (1939–1945). In the event of another such war, the US government anticipates receiving significant military assistance from Africa. Additionally, during World War II, the United States established military outposts in several African nations, e.g., Liberia. According to the US administration, they will be able to use Africa as their military base if a similar crisis arises again. Weapon materials are abundant in Africa’s mineral resources. As a result, it is thought that Africa can provide the raw materials for US weapons. Due to these factors, as well as the military and economic benefits, America has established a policy of close ties with Africa.
Europe’s former colonial powers are notorious for extracting resources from Africa. People on the continent still harbor a deep wound in their minds from the past’s atrocities. The European Union (EU) is generally concerned about its neighboring continent regaining influence over it over time. The European Union urged European nations to concentrate on Africa as a result. Therefore, to contribute to the stability of the people of Africa, Europe wants to offer its assistance to those who are afflicted with hunger, poverty, chronic illness, and inadequate education. The EU will pledge to spend more than 300 billion euros for the improvement of Africans’ health and education as well as preserving the region’s stability. In Brussels, the EU capital, the European Union and African Union Conference was held for that reason in 2022. The heads of state and government from 40 African nations were present. The alliance of wealthy and erstwhile imperialist countries of Western Europe is desperately trying to reclaim its lost credibility on the “dark continent,” primarily due to the persistent influence of China and Russia in Africa.
Superpowers continue to compete for dominance in a variety of ways on the continent of Africa in the intricate tapestry of world politics. As we reflect upon the historical narratives and contemporary dynamics, it becomes evident that the trajectory of this dominance is far from static. The inference made from this complex interplay of influence and power is that the impact of superpowers on the African continent will always depend on upcoming geopolitical regime upheavals. The recent example of India’s investment in Afghanistan serves as a poignant reminder of this reality. The shifting sands of governance, as symbolized by the transition from the Ghani government to the Taliban, have demonstrated how tides can swiftly turn, reshaping the contours of power and altering the strategic calculus of global players. Such instances underscore the inherently unpredictable nature of geopolitical dynamics, where even the most meticulous plans can be upended by unforeseen developments. It is crucial to acknowledge the instability and quick alteration of the landscape while predicting the future of superpower hegemony in Africa. As African nations continue to assert their agency and seek avenues for self-determination, the ability of external powers to maintain a firm grip on the region will be contingent upon their agility in navigating the ever-evolving geopolitical currents.
[Image credit: Bobarino, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
S.M. Sayem is a Dhaka-based independent foreign policy analyst. Currently, he is studying at the University of Chittagong.