How the West Lost Africa
Scolding and paternalism are not winning over African leaders when it comes to ties with Russia.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Tunisia’s largest trade union calls a strike over wages, a politician in Algeria seeks to criminalize normalization of relations with Israel, and the Meroe pyramids in Sudan are digitized.
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Africans Caught in the Geopolitical Crossfire
“Proposed U.S. law seeks to punish African countries for ‘aligning’ with Russia,” declared the headline of a May 20 story in the Nigerian outlet Premium Times. The South Africa-based Daily Maverick warned it could see the “continent caught in crossfire.”
Both stories focused on the U.S. Congress’s debate in April of a bill that would seek to “counter the malign influence and activities” of Russia and its proxies in Africa. The headlines offered great insight into how some African journalists and citizens view U.S. foreign policy in Africa as being primarily driven by geopolitical concerns about rivals Russia and China rather than the prosperity of Africans.
The proposed act, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, would allow Congress to assess the scope of Russian engagement on the continent, as well as monitor disinformation operations and the activities of Russian private military contractors. It passed the House of Representatives on April 27, with 415 members voting in favor and just nine against.
However, the bill is just one of many pieces of legislation, and the broader picture is worrying for African observers who fear the escalation of a “new Cold War.”
Even before details of the Meeks bill emerged, some had envisaged reprisals over African countries’ nonalignment. The United States “expects other countries to fall in line,” Nontobeko Hlela wrote in the Kenya-based Elephant, despite being “systematically excluded from any decision-making.”
The bill exists alongside the Strategic Competition Act, seeking to bolster the United States as it vies with China for influence, and the 2,900-page U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, also aimed at countering China—both of which foreign-policy researchers Odilile Ayodele and Mikatekiso Kubayi have characterized as “arguably Cold War-esque.” That these large-scale projects prioritize China and Russia as a key focus “speaks more about power … than a genuine partnership with Africa,” they wrote.
The bill does address real threats—and the relationship between Moscow and military governments in Sudan and Mali should not be overlooked. In Mali, suspected Russian mercenaries, alongside Malian soldiers, are accused of massacring an estimated 300 civilians in March—“the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict,” according to Human Rights Watch.
While the bill addresses Russia’s playbook of unfair extractive resource deals in exchange for weapons, it also requires the regular identification of African governments and officials “that have facilitated payments and other prohibited activities that benefit United States-sanctioned individuals and entities tied to Russia”—raising the question of whether a poorer African nation buying Russian oil from a sanctioned entity, for example, could then face sanctions.
Part of the problem, argue Zainab Usman and Katie Auth of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is that the United States and its allies have engaged with Africa for decades only on humanitarian and security concerns. On a continent that has the largest number of foreign military operations and outposts, Africa’s young and increasingly cynical population perceives U.S. policies focused on China and Russia, in which African countries are merely pawns in a so-called great-power game, as an objectionable way to build partnerships.
U.S.-Africa trade has continued to slide from $142 billion in 2008 to just $64 billion in 2021. While Africa’s relationship with China is highly unbalanced and has sparked repeated regional protests, U.S. diplomats often fail to acknowledge the infrastructural benefits it has brought to democratic countries such as Senegal—where China’s Belt and Road projects have funded highways and cultural centers—and in the Seychelles, which actively courts Chinese investment as part of the country’s ambitions to be a financial hub.
In some countries, the Russia-Ukraine war has compounded the economic problems caused by the pandemic, China’s economic slowdown, and climate change-induced drought. Egypt, the world’s largest importer of wheat, relied on Russia for around 50 percent and Ukraine for 25 percent of its grain supply. “We will feel shame if we find that millions of people are dying because of food insecurity. They are not responsible for that. They didn’t do anything wrong,” Egyptian Finance Minister Mohamed Maait told the Financial Times.
Last week, as India banned exports of most of its wheat, Egypt asked to be exempt. A Russian blockade of Black Sea ports has stopped the export of some 25 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain that now cannot leave the country, according to the United Nations.
Some Western writers have sought to use food supply challenges as an argument for why African governments should condemn Russia, failing to understand the position that sanctions on Russia are the main driver for their economic turmoil. As Nic Cheeseman wrote in the Africa Report, the idea that economic injustices in “the world’s most economically exploited regions” should be used as “a stick with which African governments can be hit to force them back into line, is equal parts perplexing and offensive.”
Certain African governments have condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine in strong terms. Kenya’s U.N. ambassador, Martin Kimani, affirmed to the U.N. Security Council just days before Russia’s invasion that “we must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.”
Therefore, it would be a mistake to view Kenya and many other nations’ abstentions as being “pro-Russia.” Kimani said Kenya abstained on votes to avoid being dragged into global power rivalry, stating that the Security Council in the future may appear “weaponized.”
Responding to questions about African neutrality, the United States’ ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that “we have to do additional work to help these countries to understand the impact of Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine”—a comment that implied African leaders required education on their own sovereign decision-making.
As Ghanaian historian Samuel Adu-Gyamfi tells it, Western-imposed forms of democracy have failed the continent. In his view, economic reforms required by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have led to underdevelopment in African countries, “as have more recent imports like lockdowns, travel bans and vaccine mandates—pushed on Africa by Western-dominated institutions,” he wrote in NewsAfrica.
