Russia and China, two increasingly influential giants in Africa

Russians and Chinese continue to show interest in the resources of the African continent
 Xi Jinping y Vladimir Putin

PHOTO/AP  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, centre left, at the Moscow Kremlin, in this acrylic photo

The European powers, which traditionally shared out their spheres of influence in Africa, now have to compete with two new players, Russia and China, on the economic, political and security fronts. Russia has become an indispensable country on which to rely for decision-making in Africa. Although Russia is aware that it cannot attain the same level of influence as the former Soviet Union, since 2014 it has been increasingly present in the economic, military and political sectors of the sub-Saharan African countries, according to a note published by EUISS on Russian influence in Africa. Between 2008 and 2019, according to SIPRI, Russia became the leading arms dealer on the African continent, followed by the United States and China. One of the reasons why Russia focused on improving its relationship with the African continent was due to the sanctions that Western countries imposed on it after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014. Despite being a major player in the world of private military companies in Africa, its sphere of influence goes beyond security, having very precise economic, energy and diplomatic objectives. 

Putin Al sisi
AFP/SEGEI CHIRIKOV - Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (1st row, 2L) and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (2R) pose for a family photo with the leaders of the African countries attending the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in Sochi.

Starting with the defence sphere, between 2014 and 2020 at least 19 military cooperation agreements have been signed between African governments and Russia. The most worrying are those in which exploitation rights are rewarded in the form of bonuses or concessions in the infrastructure and energy sectors. These agreements between governments are usually for technical-military cooperation, including activities such as arms sales and training. Typical examples of Russian activities in Africa include the Central African Republic, Angola, South Africa and Sudan, where military agreements are intertwined with economic interests. In the Central African Republic, Russia, through its private military company Wagner, has become an indispensable actor that must be relied upon if agreements are to be negotiated. In exchange for security, concessions for several diamond and gold mines have been granted to companies linked to the Russian group Concord. In Angola, Gazprom Neft, the Russian oil company, controls part of the country's crude oil extraction through its joint venture with Sonangol. It is also very present in the diamond sector, controlling most of the mining market. In South Africa, it is very present in the oil extraction and refining sector, but also in the steel sector (with Severstal) and in the gold sector (with the Norilsky Nikel company). The Russian influence in Sudan is increasing, in the energy sector both countries signed an agreement to build a nuclear plant in Khartoum, Gazprom is having the oil explorations all over the country. Moreover, since 2017, the main importer of grain in the country is Russia. On the other hand, Sudan has bought a significant amount of military equipment from Russia, including combat and transport helicopters and infantry vehicles. 

Tren China Kenia
AP/KHALIL SENOSI - A Standard Gauge Railway freight train travels from the port's container depot on a Chinese-backed railway line costing nearly $3.3 billion and inaugurated by Kenya's president as one of the country's largest infrastructure projects since independence, in Mombasa

On the political-diplomatic front, Russia has been accused of interfering in several presidential elections, such as those in Madagascar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by creating Facebook accounts on which disinformative news was published with the aim of discrediting one or several candidates. As can be seen from these examples, Russian influence in Africa is increasing every day, not only in the military sector but also in the economic and political sectors. 

On the other hand, China is the other major player involved in Africa, which used the economic route to enter with its New African Silk Road and its South-South Cooperation strategy and, once its economic power was established, began to expand its sphere of influence in the energy and military fields. From 2008 to 2019, China has tripled its arms sales, coming in third in 2019, just behind the United States (2nd) and Russia (1st). One of the reasons why China has invested so much in the security sector is the kidnapping of Chinese expatriates in Africa. These kidnappings increased exponentially owing to the insecurity caused by the civil wars in Libya and Sudan in 2011. Regardless of this practical reason, another reason for China's shift from an economic to an aggressive military strategy was its renewed foreign policy strategy. That strategy, published in its 2015 white paper, prioritizes strengthening African peacekeeping capabilities. Furthermore, the antiterrorist law passed that same December authorised the deployment of troops abroad to combat terrorism.

Cumbre china áfrica
PHOTO/LINTAO ZHANG - Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks as he chairs the 2018 Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation - Round Table Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

In 2017, China opens its first foreign military base in Djibouti. This geostrategic enclave also houses military bases in France, Italy, the United States and Japan. Djibouti is also a strategic location for its New Silk Road. Apart from the military base and its troops, China is one of the countries that contributes most financially and with troops to the United Nations contingents. 

china Djibouti
PHOTO/REUTERS - China's President Xi Jinping attends a meeting with Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on 28 April 2019

Finally, China is also investing in private military companies in Africa. One of the reasons, as mentioned earlier, is the threat of kidnapping Chinese expatriates working on the African continent in the 5,000 Chinese companies. Most of these private companies are run by former Chinese military personnel and are usually engaged in training the security forces of African states, protecting their economic interests, particularly mining interests, and protecting Chinese expatriates. The two most important Chinese private military companies are the HXZA company, which provides maritime security services, and the FSG group, created by the founder of Blackwater, which focuses on private security for companies and natural resource exploitation. Although its operations began in East Africa, being mostly economic, China has expanded throughout Africa, having a significant presence in the Gulf of Guinea, and is becoming an increasingly important player in African security.