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Why the new Cold War will split Africa

It’s no longer debatable,” scholars Hal Brands and John Lewis Gaddis wrote in Foreign Affairs in October 2021, “that the US and China . . . are entering their own new cold war.” The conventional wisdom is that this new geopolitical competition will not spread to the global South, as it did during the first Cold War, with governments choosing sides and, in the process, dividing the world. “We don’t believe,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in July 2022, “in being enemies of somebody’s enemy.” 

The conventional wisdom is wrong, at least when it comes to Africa. Africa’s dictators will choose Beijing and Moscow because such partnership serves their domestic interests. Africa’s democracies will be torn. Some leaders will ally with Beijing and Moscow in the hope of solidifying their power. Others will straddle the divide, seeking aid, debt relief, and investment from both the US and its adversaries. Whereas the post–Cold War world witnessed a historic expansion of democracy that catalyzed an economic takeoff, the second cold war will see democratic backsliding.

In the short term, this division will cost Washington allies and influence. In the long term, however, Beijing and Moscow will face pressures in African countries that will make them less appealing as partners for governments on the continent.

Washington’s central foreign policy challenge is to maintain a constituency for its global leadership until this happens. Such a feat requires supporting Africa’s democracies, helping citizens in autocracies create change, equipping multilateral institutions to manage crises, and building an international order that recognizes the importance of Africa, the continent that will soon be home to a quarter of the world’s people.

The first Cold War

The stakes are profound. During the first Cold War, African governments pitted Moscow and Washington against each other, trading membership in rival blocs for finance and weapons that were used to suppress domestic demands for democracy. Living standards on the continent stagnated. But the collapse of the Soviet Union led to real change on the continent.

Western countries pressured governments to abide by democratic norms. Washington and its allies convinced many African countries to hold regular elections, which spurred greater civil society mobilization. Western countries also began constraining the ability of African governments to repress their citizens. By 1995, nearly half of Africa’s governments were getting close to becoming democracies. At the same time, the continent saw fewer coups and civil wars.

The spread of democracy and the efficiencies of globalization lifted millions out of poverty. Starting in 2019, for the first time in history, more Africans each year escaped extreme poverty than fell into it. Health care improved. Middle-class populations swelled. Tech sectors blossomed. Many of these trends are set to continue. By 2030, the poverty rate will fall to 24 percent. By 2050, life expectancy will reach 70 years, converging with the average of the rest of the world.

Washington gained soft power from these positive political and economic transformations, and from programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the US’ bid launched in 2003 to combat HIV/AIDS around the world.

The US provided antiretroviral treatment that saved more than 25 million lives, the largest commitment by any country in history to combat a single disease until the COVID-19 pandemic, with total spending now approaching USD 110 billion.

But this emphasis on health and development was undercut by other US preoccupations, notably counterterrorism. Washington lost soft power by giving training and weapons to African security forces, no matter their dismal human rights records.

To many Africans, such arms transfers made Washington’s rhetoric on democracy and human rights seem hypocritical. In former French colonies, Washington largely deferred to Paris, which supported dictatorships in Congo, Gabon, and elsewhere in exchange for cheap oil.

Charm offensive

As the US won and lost hearts and minds on the continent, China began to replace Western countries as Africa’s key economic partner. In 2006, China surpassed Germany as Africa’s largest source of imports. In 2013, China supplanted the US as Africa’s primary export destination.

By 2020, China was responsible for more construction in Africa than were France, Italy, and the US combined. Chinese-backed infrastructure projects opened markets and increased living standards and, at the same time, served Beijing’s interests. Foreign investment stimulated demand for domestically oversupplied industrial inputs, such as steel and textiles, which helped prevent a debt crisis in China.

Beijing secured natural resources to power everything from iPhones to electric vehicles. For example, China dominates the market for cobalt in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the country that supplies 70 percent of the world’s cobalt.

China courted Africa’s elite to win access to the continent. Understanding Beijing’s value to African leaders is key to understanding how the second cold war will divide Africa. Chinese finance is uniquely suited for setting up networks of patronage and personal enrichment. At the same time, Chinese investment comes with none of the anticorruption safeguards imposed by most Western sources of financing.

China’s domestic success acts as propaganda that normalizes a single-party system. Beijing provides an example that dictators can point to, particularly its “development model,” and builds a constituency for its global leadership. In 2023, as Patrice Talon, the president of Benin, dismantled his country’s democratic institutions, he cited the Chinese example. He was “inspired,” he said, by the “Chinese model” of “good governance.” China backs such sympathetic politicians, avoids raising human rights issues, and fosters skepticism about the Western-led international order, including the International Criminal Court, which has targeted several African dictators.

And China may soon offer something else to African leaders—an alternative to the SWIFT banking system, which could help shield governments from the effects of Western sanctions and thereby make any act of repression less costly.

In the Republic of the Congo, the government is shifting banking operations from BGFIBank, which has French roots, to the Sino-Congolese Bank for Africa, a joint venture with Beijing. Such a change may help the Republic of the Congo’s leader, Denis Sassou Nguesso, limit his family’s exposure to French prosecutors, who are investigating him and his family for corruption.

To further buttress its involvement in the continent, Beijing operates a sprawling foreign propaganda apparatus. In 2012, the Chinese Communist Party launched CGTN Africa, a state-run news channel that broadcasts in English. The China Daily, an English-language newspaper run by the Chinese state, publishes a weekly edition from Nairobi. ChinAfrica, a monthly news magazine, publishes in English from Johannesburg. China Radio International airs in English and French.

The Chinese government flies African journalists to China, escorts them to tour infrastructure projects, and teaches “how to report from the Chinese government’s perspective,” according to Christopher Walker, an executive at the National Endowment for Democracy. “At any given time,” a former editorial director for Kenya’s Nation Media Group said, “half of your newsroom is in Beijing.”

The propaganda is working. Political scientists Dan Mattingly, Audrye Wong, and others found that Africans who are exposed to Chinese propaganda view China and its development model more favorably than they view the US. According to a Gallup survey of people in dozens of African countries, support for Washington’s global leadership is declining: from 85 percent in 2009 to 59 percent in 2022. A study led by the scholar Roberto Foa suggests that most Africans now view China as positively as they do the US.

For much of the first Cold War, China was the Soviet Union’s junior partner in the competition with Washington. In the second cold war, their roles are reversed. Russia’s interest in Africa is more narrow than China’s: Moscow wants natural resources and offers finance, help in disinformation campaigns, and weapons. Russia now provides 40 percent of all arms imported by African countries and has become the continent’s largest supplier of weapons.

The Kremlin has struck military agreements with more than 20 countries in Africa and is extracting resources in at least 14 of them. Russia’s influence is strongest in areas where the Wagner paramilitary company operates.

As of 2022, Wagner had deployed 5,000 soldiers, nearly equal to the number of troops the US has stationed on the entire continent but concentrated in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan. Wagner provides a range of services to buttress governments near collapse. In return, it takes control of natural resources. Wagner has committed atrocities in the Central African Republic and Mali and has fueled the civil war in Sudan by sending weapons to the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group run by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

China’s appeal

Even Africa’s democratically elected presidents are interested in what Beijing can provide, which is why they are torn between China and the US. Leaders attracted to China take two broad forms. Some are committed democrats who campaigned on major infrastructure investments to catalyze growth. They need Beijing’s support to set up such projects.

In Ghana, successive governments have relied on Beijing to revolutionize the energy and manufacturing sectors and build bridges, roads, ports, and industrial zones. Africa’s democracies need debt relief from Beijing and want more say in global governance, which Chinese President Xi Jinping claims to support.

Other presidents of ostensible democracies interested in China are would-be autocrats who are undermining democracy. Edgar Lungu, then president of Zambia, launched a USD 440 million partnership with Huawei in 2015, which included a data center staffed by Huawei engineers who monitor opponents. Lungu ceded power in 2021 but only because he lost the election by a large margin.

Huawei has provided the same services elsewhere, including to Museveni. Talon, who has jailed opponents, packed the courts, and unleashed security forces against protesters, contracted with Huawei to expand Benin’s broadband network. Human rights activists fear that Huawei will provide Talon with the same support the company provides to the Zambian and Ugandan governments.

The second cold war is intensifying Africa’s democratic recession. Beijing is strengthening Africa’s dictatorships and facilitating backsliding in democracies. Jockeying for influence with their authoritarian rivals will induce Western governments and institutions to soften demands for good governance.

A decade ago, the World Bank was already attaching fewer good governance conditions to aid projects in African countries where China was also supplying aid. In 2022, as Europe sought new natural gas supplies after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it looked to Africa’s dictators.

Governments in Africa are becoming more repressive, and dissent is becoming more dangerous. Since new military dictators face less pressure from abroad to organize elections, coups are becoming more common.

Since 2014, 12 presidents in Africa have removed constitutional term limits or disbanded legislatures. In 2021, Africa witnessed six coup attempts, the most since 1991; four succeeded, the most since 1999. Of the 16 successful power grabs, five occurred in democracies. Armed conflict is also increasing. In 2020, at least 20 African countries were in the grips of active conflicts, up from seven in 2017.

The democratic recession will undermine Africa’s economic development. Sustainable growth is underpinned by inclusive political institutions. Democracies invest more in public goods, respect property rights, and settle disputes using less violence than autocracies. The possibility of support from China and Russia—coupled with the quiescence of Western democracies—will allow many governments to be less responsive to their citizens and cater to a narrow elite. That tendency will stoke resentment, anger, and perhaps even rebellion. Renewed violence will discourage investment and create new humanitarian crises.

Rotting from within

The Soviet Union, George Kennan argued, had “within it the seeds of its own decay.” Dictatorship is bad for growth. Although the short-term dynamics favor China and Russia as partners for African countries, the long-term dynamics favor the US. Beijing and Moscow may soon lose much of their appeal.

China is grappling with profound crises, including an economic contraction exacerbated by Beijing’s “zero COVID” policy and a 20 percent youth unemployment rate. Its working-age population will soon peak, signaling the end of its comparative advantage in labor and the climbing costs of pensions and elder care. A quarter of all loans under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are distressed, leaving Beijing to choose between a haircut or seizing foreign collateral. Hong Kong’s national security law of 2020 has shaken its financial sector.

The government’s crackdown on China’s private sector reduced the value of Chinese companies by USD one trillion. The US’ export restrictions on semiconductors will hurt China’s technology firms. The Chinese real estate market may collapse, wiping out savings and straining banks.

These forces are compelling Beijing’s retrenchment. Between 2020 and 2022, BRI investment declined by nearly half relative to the period between 2013 and 2019. The decline was especially pronounced in Africa, which accounts for 70 percent of nonperforming BRI loans. In 2013 and 2014, sub-Saharan Africa attracted a third of BRI spending; by 2022, it made up 15 percent. Chinese infrastructure funding has gone to more reliable and geopolitically important borrowers, including Hungary, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore.

Russia’s decline is also driven by problems intrinsic to dictatorship. The debacle in Ukraine, the bizarre spectacle of Wagner’s mutiny against the Kremlin in June, and the death of the Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin point to the weaknesses of a system in which dictators promote subordinates based on loyalty rather than competence and seldom want to hear that their policies have failed.

If Wagner is incorporated into Russia’s Defense Ministry, as appears increasingly likely, it will almost certainly be subject to the same inefficiencies that have undermined the war on Ukraine. Its future in African countries grows ever murkier.

In the meantime, the US’ central challenge is to maintain a constituency for global leadership while preserving its security. The US government must partner with Africa’s democracies to foster growth. Washington must offer a value proposition that yields the same economic benefits as Beijing’s but without the temptations of corruption and political manipulation.

The place to start is infrastructure. The US should revitalize the Power Africa program and the Development Finance Corporation, which aim to expand energy access and funds development projects, respectively. US officials must address Africa’s looming debt crisis in a way that minimizes cuts to public education, electricity, and health care. Washington should also support technological development in African countries by helping expand broadband access and facilitating venture capital investment.

The US must also help citizens in Africa’s dictatorships create change. US officials should pressure governments to hold elections not because change comes from the ballot box but because it comes from the street, and elections help citizens come together to transform their societies.

Washington should use targeted sanctions and legal prosecutions to make repression costly, which will leave dictators vulnerable. But the US should also remember that a leader facing sanctions is more likely to cling to power (and diplomatic immunity), and Washington should therefore suspend sanctions on leaders who choose to leave office in the face of pressure from their citizens and Western governments.

In addition, US officials must prevent the creation of power vacuums, which can be exploited by Wagner and other bad actors. The US must renew its focus on the Sahel. Washington should press Paris to recommit peacekeepers to the region and work with the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States to build stronger multilateral forces. The US should also provide Sahel governments a credible alternative to Wagner, in part by offering support for governance and economic programs, not just security.

Finally, Washington must envision a new international order that treats African countries with the respect they deserve.

By 2050, Africa will be home to 2.5 billion people, Nigeria will overtake the US as the world’s third-largest country, and the populations of East and West Africa will each surpass that of Europe. By 2100, Africa will be as populous as Asia and make up a quarter of the world’s population and more than a quarter of its workforce.

The international order that emerged after World War II—which gave the victors an outsize role in governance—has lost legitimacy. Expanding the UN Security Council will be fraught and, in the short term, will probably fail.

A better strategy, especially given the African Union’s recent admission into the G-20, is to let the G-20 assume more responsibility for global challenges. Leading the reform effort will let Washington safeguard its security interests and undercut Beijing’s and Moscow’s claims of solidarity with the global South.

Brett L. Carter is an assistant professor in the department of political science and international relations at the University of Southern California and a Hoover Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Contributed by Brett L. Carter

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