Resentment of neocolonialism is also driving opposition to Western demands. France’s policies toward its former colonies have prompted growing backlash against the French government. A nine-year military engagement in Mali that failed to subdue violent extremists has brought frustration and accusations of civilian killings in drone attacks, while in Chad France’s support for the military regime has angered the Chadian people, who overwhelmingly want a democratically elected leader.
Africa, like much of the world, is not aligned with Washington’s framing of the war. As FP columnist Howard French wrote, “America’s concern with containing the spread of Chinese or Soviet influence overrode considerations of governance and democracy” for decades in Washington’s Africa policy.
Some things haven’t changed. In January, an op-ed in GhanaWeb suggested that “[i]n most cases, the US government continues to support corrupt regimes,” citing Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. “Western powers continued to provide his regime with nearly $2bn a year,” Cheta Nwanze noted in Al Jazeera.
If the West wants to bring African countries into the fold, it would do well to acknowledge and understand the legacy of its own policies in those countries while genuinely engaging citizens and providing incentives for leaders to get on board. New proposals that Africans perceive as punishment for exercising their own geopolitical agency risk undermining long-term U.S. goals on the continent.
The Week Ahead
Wednesday, May 25: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ends his three-nation African visit in South Africa.
Global celebrations mark Africa Day, the anniversary of the formation of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963 and the African Union in 2002.
Thursday, May 26: Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi hosts Algeria’s president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune, in Rome.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres delivers remarks at the opening segment of the high-level policy dialogue of the Africa Dialogue Series 2022.
What We’re Watching
Ugandan detentions. Ugandan police have detained opposition figure Kizza Besigye in his home in the capital of Kampala after he called for street protests against rising food and fuel costs. The government has so far refused to intervene to address the rising cost of living; on Sunday, President Yoweri Museveni said government subsidies or removal of import taxes would collapse the economy.
Besigye, who has been under house arrest since May 12, has repeatedly campaigned against the government of Museveni, who has been in power since 1986 and was reelected amid accusations of vote fraud in January 2021.
Tunisia strikes. The main labor union in Tunisia, UGTT, said on Monday that it would hold a national strike over wages after rejecting participation in a limited dialogue proposed by President Kais Saied as he rewrites the constitution, in what critics have called a “presidential coup.”
UGTT has more than 1 million members and remains a powerful political force in Tunisia. Saied has ruled by decree for almost a year, since July 2021, when he dismissed the government and suspended parliament.
Ethiopia arrests. Ethiopian authorities have arrested more than 4,000 people in the northern Amhara region, local state media said on Monday, as part of a wider crackdown against militia fighters, the media, and critics. It followed the arrests of at least nine media workers in the region, according to the outlets that employ them, the Nisir International Broadcasting Corp. and Ashara Media.
Just a few days earlier, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the rebel group fighting Ethiopia’s federal government, said on Twitter that it would release 4,208 prisoners of war as part of an amnesty agreement.
Algeria-Israel relations. Algerian members of parliament have submitted a bill that seeks to criminalize any normalization of relations between Algeria and Israel. The bill, proposed by opposition lawmaker Youssef Ajesa, may not win majority support. Algeria has maintained a pro-Palestinian stance and has so far not joined other Arab-majority nations in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
This Week in Culture
Sudan’s pyramids. The pyramids of Meroe, the last capital of the ancient Kingdoms of Kush, located in modern-day Sudan, can now be explored on Google’s Art and Culture platform, including the chance to view carved hieroglyphics inside the sandstone tombs using panoramic imagery via Google’s Street View.
Meroe, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011, was part of Sudan’s Nubian civilization that dominated around 2500 B.C. and left behind more than 200 pyramids.
In 1834, Italian explorer Giuseppe Ferlini began blowing up several pyramids in his search for Kushite treasures, leaving many of the tombs missing their pointed tops. The objects he found were sold to museums in Munich in 1839 and Berlin in 1844. (Those treasures had belonged to Nubian Queen Amanishakheto.)
The cursive and hieroglyphic scriptures within Meroe have long been considered a lost history of Black civilization because the Meroitic language they are written in is only partly deciphered. For years, European and American historians and archaeologists wrongly viewed the kingdom as an outpost of Egypt.
As Swiss archaeologist Charles Bonnet told Smithsonian Magazine, “Western archaeologists … were trying to find Egypt in Sudan, not Sudan in Sudan.” As a result, much is still unknown about the empire, which would require a full understanding of the Meroitic language.
Chart of the Week
Tunisia’s inflation rate has passed its previous March 2019 peak. The country’s central bank has had to raise its key interest rate to confront high inflation amid a budget deficit that will expand to 9.7 percent of GDP this year due to the shock in grain and energy prices. The surge in prices has strengthened the U.S. dollar while pushing down the value of Tunisia’s dinar.
What We’re Reading
In HumAngle, writer Muhammed Akinyemi takes a deep dive into the illegal oil refining network that is causing health issues in Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, as well as irreversible damage to its environment. The country has very few refining facilities and relies on imported oil.
In Africa Is a Country, Marame Gueye recounts the heydays of Afro-Cuban music in West Africa during the 1960s and 1970s in a review of the film El Maestro Laba Sosseh, which documents the life of Senegalese salsa singer and composer Laba Sosseh.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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