How Africa can reap from US-China rivalry 

US President Joe Biden with African leaders during the U.S. – Africa Leaders Summit on December 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. PHOT0/AFP

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Denis Owiny, a student of Master of Science in Foreign Service, says the US can realign its foreign policies by investing in Africa’s democracy, infrastructure, and security. He adds that China and the US are not Africa’s friends, but African countries can profit from their great-power competition.

For several decades, Washington has treated Africa as a problem it must solve, but not as a strategic partner with which it can trade. Washington’s investments in Africa focused on responding to humanitarian, climate, and insecurity challenges, leaving out critical energy and infrastructure development sectors. As great-power competition between China and the US grows roots in Africa, Washington realised Beijing had outmaneuvered it.

US influence in Africa has significantly dwindled as emboldened African countries sharply turn towards Beijing. Washington’s miscalculations were to assume it could infinitely bully African countries into preserving its global security interests without prioritising their needs. Washington policed African leaders to live the American ideals. At the same time, China positioned itself as Africa’s friend, investing in a myriad of programmes across the continent through the Belt and Road Initiative. The US policies in Africa have centred on counterterrorism, mainly conducting military training, and providing arms sales, to advance US national security, giving less attention to Africa’s infrastructural and governance needs. This misalignment of policies has resulted in Washington slipping behind Beijing as the two largest economies compete for dominance in Africa.

It will take something more than visits by high-profile US government officials to Africa to wrestle it out of China’s grip. Washington sent Vice President Kamala Harris on a one-week visit to Africa in April to warn African leaders that “China is not your friend; we are.” Standing at the Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, she reiterated the significant roles enslaved Africans played in the civil rights movement in the US.

“Those people went on to fight for civil rights and justice in the United States and around the world,” she declared. Washington intended to use Kamala Harris’ African roots to soften the talks with African countries. But Kamala Harris wasn’t the first highest-ranking US official of African descent to set foot in Africa to save the US’s diminishing influence. While speaking at the African Union in Addis Ababa in 2015, Obama declared that “Africa is on the move; a new Africa is emerging.”

Yet all the funding the Obama administration sent to Africa was tied to securitisation and counterterrorism. The rest of the promises quickly faded away under the Trump administration. And the Biden administration has done less to correct the course.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the world looked to Washington for answers. The Biden administration’s counteraction measures to Putin’s transgressions in Ukraine included imposing economic sanctions on and denouncing Russia at the UN Washington demanded that African countries fully cooperate in implementing its sanctions on Russia. But they demonstrated an unwillingness to side with the US unequivocally. On suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council, twenty-three African countries abstained, eleven supported the resolution, and eleven voted against it. Mr Museveni, the President of Uganda, summarised Africa’s neutrality: “We don’t believe in being somebody else’s enemies.” African countries sent the US a message that they were done being told what to do.

China approach

However, China-Africa relations bloomed. China deployed a pragmatic approach to outmaneuver the US in Africa. At the 2018 Beijing China-Africa Cooperation Summit, Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with every leader of the 53 African countries. And through Vision 2035 for China-Africa Cooperation, China and African countries identified vital sectors to cooperate in, including trade, finance, investment, development, health, and industries. Comparatively, President Biden held a group meeting with nearly 50 heads of State from Africa at the 2022 US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, provoking William Ruto, the President of the Republic of Kenya, to warn that in the future, African heads of state will start sending the chairperson of the African Union to represent the 54 African countries to meet one gentleman from another place. The 2022 US-Africa Leaders’ Summit reinforced the idea that Washington still views Africa less strategically and that its priority is elsewhere.

But Washington is wrong. The race for semiconductors, a crucial component of the great-power competition, has opened new opportunities for African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) and Zambia. And with China controlling 63 percent of the production and 85 percent of the processing of global rare earth minerals, the significance of the US-Africa relations in the US-China rivalry requires no explanation. DR Congo is the world’s largest producer of coltan, a crucial mineral for making tantalum capacitors in all electronics. DR Congo exported 700 tonnes of coltan in 2021, cementing its place as the largest producer of the coveted rare earth mineral. In 2021, DR Congo produced 1.8 million metric tonnes of copper, and Zambia had 800.80 thousand metric tonnes. The US signed a memorandum of understanding with DR Congo and Zambia during the 2022 US-Africa Leaders’ Summit to move some of the electric vehicle battery value chains to Africa. Washington intends to stave off China and ringfence Africa’s rare earth minerals for itself.

