March 26, 2023

Africa Resists the US-Imposed New Cold War

Mikaela Erskog and Vijay Prashad

AT the Munich Security Conference last month, Namibia’s Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila was asked about her country’s decision to abstain on a UN General Assembly resolution to condemn Russia for the war in Ukraine. Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, an economist who has been in post since 2018, did not flinch. ‘We are promoting a peaceful resolution of that conflict’, she said, ‘so that the entire world and all the resources of the world can be focused on improving the conditions of people around the world, instead of being spent on acquiring weapons, killing people, and actually creating hostilities’. The money being poured into arms, she continued, ‘could be better utilised to promote development in Ukraine, in Africa, in Asia, in other places, in Europe itself, where many people are experiencing hardships’.

This view commands a broad consensus across the African continent. In September, the African Union chair and president of Senegal Macky Sall echoed the call for a negotiated settlement, noting that Africa was suffering the effects of sanctions-induced food and fuel price inflation while simultaneously being dragged into the conflict that the United States has provoked with China. ‘Africa’, he said, ‘has suffered enough of the burden of history . . . it does not want to be the breeding ground of a new Cold War, but rather a pole of stability and opportunity open to all its partners’.

This ‘burden of history’ and its emblems are well-known: the devastation wrought by the Atlantic slave trade, the horrors of colonialism, the atrocity of apartheid and the creation of a permanent debt crisis through neo-colonial financial structures. Whilst enriching European nations and spurring their industrial advancement, colonialism reduced the African continent to a provider of raw materials and consumer of finished products. The terms of trade sent its states into a spiral of indebtedness and dependency. Attempts to break out of this condition – by Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana or Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso – resulted in western-backed coups. Technological development in the name of social progress was rendered impossible. Hence, despite immense natural and mineral wealth and human capacity, more than a third of the African population now live below the poverty line: almost nine times the global average. By the end of 2022, the total external debt in Sub-Saharan Africa was a record $789 billion: double that of a decade ago, and 60 per cent of the continent’s gross domestic product.

In the last century, the leading critics of these colonial dynamics were Nkrumah and Walter Rodney; yet there is little contemporary scholarship that carries forward their legacy. Without it, we often lack the conceptual clarity needed to parse the current phase of neo-colonialism, whose stock concepts – ‘structural adjustment’, ‘liberalisation’, ‘corruption’, ‘good governance’ – are still imposed by western institutions on African realities. Yet, as the statements of Sall and Kuugongelwa-Amadhila show, recent conjunctural crises – the Covid pandemic, the war in Ukraine, rising tensions with China – have highlighted the growing political gulf between western and African states. While the former are rushing headlong into a great power conflict with terrifying nuclear stakes, the latter are aware that such warmongering will further weaken their developmental prospects.

As African nations have diverged from the Atlantic powers, many have edged closer to China. By 2021, 53 countries on the continent had joined the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), designed to enhance trade and diplomatic relations. Every year for the past two decades, bilateral trade has risen – from $10 billion in 2000 to $254.3 billion in 2021 – such that the PRC has become the main trading partner for the majority of African states. At the eighth conference of the FOCAC, China announced it would import $300 billion worth of manufactured goods from African countries by 2025 and increase tariff-free trade, later waving tariffs on 98 per cent of taxable goods from the twelve least-developed African countries. The afterlife of colonialism means that Africa’s exports are still mostly unprocessed raw materials, while its imports are mostly finished products. In a November 2021 report, China and Africa in the New Era: A Partnership of Equals, the Chinese government emphasised the trade in primary goods, but then pivoted to Chinese investments in African industrialisation and in the building of key infrastructure – some of it motivated by the building up of a China-driven global commodity chain, but also driven by political goals, namely the necessary support by African countries for China’s political positions (such as regarding recognition of Taiwan). Many of these projects are funded by debt, but at the same time, as the Chinese note, ‘China ranks first in terms of the amount of deferred debt, having signed debt service suspension agreements or reached consensus with 19 African countries’.

Chinese financial institutions have also disbursed significant loans for African infrastructure projects, which are grappling with an annual shortfall of over $100 billion. China’s advances in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, green technology, high-speed rail, quantum computing, robotics and telecommunications are attractive to African states, whose new industrial strategies – such as the development of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – rely on technology transfers. As the former president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade, wrote in 2008, ‘China’s approach to our needs is simply better adapted than the slow and sometimes patronising post-colonial approach of European investors, donor organisations, and non-governmental organisations’. This is a widely held view in countries still suffocated by IMF debt traps. It has become all the more prominent amid the recent decline of western foreign direct investment on the continent.

Closer ties between Africa and China have elicited a predictable backlash from Washington. Last year, the US published a strategy document outlining its approach to Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast to what it describes as the US ‘high standards, values-driven, and transparent investment’, the document characterises China’s investments in the region as an attempt to ‘challenge the rules-based international order, advance its own narrow commercial and geopolitical interests, undermine transparency and openness, and weaken US relations with African peoples and governments’. The US pledges to ‘counter harmful activities’ by these foreign actors. One such veiled attempt to do so has been through the weaponisation of the ‘freedom of information’; in March 2022, the US Senate passed the COMPETES Act which pledged $500 million for the US Agency for Global Media ‘to combat PRC disinformation’, as one US lobbying firm described it. A few months later, reports began to circulate in Zimbabwe that the US Embassy had funded educational workshops that allegedly encourages journalists to target and criticise Chinese investments; the local organisation involved in the programmes is funded by the Information for Development Trust, which is funded by the US government’s National Endowment for Development.

