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Veto Powers’ Foreign Policy Calculations in Africa: The New US Strategy of Divide and Rule

todayAugust 21, 2022

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INTERNATIoNAL BY Bola A. Akinterinwa 

The veto-wielding powers are the Five Permanent Members (P-5) of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC): China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States. They are also referred to as the Nuclear Weapons States and are so recognised by the UN Charter. They have constituted themselves into an exclusive nuclear club in the sense of their common non-preparedness to accept new nuclear member into the club, but without necessarily always acting together in this matter when international peace and security is under threats. 

The P-5, acting severally, has different foreign policy strategic objectives in Africa. What is common to all their objectives is the quest to increase their space of influence in Africa, and where it is impossible, to maintain their zone of influence, particularly using Africa as an instrument of their foreign policy. They need Africa’s mineral resources and none of them wants the other to use Africa to its own detriment. In fact, this consideration was one major source of misunderstanding in Nigeria-France relationships since 1970.

Under the General Yakubu Gowon regime, Dr Okoi Arikpo, the Commissioner for External Affairs, came up with the policy of non-acceptance of the exploitation or use of African resources solely for the development of Europe and America. France, in sustaining France’s great power status in international politics, adopted the policy of assimilation in its Fifth Republic Constitution. All the former colonies that accepted to join the French Community had their citizens considered as French and do enjoy all privileges reserved for the French. This policy enabled the recruitment of labour from Africa. Today, Franco-African mutual regard has waned, especially in light of the cancelation of the Ministry of Cooperation that dealt specifically with the Francophone countries and the increasing number of coup d’états in Francophone Africa that are designed to undermine French influence in Africa.

The UK is generally believed not to be actively engaged in Africa like France in the post-independence era. Some observers said that the NATO belives that French actions in Africa are also protective of Western interests. The UK of today believes in policies of self-preservation more than ever before. She brexited from the European Union and now needs Africa more than ever more. In fact, in addressing the problems of landed immigrants and refugees, Britain recently did an agreement with Rwanda to accept UK’s unwanted asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants in exchange for financial and development assistance.

The case of China and Russia is noteworthy. They are great powers by accomplishment and are seriously challenging the United States’ hegemony in the conduct and management of global questions. They rightly or wrongly believe that American power is about to be replaced or thrown into the dustbin of history, and are therefore, strategizing to step into the shoes of the United States as superpower(s). But the United States reacted to the Russo-Chinese calculations by re-strategizing and announcing a new foreign policy towards sub-Saharan Africa only, thus dividing to rule Africa to the advantage of its Russo-Chinese competitors.

Current Foreign Policy Calculations

The foreign policy calculations are quite interesting at the politico-economic and militaro-social levels because of the quest to use Africa for conflicting, and at times, common interests. For instance, at the economic level, all of them want Africa’s mineral resources and therefore, are all prepared to assist Africa in exploiting the resources, not for the development of Africa, but to their advantage. They are particularly interested in the exploitation of uranium which is critical to the development of nuclear weapons. France’s interest in Niger Republic is a case in point. The French and the Americans provide special protection in this regard to the exclusion of the Chinese and Russians. In the same vein, all of them want to take advantage of Africa’s market opportunities for their processed industrial products. In fact, the Chinese see Africa basically as a source of raw materials and market opportunities. It is important to note that China’s investments in Africa only account for 3% of its global investments while its trade with Africa is only 5% of its total global trade. Consequently, Chinese foreign policy calculation is largely driven by the need for expansion of its economic interests in Africa.

At the political level, China’s foreign policy economic calculation is also largely defined by the Taiwanese question. China only relates well with African countries that accept the rule of ‘One China, Two Systems.’ Consequently, the Chinese strategy is to court African support for the territorial integrity of China by preventing Africa from giving any diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. What is noteworthy again, in the words of a non-resident Fellow of the Global Economy and Development, Africa Growth Initiative, Yun Sun, ‘given the general low priority of Africa in China’s foreign policy agenda, African issues rarely reach the highest level of foreign policy decision-making in the Chinese bureaucratic apparatus. In practice, policy making specific to Africa happens mostly at the working level and is divided among several government agencies, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) taking the lead on political and economic affairs respectively.’

Franco-British foreign policy strategy towards Africa can be explained bilaterally and multilaterally. Bilaterally, various countries have copied the Franco-African Summitry model in relating with Africa. This is the model of one country dialoguing with the whole of Africa. Russia, Britain, China, Japan, etc. have adopted the style. This, in itself, is most unfortunate. French foreign policy calculations are covered under the European Union and NATO’s common policy attitude towards Africa. The same is true of British foreign policy strategy coordination under the EU before discontinuation of membership of it. In essence, France, Britain and the US share many foreign policy values espoused by the NATO or the EU. Their only major problem is the quest of the EU to be another centre of global power that has the potential to conflict with the new ‘America First’ doctrine introduced under the Donald Trump administration. European Union as a rival power centre is not condoned in the United States.

As for Russia, it is more militarily, than commercially, relevant in the African setting. While for example, Russian trade with Africa is about $20bn per year, Russia is the leading exporter of arms to Africa. Russia accounts for 49% of the overall arms market in Africa. In this regard, Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Senegal, and Zambia are the leading clients of Russian arms in Africa. Africa’s patronage of Russian arms is because of the perception that they are affordable, easy to maintain and reliable. In order to further enhance this perception and Russian space of influence, President Putin promised during the October 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, to cancel Africa’s debts and to double Russian trade with Africa within the next five years. This cannot but be quite endearing in the eyes of many African leaders.

The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies ( has it that Russia pursues its strategic goals in Africa by expanding geo-political influence through low cost ventures that hold economic windfalls for Moscow. ‘In this way,’ the Centre noted, ‘Russia’s strategy in Africa is both opportunistic and calculating. It is opportunistic in that it is willing to take risks and quickly deploy mercenaries to crisis contexts when the opening presents itself, similar to what Moscow did in Syria. It is calculating in that it aims to expand Russia’s power projection including over strategic chokeholds in the eastern Mediterranean and Suez Canal that could affect NATO force deployments in times of crisis.’ In fact, Russia sees Africa as a means of balancing western influence.

A second rationale for active Russian presence in Africa is traceable to the annexation of Crimea which prompted Moscow’s isolation by the West and which also helped to push Vladimir Putin’s idea of a post-liberal international world order in which democratic norms and the principles of a rules-based international system are challenged. In other words, Russia is contesting that democracy does not offer a more effective, equitable, transparent or inclusive form of governance.

It should be noted that US-Russian policy attitude to Africa conflict frontally. While the United States is preaching the sermon of freedom, press freedom, protection of human rights, rule of law, role-playing for the civil society organisation in ensuring governmental accountability and enabling a corruption-free society, etc., Russia is acting contrarily. Russia engages in the use of mercenaries, Wagner Group, and disinformation in some African countries: Libya, Central Africa Republic (CAR), Sudan Madagascar, Mali and Mozambique.

A third rationale is the specific use of the Wagner Group to protect Russia’s strategic interests in Africa. The Wagner, for example, negotiated a revenue-sharing deal with the rebels in the CAR, while gaining control of the gold and diamond mines in northern part of the country. Explained differently, the mere fact of the Wagner mercenaries winning the war is used as a bargaining means to secure strategic specific favours for Russia. This is how Russian influence is made to expand without much investments in Africa.

A fourth, and perhaps very critical rationale for the advancement of Russian influence in Africa, is the use of the A3 at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is made up of fifteen members, and therefore of fifteen seats, of which five are permanent and others are non-permanent. Of the non-permanent seats, which are rotatory, Africa has three and is technically referred to as the ‘A3.’ Russia has always made a strategic use of the A3 during voting at the United Nations. For example, in January 2019, when the UNSC considered a request from the opposition leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to conduct an investigation into the widely viewed fraudulent presidential election, the A3, comprising the Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, and South Africa by then, sided with Russia in blocking the initiative.

Additionally, as noted by the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, in April 2019, the A3 supported Russian efforts to block the coup in Sudan, invoking the principle of non-intervention. And more interestingly in the same month, the A3 also voted with Russia to block a UK-sponsored resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya and condemning the actions of Libyan warlord, Khalifa Hafter.

New US Foreign Policy and Africa

The new US foreign policy towards Africa is a change in tactical pursuit of the existing strategic foreign policy objectives. In other words, foreign policy objectives remain the same but the means of achieving the objectives are redefined in terms of tactics and techniques. Some reasons for the redefinition of the tactical policy attitude were officially given but many are the untold motivational rationales some of which attract our attention here.

 The current US policy on Africa essentially underscores the promotion of transparent good governance with emphasis on role-playing for civil society organisations; protection of human rights; promotion of democratic governance; and ensuring maintenance of continental peace and security. All these concerns are still intrinsic in the new foreign policy strategy. 

Five strategic objectives are identifiable in the policy: security concerns, Africa’s adaptation to climate change, democracy, post-COVID 19 pandemic economic recovery, and transparent good governance. While these strategic objectives are not essentially different from what obtained in the past, the implementation approach is what is different. In the same vein, five factors of newness have also been delineated by Zainab Usman, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.

As identified by her on 11th August 2022, the first factor of newness is the description of the policy attitude as a partnership: ‘US-African Partnership.’ True, in the continuum of bilateral ties, partnership is meant to show special relationship in any given cooperation agenda. In terms of placement, it comes after general bilateral cooperation which focuses on limited shared values, and strategic partnership, which underscores operational modalities, on the one hand, and before establishment of bi-national commissions which is at the crescendo of the continuum of bilateral ties and in which Heads of State or Vice Presidents normally participate in person. Bi-national Commissions oversee virtually all bilateral questions in terms of policy making and implementation. In other words, strategic partnership simply requires articulating mutual interests and jointly identifying common strategies in protecting them.

A second new factor is the intention to work closely with the African Union in solving recidivist governance challenges. But perhaps more interestingly, the policy is also ‘to direct unilateral capability only where lawful and where the threat is acute.’ This statement is fraught with unnecessary ambiguity. What should we mean by directing unilateral capability? The first meaning can be that the United States shall have the prerogative to decide on the use of its capacity and capability to protect the partnership. Secondly, who determines when it is lawful and when a threat is considered acute? Is it not whoever has the capacity? Can it not be the party that is feeling the pinch of threats? Admittedly, the partnership is still a policy proposal, but how does Africa want to react to it?

The third new factor of newness identified by Zainab Usman is the articulation of Africa’s climate challenge and promise to help determine how best to meet Africa’s specific energy needs through various technologies, especially renewable energy and gas-to-power infrastructure. As good as this help will be, the fundamental truth is that Africa constitutes an insignificant polluter of the ozone layer. Africa cannot be held responsible in the same way the developed industrial countries should be held responsible. The help to be given in adapting to the climate change should be put in a more appropriate context.

Another new factor of newness is the pledge of economic partnership, particularly in the creation of jobs for about eleven million people joining the labour market each year. This means that, based on 54 countries and equity, 203,703.7 jobs can be created in any given African country yearly. Considered individually, the number of jobs may look insignificant, but when looked at holistically, it is a lot and commendable. The funding and genuine political will to do so cannot but remain the challenge.

Finally, the mobilisation of private capital in the mania of the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System is another new factor of newness. The San Francisco Employees System approved a $100m investment into power projects in Africa and other emerging markets in 2017. This is again a most welcome strategy but the challenge is the extent of commitment to be given to the private capital mobilisation effort. This challenge should be appreciated in light of the policy inadequacy and officially announced motivations.

As explained in the White House Briefing (Fact Sheet: US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa), there is only one basic motivation for the new tactical policy: usefulness of Africa in the foreign policy calculations of the United States in the foreseeable future. The United States can see that Africa’s population is rapidly growing; Africa is currently one of the largest trading blocs worldwide; Africa still remains richly endowed in unexploited mineral resources; and increasing importance of Africa’s voting as a bloc at the United Nations. 

It is true that Africa is relevant to US positioning for great power competition with China and Russia for influence in Africa, as observed by Zainab Usman. The United States sees the Chinese as harmful and considers Russia as distorting information in order to undercut Africa, but the United States and its allies see themselves as having ‘high standards, values-driven and transparent initiatives.’

As tenable as these perceptions may be, we contend here that the main rationale for the new US foreign policy strategy on Africa is more tactical than strategic. It is the newly growing influence of China and Russia in Africa, the declining influence of France which has been the leading protector of NATO interests in Africa, and the unexpected neutralist or non-aligned attitudinal disposition of most African countries towards Russian special military intervention in Ukraine that appear to have prompted the re-strategy. The expectation of the United States is for Africa to toe its line on the matter but this was not the case. Apparently rankled by this African attitude, the United States Congress recently came up with a bill, which has gone beyond the first reading and which seeks to sanction any country that acts contrarily to any US foreign policy interest henceforth. It is from this perspective that the US new foreign policy strategy on Africa should be seen by African leaders, especially that the policy is only targeted at Sub-Saharan Africa. It does not include the Maghrebin countries that generally voted in favour of the UNGA draft resolution condemning the Russian invasion.  Algeria abstained. Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia supported the UNGA draft resolution. President Joe Biden’s strategy of having a specific foreign policy for sub-Saharan Africa cannot but be to divide and rule. If it is not, is the US not paving the way for Egypt to be nominated for a UNSC permanent seat in the near future?

In this regard, Russia and China are vehemently opposed to the United States in global governance, but for different reasons. The likelihood of China accepting to compromise on its policy of ‘One China and Two Systems’ is very remote, and this is precisely what the United States is working against. Trade disagreements between them are secondary. But more critical is the rise of the Chinese status in international relations, a rise that is perceived to be threatening US global interests. 

In the same vein, Russia is seeking a sort of political retour en arrière, a sort of Soviet or Russian Empire in promotion of communism to the detriment of Western values. In contradiction to this Russian quest for re-union, the United States and its allies are working to impose democracy. The joint Sino-Russian hostility towards the United States has now become a strengthening factor in China-Russian relations. How should Nigeria relate to China and Russia, on the one hand, and to the US new foreign policy strategy that is targeted to Sub-Saharan Africa only? How does Nigeria respond to the US policy of divide and rule: partnership or non-alignment?

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