European powers offer Africans an alternative to US, China
The global spotlight will shine brightly on Africa this week and next. Leaders from top states in the continent are, separately, meeting Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, Theresa May and Angela Merkel, underlining their growing importance, especially on the economic front.
Politically, Africa has also assumed some additional influence. Yet it is economically that the continent is especially coming of age, boasting a growing number of key emerging markets, as highlighted at the South Africa-hosted BRICS summit in July.
The growing economic weight of the continent is illustrated by the fact that it houses six of the world’s top 12 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 five years to 2023, Africa’s overall growth prospects will be among the best in the world.
Small wonder therefore that nascent superpower China is showing increasing interest in the continent, aiming to better connect its Belt and Road Initiative with African development. Beijing’s top leadership (the president, premier and foreign minister) have reportedly made a total of about 80 visits to more than 40 African countries over the past 10 years. And, following Xi’s visit to Senegal, Rwanda, Mauritius and South Africa last month, he will next week host a Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Beijing, with at least 50 heads of state attending.
While Trump has rightly been criticized for not having a coherent or clear Africa policy, his administration may now be waking up to smell the coffee of China’s growing presence on the continent. This was one of the topics at the White House on Monday, when Trump met Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. Kenya’s external debt is largely (about 70 percent) owed to Beijing, and many large infrastructure projects are being built there by Chinese firms.
Kenya is a key US partner in the region, including in the campaign against terrorism, and the White House talks explored ways to boost bilateral trade via the US’ Africa Growth and Opportunity Act legislation. While Monday’s session was only the second one-on-one meeting the US president has held with a sub-Saharan African leader since he took office, there does appear to be modest momentum in Washington in the direction of developing an ambitious Africa plan. This includes the appointment in June of Tibor Nagy as the State Department’s top diplomat in the continent, and recent indications that the region could become part of the US’ new “Indo-Pacific” strategy, despite the fact that it is not usually seen as part of that already massive geography lying west of the US Pacific coast.
Yet it is not just China and the US showing greater interest in the continent. Many other key nations, including India, the Gulf states, Turkey and top EU nations such as France, Germany and the UK, are also showering Africa with greater interest, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing and Washington. 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.
From Brexit to the great power game between the US and China, interest in Africa is only likely to grow in the coming years, especially if the continent fulfills its economic potential.
This week, however, it is not Macron, but Merkel and May who are visiting the continent. The German chancellor is meeting on Thursday and Friday with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (who is the only other sub-Saharan leader Trump has seen at the White House) to try to embed Berlin’s ties with a nation that is sometimes called the “giant of Africa.”
While Merkel has made numerous trips to the continent before, May is — belatedly — making her first prime ministerial visit, seeing the heads of three major Commonwealth countries: South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Buhari, and Kenyatta, in what she calls “a unique opportunity at a unique time.” For the UK, the continent has assumed new importance thanks to Brexit, as London seeks to consolidate ties with key non-EU nations as it leaves the Brussels-based club.
Given the longstanding historical ties the UK has with Africa, May is seeking to rediscover the country’s heritage “as a global trading nation” with a “prosperous, growing... Africa”. However, it is not solely through the lens of economics that she views the relationship.
She is also stressing — as Trump did on Monday — the need for greater security ties with the West “to tackle instability across the region.” In Nigeria on Wednesday, for instance, the threat of Boko Haram was due to be discussed, and in Kenya (where she will make the first trip by a UK prime minister since 1988) she will see first-hand on Thursday the role that UK troops are playing as part of an alliance of countries fighting Somali Al-Shabab militants.
This underlines that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa by Western powers and China largely reflects economic calculations, some broader political considerations are in play too. From Brexit to the great power game underway between Washington and Beijing, interest in the continent is only likely to grow in the coming years, especially if it continues to fulfill its economic potential.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics