Are China and Russia Bad for Africa? That’s the Wrong Question

Westerners should ask instead what kind of partnerships their own countries offer to the continent.


A question that was crude in its simplicity trailed me for years in the wake of a book that I wrote about Chinese migration to Africa. In the place of nuance, Western reporters and the curious readers I encountered in many audiences demanded that I boil everything I knew down to an insistent binary: Was China’s involvement on the continent good or bad for Africa?

In recent weeks, as I have spoken to European journalists about a new book of mine now being published in translation on that continent, this kind of stark and insistent question has been brought up to date with another Western rival in mind. Although this book has little to do with contemporary geopolitics, one interviewer after another has asked me: Is Russia’s growing presence in Africa good or bad for the continent?

As dully predictable as both of these questions quickly became for me, neither was especially hard to answer. What was most interesting about them was something shared that almost always went unasked, and that is something we will come to.

My answer to the China question has often gone something like this: Imagine a university student who has gone through several years of college without any prospect of a romantic date. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, an attractive potential partner comes along who not only shows interest in taking the lonely student out but may also be willing to foot the bill. The lonely student’s likely response is pretty predictable: excitement, and possibly even what former U.S. Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance.”

A positive response is offered quickly. No fuss is going to be made about which movie to see or where to eat or dance. That is how Africa reacted when Chinese diplomats, contractors, and bankers came knocking on the doors of foreign ministries across the continent in the 1990s, talking up possibilities for major public works and infrastructure deals with ready financing and few conditions. Africa’s exuberance in response to China’s drive to drum up business and build influence on the continent was highly predictable.

The entry onto the scene of a big and ambitious player with deep pockets and shovel-ready ideas like China came as the world was getting used to what briefly seemed like a time of unchallenged U.S. power, in which Africa became a distant afterthought. During the Cold War, Washington’s interest in Africa was motivated by a desire to check Soviet, and sometimes Chinese, advances there.

Yes, humanitarian and anti terrorism concerns remained. But with these historic motives now apparently gone, the United States in the 1990s stopped pretending that Africa mattered in any geopolitical or even economic sense, except for the extraction of hydrocarbons, which were mostly offshore, or here and there metals and minerals. In light of this, answering whether China’s arrival on the scene was “good for Africa” is trivially simple: In a world where the choice is between having partners and not having partners, just think of the college student.

African governments that had been left to their own devices or limited to the anemic diet of World Bank loans and International Monetary Fund programs may have been over exuberant in the opening years of the new era of booming Chinese involvement on the continent, but they were not irrational or hopelessly naive about their own national interests, as many Western voices warning about the dangers of being ensnared by Chinese lending would have it.

The question about Russia’s more recent push into Africa is a little bit murkier but also not terribly difficult to answer. It is true Russia offers little of the economic or financial engagement with Africa that China does, and which the continent badly needs. It is no secret that Moscow’s offer is for something else altogether: regime security. All sorts of problems might arise from this—that is, from the fact that Russia’s growing relationships in Africa may serve mostly to entrench leaders there who are authoritarian, corrupt, or both. And the arrangements to finance these services, which are often provided by Russia’s quasi-private mercenary Wagner Group, often involve the worst kinds of extraction: off-the-books mining barter.

Where the African calculations about Russia and China come together, though, is that one fragile country after another has concluded that what the West has proposed to help their security woes has been inadequate or even harmful. This is especially true of France’s security ties with its former colonies in the Sahel region, as well as of associated U.S. efforts to provide military training here and there and to set up outposts of intelligence and drone warfare primarily aimed at containing the spread of militant Islamism.

Instead of asking what one thinks about China and Russia, Western journalists who write about Africa need to turn a more skeptical eye to the question of what kind of partnerships their own countries, and the West in general, offer to Africa. That means stop pretending that this continent, with the fastest growing and youngest population on earth, has been engaged by the West in any way commensurate with its needs or, indeed, its importance to the world’s future. To pretend otherwise, while simply wringing one’s hands or wagging fingers about China or Russia, is to engage in enormous bad faith.

This all came home to me in the recent reporting on the extraordinary U.S. intelligence leaks that, according to the Washington Post, speak of “an evolving plot to topple the Chadian government” involving the Wagner Group. In another article on related leaks, the Washington Post quotes CIA Director William Burns calling Wagner Group “a particularly creepy Russian organization” and saying that it “is expanding its influence” in “Mali and Burkina Faso and in other places and that is a deeply unhealthy development and we’re working very hard to counter it because that’s threatening to Africans across the continent.”

Thinking for a moment about the nature of the government in Chad, the longtime Western ally in the heart of central Africa that is the focus of much of this concern, is helpful in understanding the growing problem of Western credibility on the continent as a whole. For decades, Chad has been a cherished client of France and the United States, not because it is a democracy (quite the contrary) or because it has become an important economic partner of the West (it has not), but because the country’s government has long allowed its territory and sometimes its own soldiers to be used to support Western military objectives in the surrounding region.

This is almost the entire basis of the relationship. As former Chadian President Idriss Déby acknowledged to me himself in 2007, Chadian governments over the decades have achieved little economic progress. Moreover, Chadian leaders are insulated from their population’s demands for political reform by their alliances with Western countries who happily ignore demands for meaningful democratization or accountability so long as the country remains a strong security partner. It is this security relationship—not Chad as a country or Chadians—that Western officials like Burns and his French counterparts worry about.

Just last October, Chadian forces slaughtered as many as 128 peaceful protesters, according to that country’s leading human rights organization. To reprise some of Burns’s language, this was a particularly creepy development that is unlikely to be healthy for Chadian society. Terrible human rights abuses like this have been seen across a range of recent governments of that country without ever calling into question or fundamentally reshaping relations with the West.

To Burns, French President Emmanuel Macron, and other Western leaders and officials who profess concern for Africa, I have some advice: The promotion of democracy and human rights is only credible when it is done with a minimum of consistency. As the history of Chad strongly suggests, that is badly lacking. The best way to promote Western interests in Africa is to do far more to advance economic development on the continent. Poverty, mass unemployment, poor integration into the global economy, and inadequate growth are the biggest threats to Africa. And they ultimately threaten you, too.

Foreign Policy

Posted by on May 13 2023. Filed under Analysis. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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