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Narratives on geopolitics in Africa tend to focus on the US–China rivalry. They usually contrast two rival models of engagement: a US model in which development assistance is explicitly tied to political reforms, and a Chinese model that deliberately avoids politics but openly pursues commercial opportunities.
In reality, these narratives are outdated. Both the US and China remain hugely influential players on the continent, but the landscape is far more multipolar than previously. New players such as Turkey, the Gulf states and India are aggressively promoting their interests. In part driven by this competition, engagement models are changing. China is engaged in a subtle but fundamental strategic shift as it attempts to translate its economic clout into political influence. The US Prosper Africa programme, launched in June, has a clear commercial focus that has been absent from previous US development initiatives.
In this multipolar landscape, in which all geopolitical players are both seeking political influence and openly seizing commercial opportunities, it is prudent to understand the role of Russia and of Britain in Africa. Both are, in some senses, re-engaging with the continent. The former Soviet Union played a significant role in Africa during the Cold War, supporting numerous liberation movements, but saw its influence sharply diminish in the 1990s. It is only in the past few years that Moscow has devoted significant resources to strengthening these ties. The UK has, of course, been a leading colonial power in Africa for much of the past two centuries. But at least over the past four decades, much of the legal framework through which it has engaged – from trade agreements to investment treaties – has been developed through the EU. Brexit has seen a renewed focus on the continent from the UK, including the first visit by a UK prime minister since 2013 in August 2018.
The approaches of both countries are very different. Russia has adopted a number of strategies in its attempts to strengthen its engagement with Africa, including leveraging its position as a member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) association and offering security cooperation in the form of arms sales or military training. Its geographical focus, to date, has appeared opportunistic; it has often gained influence in fragile states, where its offer of security assistance is attractive and where traditional Western donors have been wary of entering, such as Sudan and the Central African Republic. The UK, in contrast, is relying on its traditional historic links and promises of money; during the 2018 visit of then Prime Minister Theresa May, she promised £3.5 billion in government investment and financial assistance, and laid out ambitions for the UK to become the G7’s largest investor in Africa by 2022.
There is also clear competition between Russia and the UK, as there is between all geopolitical players in Africa. All are openly competing for commercial opportunities amid Africa’s rapid economic growth and, in a world where multilateral institutions are increasingly under strain, all are looking for allies. It is an often-forgotten fact that although Africa still accounts for a disproportionately small portion of the global economy, it does have political clout; its 54 sovereign states, for example, constitute the largest regional bloc in the UN General Assembly and they are capable of coordinating their votes when debates directly affect their interests, or the principles they hold dear. This does play a role in the differences in outlook between Russia and the UK on issues such as when to deploy UN peacekeepers or impose sanctions on, for example Sudan. None of these differences are going to disappear.
Nonetheless, both countries – and their companies – should not view this as a zero-sum game. Russia and the UK may both be competing for political influence and commercial opportunities, but to African governments they represent very different prospects. Many governments are looking to diversify their range of development partners. Angola and Zimbabwe, for example, are actively trying to reduce their economic reliance on Chinese loans and trade, sometimes subtly, such as Zimbabwe’s efforts to rejoin the Commonwealth, and sometimes more directly, such as in the increasingly evident efforts of African countries to attract investment from geographically diverse sources. They do not want to choose a single partner or a single model of engagement and are unlikely to react well to those who suggest wider geopolitical rivalries should limit their choice. Indeed, strengthening bilateral relationships is likely to be as important as commercial considerations in many of the large-scale public tenders issued by African governments, and in that regard joint ventures that cut across geopolitical divides could make bids very attractive.
In addition, when faced with the realities of operating in many of Africa’s most challenging environments, geopolitical rivalries are a less immediate concern. There are numerous examples of companies that are ostensibly competitors cooperating and sharing information to deal with on-the-ground realities; to keep track of security trends, for example, or to better lobby the government around burdensome regulations. In some cases, these shared challenges have seen the objectives of geopolitical rivals align. After all, no company gets a free pass just because of its nationality.
Barnaby Fletcher is Associate Director at Control Risks, and heads the company’s analyst team for East and Southern Africa.
This contribution follows the first joint workshop between RUSI and the Russian International Affairs Council, looking at UK and Russian interests in Africa.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.