The United States Scramble for Africa

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken (third left), and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin (second left), meet the Angolan president, João Lourenço (right), during the summit. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/AFP/Getty Images
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken (third left), and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin (second left), meet the Angolan president, João Lourenço (right), during the summit. Photograph: Evelyn Hockstein/AFP/Getty Images

The United States Scramble for Africa

The United States administration of President Biden is assertively pushing the reset button on its foreign policy in Africa. However, its potential to outpace other regional and international competitors over the resources of the most fertile continent is still pretty limited. 

In mid-December, Washington hosted a three-day summit under the title “US-Africa Leaders’ Summit,” calling in forty-nine political leaders from Sub-Saharan and North Africa as well as the Commissioner of the African Union to discuss ways to revive and enhance America’s socio-economic partnerships with the continent. A senior U.S. official told the press that “the summit is rooted in the recognition that Africa is a key geopolitical player and one that is shaping our present and will shape our future.” Indeed, Africa is a fertile continent with an unparalleled wealth of minerals and fuels. It is also home to 1.3 billion people, most of whom are young, offering an enormous market for lucrative business opportunities to foreign investors.

The overdue summit is the second episode of a historic meeting that former U.S. President Barack Obama held eight years ago, in August 2014, under the same title. The theme of the two summits and the agenda items are almost identical, but America’s geo-strategic standing and the surrounding global context are quite different. While the 2014 summit had prioritized discussions on civil society, good governance, and democratization, the current summit pushed these critical topics down the list after strategic economic partnerships, food security, and response to the climate crisis.

The Business Forum is the star of the show in this year’s US-Africa Summit. The Summit organizers dedicated a physical “Prosper Africa Deal Room” for American and African business tycoons, investors, and government officials to meet, discuss, and announce future business agreements. The goal of the Deal Room is to “advance mutually beneficial partnerships that create jobs and drive inclusive and sustainable growth on both sides of the Atlantic,” according to the description of the Summit organizers. Yet, the real purpose of such a room, which has been live-streamed by top media outlets all day, is perhaps to show off in real-time the progress of US-Africa relations compared to America’s superpower competitors, especially China.


The Economic Question

In the African domain, the United States is entering a new level of competition with several international and regional actors that already have sturdier economic and security partnerships in the fertile continent. On the top of this competitors’ list are China, Russia, Turkey, and two of the wealthiest countries in the Arab Gulf region, namely Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their collective power as pragmatic allies outweighs the power of the United States and Europe.

In the past few years, the UAE, as one example, emerged as a primary logistics hub for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa region and a host to more than six-thousand Chinese companies. In addition, China, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have been running joint and parallel infrastructure and tourism projects in east Africa.

President Joe Biden speaks at the US-Africa Business Forum on Wednesday. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the first-ever Arab-China Summit was held in Riyadh.  Chinese President Xi Jinping and a dozen of Arab leaders returned home after the summit with several economic and security agreements that some of them described as a milestone for “high-quality” cooperation.

Unlike the United States, eastern superpowers do not tie security and economic cooperation with Arabs to improving human rights and governance conditions, which most Arab countries view as interference in domestic affairs. Likewise, most African countries, including those who yearn to establish solid alliances with the United States, find working with China much easier because it does not load agreements with political change provisions.

The fierce economic standoff between the West and Russia since the latter’s invasion of Ukraine in the spring is believed to be one of the key motivators behind convening the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. After losing several of its best Arab allies to Russia and China, mainly because of inconsistent foreign policy moves in the past two years, the Biden administration is keen on winning over Africa to compensate for this massive loss.

That raises the question about what the U.S. administration can realistically offer to Africa to win this competition, especially in view of an absence of any collective African perception of what Africa could need from Washington that the other powerful competitors have not already introduced.

The United States has been the second top investor in Africa, after China, over the past decade (2010-2019), according to data from the “Swiss-African Business Relations Status Quo 2021” report. The distance between the Chinese and the American positions on the index compared to other countries on the top ten list, such as France, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, is as wide as eleven-thousand newly created jobs. Yet, the gap between China as the top investor and the United States in the second position is as large as six-thousand newly created jobs. China poured into Africa at least 27% of its foreign investments during that period.