Over the years, Washington critically misunderstood Africa’s priorities and focused mainly on military interventions and counterterrorism. The US provides military training and has profited from millions of dollars in arms sales in the Sub-Saharan region. The US has also been linked to the coup epidemic in the Sahel region, including the most recent one in Burkina Faso, where Captain Ibrahim Traore, the interim military leader of Burkina Faso since the September 2022 coup, is alleged to have ties with the Pentagon. 

Meanwhile, China has significantly become Africa’s lender of last resort, increasing its emergency liquidity lending to central banks worldwide to $170 billion by 2022. Through the People’s Bank of China and the Exim Bank of China, Beijing has signed 1,188 loans worth $168 billion for infrastructural development with African governments and their state-owned enterprises between 2000 and 2020. As Dambisa Moyo described in her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa, China paved roads where there were no roads and laid bridges where there were none in sub-Saharan Africa. China has also built hydropower plants such as Guinea’s Kaleta Hydroelectric Dam and Uganda’s Karuma Hydropower Plant. These infrastructural developments have increased market access for African farmers, boosted industrialisation and rural electrification, and improved living standards across sub-Saharan Africa.

Few can deny that China is using Africa to expand its global reach for power. China is most attracted to African countries facing governance challenges. Chinese companies resorted to underhand strategies such as bribes to win government contracts. Through a “scratch my back, and I scratch yours,” China has portrayed itself as a friend of authoritarian African regimes than global police dictating to them how they should govern their countries while funneling billions of opaque loans to Africa.

On the other hand, being Africa’s biggest lender and holding $73 billion of Africa’s debt as of 2020, of which $9 billion is private debt, China has suffered a backlash in some African countries as citizens protest against Chinese loans. The change in relations comes when the World Bank demands China to be more transparent with the terms and conditions of its loans to developing countries in Africa. Over the years, Beijing has found it easier to court authoritarian regimes in Africa to further its interests. Zambians accused China of depriving them of their livelihood. They voted out a pro-Chinese government in an election dubbed a referendum on China. Such backlashes and developing African countries’ failure to repay Chinese loans have forced China to cancel 23 loans in Africa and reduce its lending to the continent.

Amid Washington’s miscalculations, it still has leverage in crucial areas in Africa. It is Africa’s largest aid donor, with traces of its fingerprints in education, health, emergency food relief, et cetera. As of 2021, US foreign aid spending in which it allocated $32 billion, $10.40 billion went into sub-Saharan Africa.  And in the liberal international order, the US has a firm grip on the global financial system. To some extent, the US dictates how much money a country gets from the World Bank Group and the IMF.

While in Africa, Kamala Harris declared, “America will be guided not by what we can do for our African partners, but what we can do with our African partners.”  The US should cooperate with African countries on favourable trade terms so that the continent harnesses its migration from a subsistence economy to an industrialized one. African Continental Free Trade Area provides the perfect space for the US and Africa to strengthen their bilateral and trade relations.

The US should respond to each African country differently and address their needs separately through the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGII) and Prosper Africa. Africa’s 1.4 population size is crucial for the fourth industrial revolution. Each African country experiences unique challenges. Bundling Africa as one entity has led to the misalignment of the US policies in Africa. Some African countries have achieved middle-income, high Internet connectivity, and access to electricity, while others have not. The US should prioritise infrastructure development in the sub-Saharan countries constrained by limited rail and road networks.


The US should closely monitor African elections to facilitate peaceful regime changes. Over the years, the US has rubberstamped fraudulent elections to preserve its national interests. Building independent democratic institutions, sanctioning authoritarian African leaders over human rights violations, overseeing credible polls, and guaranteeing peaceful regime changes is the best way the US can help Africa on its path to industrialisation.

The US should also prioritise its diplomatic relations with African countries. Instead of inviting 54 African heads of state to meet the President of the United States (POTUS) at the Africa-US Leadership Summit in Washington, POTUS should give more time for a one-on-one meeting with individual African leaders to confer on the unique challenges each country faces. Since Barack Obama, no US President has traveled to Africa. Trump snubbed Africa, and Biden is yet to travel to the continent. Amid the US-China rivalry in Africa, the US President should travel to and address the African leaders from the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa and lay out the strategies for US-Africa relations.

The great-power competition between the US and China provides Africa with economic options. African countries will benefit much more from the rivalry if they maintain neutrality. It has often looked like African countries aligned with China, but that is untrue. Instead, China filled the void the US left unoccupied in Africa. Africa can embrace its potential and harness the fourth industrial revolution, not because the US carried it into the future nor Chinese loans facilitated its rise, but because it has always had the resources to industrialise. In losing Africa to China, the US would part ways with the most strategic ally and future industrialisation hub.

Denis Owiny, Student of Master of Science in Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC.