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In the immediate days following Russia’s invasion of its neighbour Ukraine, the world seemed more or less in favour of condemning Russia for its unprovoked military intervention. At a UN Emergency vote in March 2022, over 140 countries supported condemning Russia for its actions, while five countries —Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea— voted against the resolution, and 35 abstained or did not vote. While a sea of green support votes offered the illusion of agreement in criticizing Russia’s war, a closer look at the abstentions tells of a continent divided in a new era of great power rivalry.

How African countries voted on the UN Ukraine Declaration: Countries in Green voted in favor, Pink voted against, Orange abstained, Light Grey were not in the room, and Dark Grey are not UN member states (Mapcreator).

An Illustrative Moment

In an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), two development experts suggested various factors influencing Africa’s initial wave of neutrality concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine. Hannah Ryder, the founder and CEO of Development Reimagined, and Etsehiwot Kebret, a development finance officer for the same company, highlighted the importance of non-alignment politics in Africa’s broader political history, and calls for mediated dialogue in resolving the current conflict. The analysis hinted at why such a large concentration of countries refused to criticize what seemed a blatant violation of international law, pointing out the war’s backdrop of a new global order marked by great power rivalry.

Since March 2022, various think tanks, media outlets, and independent experts have provided forecasts on Africa’s “new cold war.” While experts and journalists have bickered over what certain African countries should do in the face of resurgent foreign influence, few have been able to discuss the Cold War in Africa from a strictly anti-colonial lens. To offer an empowering outlook for the diverse continent predicted to be the world’s most populous land mass by 2070, we must take a sober look at the Cold War’s past and present across the continent. 

The Cold War in Africa

While popular histories paint the 1960s and 70s as decades of liberation across Africa, historians and policy experts tend to agree something else was at play. The Cold War, or the state of political and ideological conflict that dominated the global political arena from roughly 1947 to 1991, touched nearly every country on Earth. Great powers like the USSR and the United States attempted to gain allies and economic partners across the developing world, placing a particularly keen eye on the recently liberated countries of Africa.

But it was not just these two superpowers at play. As early as the late 1950s, China was competing for influence on the African continent, while France and other European colonial powers found ways to remain influential across their former colonies. The USSR’s neighbours in the Eastern bloc became especially skillful at exporting socialist architecture to West Africa, building cityscapes in the image of Eastern Europe’s communist metropoles. The arena of competition led to gruesome conflicts, claiming the lives of millions of Africans and undermining true economic development across the continent for decades.

Problems of the Present

For the past several years, some countries have renewed attempts to grow influence across Africa strategically. China’s Belt and Road Initiative — initially announced in the Fall of 2013 — had ambitious plans for boosting infrastructure projects across the developing world, with many African countries investing in major anticipated projects. Nearing its tenth anniversary, however, the initiative seems to be grinding to a halt. Kenya, for example, received over 500 million dollars of financing for infrastructure projects annually in 2017, which dropped to approximately $200 million by 2022, and is down to just over $12 million this year.

Russia has also made dynamic attempts at strategic influence across the continent. The country’s now-notorious paramilitary Wagner group had been involved in armed conflict across the continent for several years, a group which Vadim Zaytsev, an expert on Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, described it as resembling “a military trading company from the 18th or 19th century.” Amid the ongoing war in Ukraine, the Wagner group’s involvement on the African continent continues, with the new military junta in Niger calling for Wagner’s support after they took power in a military coup in late July.

Alongside these developments, the United States and its allies have made smaller efforts at intervention across the continent in recent years. While policy leaders actively debate if the United States has an active agenda for addressing development across Africa, countries like France struggle to remain influential in the face of ongoing disinformation campaigns, as a recent investigation by The Intercept reveals. 

Searching for an Anti-Colonial Foreign Policy

In ramping up its military presence across Africa, Russia has found a small handful of allies in its otherwise isolated position within the global arena. While some saw the latest Russia-Africa summit as no more than an ego boost for Putin, others have pointed to the African “peace delegation” that visited Ukraine and Russia this June as a sign of closer ties to Moscow. 

Policymakers in the U.S., Canada, and other Western countries face the challenge of competing for influence in Africa, where Russia is a friend, not a foe. On top of this, they face a variety of disinformation campaigns fostering support for Russia and China on the continent. For Europeans and Americans alike, histories of brutal and extractive colonial rule challenge today’s policymakers to acknowledge and move forward from the horrific costs of foreign policies in the past. 

With these challenges come the possibilities of inventive new approaches and imaginative foreign policy debates. Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, the Africa program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, recently spoke out during one of these debates. Responding to a question on the competition for resource extraction, Dizolele responded frankly, “Africans are wondering, ‘Why are you always talking about resources?’ For 500 years, it’s been about resources. It’s never been about the people.” From the transatlantic slave trade to the current scramble for rare Earth minerals, he highlights the global phenomenon of viewing the African continent from the lens of extraction.

But this trend of extractive thinking can change, Dizolele believes. Since the end of the Cold War, he says, “We had thirty years of people wanting real development. There was no Soviet Union, China was seeking a way in, But you [Western countries] were not investing massively in these countries. And now you say, ‘By the way, we want your resources again. Don’t talk to China, talk to us’.” The foreign policy expert calls for a paradigm shift from extraction to development through partnership, clarifying, “and this is what I mean by real partnership: the 12-year-old in Zambia may be carrying a Huawei phone, but that 12-year-old is not listening to Radio Beijing, or Russia Today. That 12-year-old knows everything about Kim Kardashian and Khloe. In other words, they want America — they’re not trying to go to Shanghai.”

The opportunity remains for a new chapter in foreign policy in Africa marked by decolonial practices, true economic development, and strengthening democracies across the continent. Our best bet to promise all three approaches is to invest in a partnership that supports people, particularly the continent’s youth, and to empower them with the tools needed to develop a world free from the dusty pattern of great-power rivalry.

Edited by Gabrielle Andrychuk

Jack McClelland

Jack McClelland (he/him) is a writer and translator based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). He earned his B.A. in International Relations, English literature, and Russian at the University of British Columbia,...