The US hopes to shift the terrain of contest away from trade and development, where China has an advantage, towards militarism and information warfare, where America still reigns supreme. Rather than match Chinese investment, the US set up Africa Command (AFRICOM) in 2007. Over the next fifteen years, it established 29 military bases across the continent as part of a network spanning at least 34 countries. AFRICOM’s stated objectives include ‘protecting US interests’ and ‘maintaining superiority over competitors’. It aims to enhance ‘interoperability’ between African militaries and US and NATO special operation forces. Building US military bases in African countries and setting up US military liaison offices with the militaries of these countries has been the mechanism to leverage US authority against countries whose principal trade is with China. In 2021, AFRICOM General Stephen Townsend wrote that the United States ‘can no longer afford to underestimate the economic opportunity and strategic consequence Africa embodies, and which competitors like China and Russia recognise’ Townsend, as a representative of the US government, sees the African continent for its economic and political resources, but not as countries with populations that aspire to sovereignty and the construction of dignity. Statements such as this drip with a colonial mentality.

Needless to say, the west’s militarisation of Africa over the past decade has done nothing for its people. First there was the disastrous 2011 war in Libya. Under the aegis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and UN Security Council resolution 1973, the ‘humanitarian intervention’ quickly exceeded the UN mandate of protecting citizens, moving towards regime change using immense violence that resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and the destruction of key infrastructure, including the world’s largest irrigation project that provided 70 per cent of all the fresh water in Libya. In the aftermath, the Sahel region experienced an upsurge of a number of conflicts, many of them driven by the emergence of forms of militancy, piracy, and smuggling, and the human development index dropped from a world ranking of 53 in 2010 to 103 in 2023. This was followed by French intervention in Burkina Faso and Mali, which – rather than clean up the mess of the western war in Libya, destabilised the Sahel, and allowed al-Qaeda groups (many of them in alliance with trans-Saharan smugglers and with groups with older grievances, such as the Tuaregs and the Fulani) to take over large tracts of land. The French intervention saw little improvements to the conditions of insecurity with global terrorism index (GTI) rankings worsening for both: from 2011 to 2023, Burkina Faso went from a ranking 113 to 4 and Mali moved from placing 41 to 7.  In the case of US decades-long and ongoing intervention in Somali, the East African country continues to hold a high ranking (3rd on the GTI) and the US has played the role of internationalising what was a local conflict and strengthening violent extremist factions.  The recent departure of the French troops from parts of the Sahel has not reduced overall western military operations in the region. The US retains its major bases in Niger, has developed a new military footprint in Ghana, and recently announced its intention to maintain a ‘persistent presence’ in Somalia.

It is clear that the African Union’s plan for ‘Silencing the Guns’ – a campaign for a conflict-free Africa by 2030 – will never be fulfilled as long as western states continue their pattern of bloody intervention and weapons companies reap massive profits from arms sales to state and non-state actors. As African military expenditures skyrocketed between 2010 and 2020 (by 339 per cent in Mali, 288 per cent in Niger and 238 per cent in Burkina Faso), a vicious cycle of militarism and underdevelopment was consolidated. The more money is spent on arms, the less is available for infrastructure and development. The less is spent on development, the more armed violence is likely to break out, prompting calls for further military spending.

This year, the African Union will mark 60 years since the foundation of its predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity. During the 1963 inaugural conference of the OAU, Nkrumah warned leaders that in order to achieve economic integration and stability, the organisation would have to be an explicitly political one – motivated by a clear and consistent anti-imperialism. ‘African unity’, he explained, ‘is, above all, a political kingdom which can only be gained by political means. The social and economic development of Africa will come only within the political kingdom, not the other way round.’ Yet, despite the best efforts of decolonisation movements, economic interests ultimately usurped politics, with these economic interests being largely driven by western multinational corporations and by their governments (as documented by Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 1972). The African Union – despite some attempts (such the 2016 resolution to ban foreign military bases) – has not been able to extricate itself from the ‘burden of history’ and the neo-colonial structures that include the banishment of the praxis of sovereignty from the continent. In the process, African unity was hollowed out, and with it the sovereignty and dignity of the African people.

Nkrumah’s vison may be far from fulfilment in 2023. Yet Africa’s refusal to toe the line on the New Cold War – its calls for peace negotiations in Ukraine, its reconfiguration of international partners – suggests that a different world order is possible: one in which Africa is no longer beholden to the ‘united west’. Such tectonic shifts are registered in the revitalised interest in the work of African national liberation scholars and the development of a new critical vocabulary of pan-African multinationalism and regionalism. They should put us in mind of Nkrumah’s charge: ‘No independent African state today by itself has a chance to follow an independent course of economic development . . . This position will not change unless we have a unified policy working at a continental level.’