Foreign involvement in Africa is far from unique to Russia (Leaked documents reveal Russia’s efforts to exert influence in Africa, 12 June). The new scramble for Africa involves more powers than the first round over a century ago. This time it’s in part about securing resources such as oil, gas and rare earth metals crucial for military and civilian digital technology, and denying these resources to rival powers.
The United States Africa Command (Africom) now has 7,500 American troops active in all but one African country, up from 6,000 in 2017. Apart from its huge base in Djibouti, controlling the narrow strait between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, a vital chokepoint through which all shipping using the Suez Canal has to pass – most importantly (for the Americans) Chinese shipping – the US has constructed small “lily pad” bases, whose presence gives the US a strong military capability.
France, too, is keen to protect its control over north and west Africa, partly from encroachment by the US, while seeking to penetrate the anglophone sphere. Britain, likewise, is beefing up its diplomatic and economic presence in Africa, notably in francophone countries, and increasingly in response to a post-Brexit order.
Apart from a grab for resources, the new scramble is also designed to counter Chinese investment in Africa – in particular its control over cobalt mining, which provides the raw material for electric car batteries and mobile phones. Interestingly, China’s relationship with Africa, while unequal, is not neocolonial. It imposes no conditions on borrowers such as privatisation, welfare cuts and cuts to subsidies. Harding and Burke’s focus on Russian involvement in Africa paints a narrow, one-sided picture.
After reading about how Russia is exerting power in Africa, I’m looking forward to a further exposé on how the United States has managed to get its retaliation in first. An article in the Nation in 2015 by Nick Turse included a map of the continent with all the US bases at that time picked out in red, which looked like an outbreak of measles. The UK has not been slow either in countering the Russian threat, and was quick to take part in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Indeed, the UK was involved as far back as the 1990s in countering the Russian threat by funding the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
The quote at the end of the piece from a Russian operative suggesting that Russia needs to find reliable partners among African states and set up bases may be a tad too late if the US and France have picked off all the best sites.