Now that we are in a second Cold War era, there is a full fledged “Tournament of Shadows” for what was once called “The Dark Continent.”
This was brought to light by the recent coup in the West African country of Niger, which saw the Palace Guards overthrow the elected President Mohamed Bazoum. Now, at what is believed to be the encouragement of the French and Americans, the regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States is threatening to invade this remote and impoverished country. Though there have been many coups across the region since 2020 (including another one in Gabon on August 30), Niger is getting an unusual amount of notice because it has become increasingly crucial to French and American interests in the region following the expulsion of foreign troops by the military regimes of neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. While much is said about fighting terrorism and humanitarian causes, it is clear to all observers that the biggest concern is the expansion of Russian influence in the area.
With a rapidly growing population, and beset by many challenges, being used as a theater for proxy contests of hard and soft power is harmful to Africa and perilous to the world. At the same time, continuing the system of dependency and aid is good for no one but a narrow class of financial interests in wealthy, western nations and some corrupt politicians and officials on the African continent. It is crucial for the well-being of the world as a whole that outside powers respect the sovereignty of African nations and participate in, but not control, their development.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but especially since, NATO countries have been focused on contesting Russian influence wherever possible. In West Africa, it is France, the former colonial power, which has the greatest interest by a wide margin. However, NATO’s strategy in the region has been an abysmal failure, including Mali’s military government becoming one of a small number of countries to vote with Russia on issues relating to Ukraine at the United Nations. The main reason for Russia’s success is that it has a different history with these countries, never having been a colonial power on the continent. Russia also avoids openly influencing domestic political affairs and doesn’t spread cultural values unpopular on the continent such as celebrating homosexuality.
Many Africans have fallen into the understandable temptation of wanting to align with Russia and China to protect themselves from the West. However, this could easily become exchanging one master for another, similar to how the Greeks once saw the Romans as liberating them from the Macedonians only to then remain under Roman rule for over a millennium. Russia and China are using a similar strategy as the Romans, in that they avoid interfering in the internal affairs of African states while greatly profiting off of what power they have over them.
The countries of West Africa face many problems regarding future development. Two of the most well recognized ones are a lack of expertise and a lack of access to capital, both of which allow outside powers to maintain a great deal of political and economic control over them. There isn’t a great solution to either of these problems, though Russia has agreed to a large amount of debt forgiveness for African nations—which is helpful for Africa, and of course buys Russia goodwill.
Regarding expertise, though there are many Africans with advanced degrees, many of the countries are not large or populous enough to support the sort of firms which build large infrastructure projects. For example, if a country only has one spot where it makes sense to build a large dam, it makes the most sense for it to be constructed by a foreign corporation. The frequent necessity of employing outside corporations is partially why Russia and China’s more businesslike attitude is generally better for the people, as they are about to agree to mutually profitable endeavors instead of projects which are framed as aid but are in reality an unsubtle backdoor for political control.
Unfortunately, competing fairly is not good enough for countries which are used to being the imperial overlords of Africa. Instead, playing on stereotypes, they view a situation where childish Africans are being taken advantage of by dishonest Russians or crafty Chinese. In reality, Africa, with its own enormous continent in a globalized economy, does not need to be in anyone’s sphere of influence. There are over fifty countries in Africa and a population of around 1.5 billion people. There is no shortage of opportunities for everyone who wants to do business, but it requires respecting both sovereignty and the power of markets to be mutually beneficial. Instead, what Africa currently gets is an attitude of mercantilism and imperialism from dying colonial powers seeking to maintain suzerainty.
African countries are not treated like respected members of the world. They are alternately coddled and scolded by Western powers as their resources are simultaneously exploited and they remain underdeveloped and in widespread poverty. Americans come around to launch drone strikes or train military officers who later do coups, but they don’t do anything which will genuinely improve Africa. Instead, they just go from fighting terrorists to fighting rebels to fighting Russians.
Meanwhile, Russia also wants to profit from arms sales, while the private military contractor Wagner Group is happy to do violent security work for pay from Africa’s rich gold and mineral deposits. Forgotten are the Africans themselves, who just want to work and raise families and be treated with respect. Local conditions in Africa are all but ignored; a perfect example is the conflict in Sudan, which is a straightforward struggle by two men for power and gold but can only be viewed in the West as a proxy war between all of the world powers. In return for the resources of its soil, Africa is supplied with violence and the tools for future violence.
Africa has the youngest population of any continent by a wide margin and it is rapidly growing. It will become ever more important to the world and its improvement impacts us all. Africa’s new generation is enthusiastic and has moved past a post-colonial mindset that once accepted Africa as the world’s ward. If their economic prospects cannot improve, it will spell doom for their continent while also leading to a never-ending influx of Africans into declining European countries which are unable to integrate immigrants in the quantity in which they will come.
However, the truth is that Africa, with a population comparable to China or India, has long been underpopulated due to the ravages of slavery and colonialism. With an enormous generation of young workers, many of whom are more educated than their parents, as long as Africa is treated fairly and has ample access to capital the sky is the limit for the continent. However, as long as the great powers only see them as a global chessboard, Africa will always have to protect itself from being used as a pawn. Africa’s best chance for an improved future is if it can be seen as something besides a theater to fleece resources and combat Russia and China by the Western powers.