All eyes on Africa in the great power game
The UK-US-Australia security deal in September was a significant foreign policy setback in Asia-Pacific for Emmanuel Macron, but he will seek to get back on the front foot in a different continent on Friday when hehosts the first France-Africa summit of his presidency.
Africa has long been a foreign policy priority for Paris. For almost a century and a half, France maintained a substantial empire stretching from the Maghreb through the Western and Central sub-Saharan regions. While direct rule ended in the early 1960s, French influence continued via political, security, economic and cultural connections in Francophone Africa.
Africa is the continent with the most French speakers in the world, an estimated 140 million across more than 30 countries and territories.
Building on this legacy, Macron has bold plans to renew the historical relationship in the face of significantly growing interest in the continent from other countries, especially China and the US. Friday’s summit will therefore measure progress on embedding French influence through Macron’s main priorities of enhancing economic ties, improving the continent’s physical security against terror groups, facilitating access to school and higher education, and enabling Africa’s climate transition.
However, the French president is well aware that his goal of boosting his nation’s influence across the continent is challenged by the competing attention paid by other nations to the continent, given its post-pandemic growth potential. This includes not only the great powers, but also countries such as Germany, Russia, Turkey, the UK, and some Gulf states which are also showering Africa with greater interest too, giving countries there more diplomatic options than just Beijing and Washington.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted the UK-Africa Investment Summit last year, adding to his predecessor Theresa May’s trip in 2018, when she visited three key Commonwealth countries: South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya (the first visit to that country by a UK prime minister since 1988).
For the UK, Africa has assumed new importance since Brexit, as London seeks to consolidate ties with non-European nations following its departure from the EU.
For the UK, Africa has assumed new importance since Brexit, as London seeks to consolidate ties with non-European nations following its departure from the EU. Given the longstanding historical ties that Britain has,especially with Commonwealth countries, Johnson and other UK ministers regularly say 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 as part of an alliance of countries.
Moscow, under President Vladimir Putin, is also keen to entrench its longstanding foothold in the continent with Russia’s trade with Africa having risen significantly in recent years. As Moscow seeks to expand its international influence, the continent is a key target for the Russian president, for geopolitical and not just economic reasons.
But it is the great powers that are having the most impact on the continent. China is showing the greatest interest of all and the priority that Beijing places on Africa is illustrated by the fact that its top leadership (the president, premier and foreign minister) have made about 80 visits to over 40 different countries there in the past decade alone.
China is aiming to better connect its Belt and Road initiative with Africa’s development. Trade between the two powers has risen massively with around 40 African countries having signed on to Belt and Road, and Beijing a frequent host of China-Africa summits.
Under Joe Biden, the US is also stepping up its interest in the continent. He is seeking to turbocharge US policy via the US “Prosper Africa” initiative to boost trade and investment on the continent, first launched under Donald Trump but which got off to a slow start.
The administration is framing the initiative as a way to promote shared US-Africa prosperity, but it is also designed, in part, to counter China in the region.
This exemplifies that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa by this growing array of powers reflects economic calculations, broader geopolitical considerations are also in train. From French and UK initiatives to the great power game between China and the US, interest in Africa is only likely to grow, especially if its emerging markets fulfil their significant economic potential in the decade to come.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics