A coalition of the dissatisfied? Why China and Russia are winning friends in Africa

When asked whether he preferred China and Russia’s approach to Africa to that of the West, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo did not hesitate.

“Oh absolutely! You don’t quite understand African realities,” Félix Tshisekedi told French TV news channel LCI on a trip to Paris late last month.

“It’s astonishing to see how we are very distant in terms of culture. We cannot understand why you come to give us lessons, for example, on human rights.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who criticised the World Bank and Western countries for funding “capacity building” but not critical projects such as irrigation or railways.

“How many railways have been constructed or funded in Africa? The few that have been were by China,” Museveni said at a development summit in Nairobi on April 30.

The comments point to the apparent decline of the West’s reputation in Africa and a rise in the stocks of China and Russia in some countries, a shift that some observers say is being driven by broader changes in the international system.



China-funded infrastructure across Africa force difficult decisions for its leaders

China-funded infrastructure across Africa force difficult decisions for its leaders

The remarks by the Ugandan and Congolese presidents came just days after American research firm Gallup released a study suggesting that the US lost its place as the most influential global power in Africa last year.

According to the research, Washington’s median approval ratings – an indicator of a country’s soft power – fell from 59 per cent in 2022 to 56 per cent in 2023. Meanwhile, China’s approval in the region rose 6 percentage points, from 52 per cent in 2022 to 58 per cent in 2023, two points ahead of the US.

For Russia, the median approval of its leadership rose to 42 per cent, from 34 per cent the previous year, according to Gallup.

The fall for the US was particularly dramatic in Uganda, where its approval ratings fell 29 points from 63 per cent in 2022.

Gallup said the sharp drop in Uganda coincided with the US decision to drop the country from the African Growth and Opportunity trade programme and enact other sanctions in its condemnation of the country’s recently passed Anti-Homosexuality Act.

Washington’s ratings dropped despite greater efforts by the administration of US President Joe Biden to make inroads in Africa, where China is the largest trading partner and has bankrolled mega projects from railways and ports to power dams and airports via the Belt and Road Initiative.

As part of its renewed interest in the continent, the US has pledged to refurbish the Lobito Atlantic Railway, its first major project in Africa in decades, which will stretch 1,300km (800 miles) through mineral-rich Zambia and the DRC to create a logistics corridor to the port of Lobito in Angola.

It is a substantial project but, according to John Calabrese, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, the US is playing “catch-up” with China and Russia.

He said assuming that at least some of the administration’s pledges had been kept and projects implemented, it might take time for the benefits to “trickle down” and manifest in an uptick in favourability.

Calabrese said that until recently, US Africa policy had been heavily skewed towards counterterrorism and security, which could be viewed warily by some African leaders, influencers, and segments of the general public. Furthermore, he said such efforts might be perceived as failures.

In addition, the White House “is hamstrung by US law, which prohibits providing funds to governments that have come to power through coups. Moscow and Beijing, of course, have no such compunctions or constraints,” Calabrese said.



Zambia opens memorial for Chinese railway workers who died building Africa’s Tazara line

Zambia opens memorial for Chinese railway workers who died building Africa’s Tazara line

He said Beijing and Moscow had successfully exploited the flaws of or the dilemma faced by the US in addressing the Israel-Gaza conflict. “They have aligned themselves with other leading members of the so-called Global South such as Africa in decrying US or Western policies,” Calabrese said.

He said that in its unconditional support for Israel – which is widely viewed as an “occupying” power – the US has come to be viewed as an accomplice, in contrast with Russia and China, neither of which colonised Africa, and thus have a certain “popular appeal”.

According to Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher on Africa’s relations with global powers, Brics and multilateralism at the South African Institute of International Affairs, the challenge to the US was particularly clear in West Africa.

“In the West African case, I believe this is more a case of the West losing influence and Russia filling a specific security demand gap. The relationship between Western countries and Sahelian governments became so fractured recently that Russia took advantage of the void left behind,” de Carvalho said, referring to North-Central Africa.



Chinese President Xi Jinping unveils 8-point vision for nation’s Belt and Road Initiative at forum

Chinese President Xi Jinping unveils 8-point vision for nation’s Belt and Road Initiative at forum

In Niger, for example, authorities ordered American troops to leave the country and invited in Russian military aid and Chinese funding, with China swiftly extending a 12-month US$400 million oil-backed loan to Niger via China National Petroleum Corporation.

“It is essential to note that China’s presence does not necessarily equate to dominance. China tends to be more interested in securing financial benefits and market access rather than using its influence as a direct tool for Western containment,” de Carvalho said.

China’s presence does not necessarily equate to dominance
Gustavo de Carvalho, researcher

Seifudein Adem, a research fellow at JICA Ogata Research Institute for Peace and Development in Tokyo, Japan, said the challenge to US foreign policy in Africa was systemic.

“The different diplomatic outcomes of the diplomacy of external powers in Africa have not much to do with the intrinsic and distinctive features of their approaches. More fundamentally, they are rooted in the structural changes taking place before our eyes in the international system,” Adem said.

China and Russia had grown their influence by doing some things right but a bigger factor was an international political environment that favoured counter-hegemonic forces, including China and Russia – a coalition of emerging and dissatisfied powers.

“These forces are in opposition to some aspects of the current liberal international order that was created and managed – and mismanaged – by the US since the end of the Second World War. China, Russia and others seek to replace this order with an alternative one,” said Adem, who is also a professor at Doshisha University in Japan.

“The new order is the antithesis of the old and is in the ascendant. The existing order is on the defensive and has inherent disadvantages in geopolitical terms.

“Irrespective of what China and Russia do or do not do in Africa, or what the US does or does not do in response, this general trend is likely to continue.”

However, Michael Chege, a political economy professor at the University of Nairobi, said he did not think the US’ influence in Africa was fading except for in the Sahel region where discontent with the US and France was linked to their failure to eliminate jihadist violence.

“Russia, not China, is the beneficiary,” Chege said.

Chege said Africa was a young continent with 60 per cent of the population under the age of 35. “When asked by [public attitude researchers] Afrobarometer a while ago where they would like to emigrate to, the vast majority said the US and the European countries. I don’t think that this has changed,” Chege said.



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