The Revival of Strategic Competition in West Africa: Western Intransigence and Eastern Assertiveness

The Reemergence of Geopolitical Alignment

On September 1, 1961, in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, 25 heads of state hailing from four continents—from Cuba in the West to Indonesia in the East, gathered to formally establish the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Born ideologically of the movements for anti-colonialism, non-interference, and pacifism, it would morph into an explicit geopolitical position and strategy: a desire to exclude one’s nation from military or ideological alignment with either the American or Soviet blocs. Nowhere has the NAM found a more popular reception than in Africa, where every state except South Sudan is a member.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NAM found itself lacking a mission. There were no longer two clearly defined geopolitical poles from which to distinguish oneself, or to play off one another for economic or security benefits. Enter the 2010s and the return of great power strategic competition: Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) promises to invest billions in Africa’s development without domestic political ‘strings’ attached. A truculent and militarily revived Russia has returned to the continent with its strategically cheap playbook of disinformation and military assistance. These relationships have gained attention recently in light of some countries, especially in the global south, being reticent to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations. However, security cooperation and economic alignment provide more context for the future of the continent’s unfortunate position as a stage for geopolitical competition. As competition heats up, it becomes increasingly difficult for NAM countries to remain truly neutral, at least in the eyes of the US, Russia, and China.

All of this presents a dilemma for US and Western policymakers. To what degree will the US and its allies accommodate authoritarian governments for the sake of countering Chinese and Russian influence? Will opposing security and development assistance on democracy and human rights grounds alienate NAM countries further and push them towards US adversaries? And how will geopolitical dynamics interact with a resurgence of extremism, already seen across the central belt of the continent? Exploring these questions in the early stages of new great power competition will shed light on how the NAM will find its place in the world politics of the 21st century, and how, if at all, the US and its allies could buttress their development investment with shrewd geopolitics in order to prevent China and Russia from making the world safe for autocracy. In the context of rising extremist threats, this piece discusses the Chinese and Russian strategies regarding recent developments in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali.

The Sino-African ‘Common Destiny’ and The Prelude to Permanent Forward Presence

The flood of Chinese security assistance and investment in Africa, while taking a hit during the Covid-19 economic slowdown, presents severe long-term problems for Western interests in the region. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) will continue to facilitate tens of billions of dollars of investment and assistance over the coming decade.

Chinese strategy is ambitious and far reaching. Xi Jinping has dubbed it a China–Africa ‘community of common destiny,’ a strategy aimed not only at creating reliable allies as a counterweight to Western international dominance, but also to demonstrate its competence as a great power: it can build and keep peace when governments are threatened by destabilizing forces within their borders. FOCAC has taken place in three stages. Firstly, the expansion of trade on generous terms: unlike with the rest of the world where China attempted to maximize exports, it cut import tariffs to zero on hundreds of goods from Africa’s Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the early 2000s, a UN classification which includes over 30 nations on the African continent. From 2000 to 2006, bilateral trade to the continent increased five-fold, with China now its largest trading partner. Secondly, China has embarked on financing and development assistance under the BRI. Thirdly, and most importantly, China in 2015 established its security cooperation fund of over $60 billion in grants and loans. These were accompanied by promises clearly designed to contrast Chinese assistance with that provided by the West: “no interference in African countries’ pursuit of development paths that fit their national conditions; no interference in African countries’ internal affairs; no imposition of our will on African countries; no attachment of political strings to assistance to Africa; and no seeking of selfish political gains in investment and financing cooperation with Africa.” In theory, this leaves the West in a disadvantageous position: there is a higher political cost to receiving Western aid than Chinese aid. The case of Burkina Faso illustrates this disadvantage.

In the fourth coup in West Africa in 14 months, Burkina Faso’s military took control of the government in January of this year. Central to the public acceptance of the coup was the perception that civilian leadership was impotent in dealing with the increasing violence from Al-Qaeda and ISIS-linked militants. US special forces assistance had been aiding in anti-terror campaigns for years, but the US backed out once the government was overthrown by its military. When questioned as to whether the US was seeking to ‘evangelize democracy’ or fight terror, the U.S. Special Operations Commander stated that “there is no separation between what our country stands for and how we operate as the military”, and that US law prohibits continued military aid to any country where a military coup has taken place. When told of this in the same investigation, Lt Col. Yves Didier Bamouni, National Theatre Operations Commander of the Burkinabé junta replies that “Now, we are diversifying our partnerships. That which Americans withhold, we hope to acquire through other partners.” Development assistance is similarly conditioned, with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) halting its planned $450 million of activities in the country. This withdrawal comes at an inopportune time. US officials have told Congress that Chinese ambitions in the Sahel region are a prelude to expanded force posture, including establishment of bases on the continent’s Atlantic coast.

Taken broadly, this strategy affords China significant depth and maneuverability. Political-military links make conditions for permanent force establishment more favorable, while significant economic interests in a region known for instability and piracy give Chinese officials solid reasoning internationally for why establishment of a permanent forward presence may be necessary: to protect Chinese citizens and commerce. Geostrategic competition drives engagement with third countries, and American unwillingness to continue in countries with objectionable governance leaves its competitors with an open goal.

The Russian Revival: Wagner, Disinformation, and Incremental Gains

The former Soviet Union boasted penetrative and ideological connections with recently decolonized states across West Africa. By contrast, Russia’s aims in the last decade have been more limited commensurate with its smaller economy, though no less destabilizing and challenging to US interests in the region. It has been employing its playbook of strategically cheap and low-risk measures to secure its interests and expel Western influence. Russia frequently employs its paramilitary mercenary Wager Group as its strategic tool in such partnerships, giving it significant advantages over Western counterparts employing their own militaries. As an organization which “legally speaking, doesn’t exist,” Russia’s government is free to employ it in dangerous situations without fearing political backlash at home. Western leaders must contend with the political consequences of ‘body bags’, while Vladimir Putin does not. Its leadership is tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency which, together with Wagner’s soldiers, provides the perfect assistance tool for an authoritarian government trying to cling to power. Russia therefore eliminates the political cost of intervention while still maintaining its effectiveness.

In August 2020, a military coup in Mali, in part caused by similar frustration over the failure to counter an extremist insurgency, was greeted with jubilation in the streets, with some citizens waving Russian flags and photos of Vladimir Putin. Beginning a year before the coup, Malian social media began filling up with narratives blaming the remnants of French colonialism for the ongoing Jihadist insurgency and called on the country to withdraw its 5,000-troop presence stationed there (a force present since 2013 at the request of Mali’s government). Social media narratives began emerging around the time of a new security agreement being signed between Russia and Mali, with mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group being brought in to assist the counterinsurgency. The military junta abrogated an agreement with France to hold democratic elections in February 2022, expelling France’s ambassador when he objected. France has now announced its withdrawal from the country, citing the stubborn authoritarianism of the junta and its inviting Russian-linked forces to participate in the conflict. Western experts maintain that far from providing military ‘instruction,’ the Wagner Group’s aim is to promote Russia’s foreign policy objectives, namely the displacement of France and the EU as a security guarantor. Much in the same way as China, it can do this without demanding what the West demands: civilian power sharing and democratic elections.

The same process can be seen in Nigeria. In August 2021, President Muhammudu Buhari signed a new military cooperation agreement with Russia, including arms sales and “after-sales services, training of personnel in respective educational establishments, and technology transfer.” Just one month beforehand, Congressional committees held up a $1 billion arms sale to Nigeria over human rights concerns and use of force against protestors. Russia filling a power vacuum in Africa’s most populous country and largest oil producer could not come at a worse time. The West is currently in a desperate search for alternate sources of oil and gas after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; closer ties between Nigeria and Russia can only undermine this goal. Nigeria’s shift is not without rationale; the country is fighting a mounting Jihadist insurgency from Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), whose potential for human rights abuses clearly surpass those of the Nigerian government. Again, the question presents itself: are Western policymakers allowing the greater of two evils?

Whichever way one looks at the issue, Russia’s playbook is back. While less ambitious than China’s all-encompassing ‘common destiny,’ it stands as a cheaper and even more destabilizing way of removing Western influence in favor of Russia. Influence from Russian groups can only increase when Western governments refuse to acknowledge the reality that repressive governments now have feasible alternatives to US and European security assistance. Russia merely represents the cheapest and most immediate option.

The Balance for US policy: Holding hands with the devil

Uncompromising liberalism comes at great cost. Substantially conditioning alliances is only possible in a unipolar world in which the conditioning state has no genuine competitor. Recognition that the US no longer holds this power is an important first step towards the development of a feasible strategy for West Africa. America’s victorious cold warriors did not demand Jeffersonian democracy of all the states they supported, and neither should we. The Allied powers in World War II joined hands despite their differences to defeat a more threatening foe, and so should we. In the case of the Sahel states discussed here, the opportunity is twofold. Firstly, assistance should be furnished to build popular and military resilience against violent extremism. Secondly, assistance must be furnished without the stringent conditions currently attached to it; any democratic inclinations in Nigeria, for example, which may make it naturally tend towards the West, are struck down by the dual blows of political conditioning and the immediate and existential insurgent threat. As General Townsend told Congress just weeks ago: “We are still considered the ‘partner of choice’ by most African nations. This position of advantage is ours to lose.”

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