Africa Watch

Africa’s risks placing continent in middle of new Cold War


As the battle for geopolitical dominance between the US and China escalates, the two leading nations in Africa, South Africa and Nigeria, are playing divergent hands.

July 2015 was a busy month away from home for the leaders of Africa’s two leading nations.

Nigeria’s newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, paid a highly publicised official four-day visit to the United States on invitation of President Obama. 

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, in turn, headed to Russia to attend the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit at which Brics’s highly anticipated New Development Bank (NDB) was launched.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa also travelled east with an official delegation to China – among other things to study the running of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in an attempt to promote economic growth, address poverty and unemployment and glean knowledge on how South Africa could use the Chinese model in its own re-industrialisation process.


In a thought-provoking reflection, on Nigeria turning West and South Africa looking East, the risk management group DaMina Advisors observes that Africa’s two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, are pursuing divergent independent geopolitical aims, “having pitched their foreign policy tents with rival competitive geopolitical groups”.

It sounds a warning: “The independent geopolitical policies of Nigeria and South Africa will eventually enmesh both states within the larger emerging geopolitical bloc rivalries and ensure that Africa becomes a final frontier battleground in the global geopolitical conflict.”

Some 14 months ago The Intelligence Bulletin identified big structural changes underway on the global stage and reported, “The bottom line is that the geopolitical scene is presently undergoing fundamental changes, marked by substantial shifts in both economic and military in power relations.

“As a consequence the term Cold War II is increasingly being used by analysts and commentators as the world’s major trade patterns and military alliances have changed radically over the last few months. The emerging picture is a complicated and still very confusing one and Cold War II is shaping up to be a multifaceted one, for now mostly driven by economic interest”.

While the developing geopolitical divide remains in essence an East-West divide, a return to the old Cold War confrontation between two irreconcilable political systems trying to gain the upper hand by projecting military superiority with devastating consequences for Africa, is most unlikely to be repeated.

In this emerging geopolitical dispensation, which as The Intelligence Bulletin forecasts “will mostly be driven by economic interests”, Africa’s two dominant nations, already in competition for the continent’s leadership, have opted to seek their futures in different camps.

Time will tell who made the right call.

Competing policies          

China is not only challenging the status of the US as the world’s only superpower, but its growing presence and influence in Africa have become a geopolitical concern for the US and its Western allies.

This reality has prompted President Obama to step up his engagement with Africa during his second term. In 2013 he visited Senegal, Tanzania and South Africa. He has just visited Kenya and Ethiopia. At the end of this last visit Obama became the first US president to address the African Union (AU).

In 2014, in what many observers viewed as an attempt to counter Chinese inroads into Africa, the Obama administration hosted the first America-Africa Summit, attended by 40 African heads of state. During the Summit Obama pledged to provide Africa with at least $33 billion in public and private assistance in areas such as energy, aviation and banking.

In a further bid to improve the US’s image he also expanded the trade and health initiatives started by his predecessors, Presidents Clinton and Bush.

But there is a catch

American aid and assistance almost always come with strings attached and the often patronising approach does not sit well with many African leaders, who consider it to be prescriptive and thinly disguised neocolonial paternalism.

There might be merit in the American view that aid and investment should be linked to an improvement in democracy and good governance, but it places the US at a disadvantage.

The key difference between the US and China lies in the fact that, unlike with the US, Chinese foreign aid is not limited by any preconditions. As a result, China’s economic footprint in Africa dwarfs that of the US.

China surpassed the US as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009, and reached the $200 billion level in 2013, more than double the US’s $85 billion.  

China also benefits from the attention it gives to Africa, which dwarfs the visible interaction that Washington displays.   

Former Chinese premier Hu Jintao visited Africa five times and covered 18 countries between 2009 and 2012. His successor, Xi Jinping, signified Africa’s importance by visiting the continent on his first trip abroad. He pledged US$20 billion in loans to African countries, which was increased by an additional US$10 billion in 2014.

Successive Chinese presidents have also hosted dozens of African heads of state during a high-level China-African Summit held every three years since 2000.

The Sixth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation is scheduled for South Africa later this year. China is expected to announce new loan guarantees and infrastructure projects.

China’s ‘Obama response’         

It should come as no surprise that China’s state media responded critically to President Obama’s latest Africa visit.

It was described as a transparent attempt to offset Beijing’s growing influence on the continent which, according to them, is “a threat to Washington’s inconsistent Africa policy”.

Despite the popular perception that China is making inroads in Africa at the expense of the US, the findings of the latest Pew Research Centre report, which monitors global attitudes and trends, make for interesting reading.

Of the five regions (Africa, the European Union, Latin America, Asia/Pacific and the Middle East) monitored, African respondents at 79% came out on top as rating the US favourably, followed by the EU with 69% of the respondents viewing the US favourably. 

Using the same sample, 70% of the respondents in Africa also rated China favourably.

With the US and China both scoring remarkably high in the popularity stakes, Africa can expect to receive renewed attention from both Washington and Beijing as the battle to global superiority escalates.

One can only hope that Africa will stay alert and not fall victim to superpower ambitions.   

Also read: Chinese puzzle haunts SA economy 

by Garth Cilliers

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