On the regional level, the report shows that the UAE is the only Arab country that made it to the top ten investors in Africa in the past ten years. UAE holds the 9th position on the index with 2,968 newly created jobs. That puts UAE above wealthy western investors like Switzerland, Spain, and Canada. In the coming decades, the UAE is determined to continue expanding its investments in Africa, especially in the countries of eastern and southern Africa.  According to a white paper issued in October 2021 by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) and commissioned by Dubai Chamber, the UAE held 88% (US$1.2 billion) of total investments by all Arab Gulf countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in the period between January 2016 and July 2021.

It's Turkey, Not China!

Turkey is another remarkable competitor that the United States should monitor for its growing influence on Africa. Turkey is the fourth largest investor in Africa, after China, the United States, and France. The difference between Turkey’s investment power in Sub-Saharan African countries, compared to the power of European investors, such as France and Germany, is slightly a few hundred newly created jobs over the past ten years.

In 2020, the total trade volume between Turkey and Africa reached as high as US$25.3 billion, compared to a trading volume of US$20 billion between Africa and the entire continent of Europe. Most African imports from Turkey are textiles, furniture, electronics, steel, and cement. Meanwhile, Turkey made a direct investment of US$6.5 billion in the construction sector in Africa over that period.

Nevertheless, Turkey’s political influence on Africa is much stronger than any other competitor, even China’s. That is basically due to the clever employment of the military diplomacy tool by the leadership of the Turkish Armed Forces to win over allies in a continent boiling over with a myriad of security threats, ranging from terrorism, border conflicts, and civil wars. This week, while the United States is hosting a summit for Africa, African military leaders are visiting the Turkish Minister of National Defense, Hulusi Akar, in Ankara to discuss cooperation and review military deals.


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the Innovators Gathering during the US - Africa Leaders Summit at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on December 12, 2022. SAUL LOEB/AFP

Turkey’s military diplomacy pattern is designed to create a double-layered bond of economic and security co-dependency with targeted countries that can hardly be broken once tied. This pattern was successfully applied in the long-term partnerships that Turkey established in the 1990s and early 2000s with pivotal countries in Asia, such as Pakistan and Azerbaijan.

Turkey’s indigenous defense industry is about to hit a self-sufficiency rate of 80% by the end of 2022. A market starving for arms and ammunition in Africa is one of the ideal destinations for Turkish military products. Today, Turkey is already exporting weapons to Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya, and the list is expanding by the day. The African countries are particularly interested in the Turkish drones and helicopters, as well as technologically advanced electronic war systems that they can procure from Turkey for a relatively lower cost than the price of similar equipment from the United States, Russia, or even China.

The Flaw in Western Perception

In general, western powers are usually unlucky when it comes to competing against the eastern superpowers, or even regional actors, in the African continent. Europe’s vain quest to revive ties with Africa is an example that the United States should study and learn from. At least since 2020, Europe has been trying to redefine its relationship with Africa as a strategic partnership rather than a “donor-recipient” affair. The highlight of this effort was creating a new EU-Africa Strategy that encompasses a huge budget of thirty billion euros for social development projects in North Africa.

In early 2021, the European Council approved a proposal by the European Commission to establish the “New Agenda for The Mediterranean” to “relaunch and strengthen the strategic partnership between the European Union and its southern neighborhood partners.” Consequently, a new instrument titled “Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument” (NDICI) was issued to guide Europe’s policy in the Mediterranean. The NDICI set an investment recovery plan in targeted African countries with a budget of seven billion euros for the period 2021-2027, with a promise to mobilize up to thirty billion euros in private and public investments over the next ten years.

Europe’s urgent interest in regaining its long-lost influence in Africa is not new. For years, leading voices of major European collegiate bodies have been calling to strengthen the bond with Africa. However, the wide gap between Europe’s vision and Africa’s needs has blocked positive measures and tangible results. That is the core of the lesson that the United States needs to derive from Europe’s failed endeavors in Africa. Despite its proven sincerity to renew and foster ties with Africa, the U.S. administration may fail if it does not abandon its western perception of politics and business conduct for a while and try to look at Africa through African eyes.

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