Russia, China, and Iran are opening doors for each other to share influence in Africa,Biden administration is beginning to wake up to Africa’s strategic importance. Interview with Irina Tsukerman.
A great competition is emerging between the United States, China, Russia and Iran over Africa. How to explain this craze?
This competition is nothing new, other than increased involvement in the US. Africa is a continent rich with natural resources ranging from fossil fuels to rare earth minerals and phosphates. Rare earths are essential for a range of industries such as military technology as well as renewable production – electric vehicle batteries, and various other emerging technologies. US is heavily dependent for China on these technologies; among the efforts to decouple from Beijing and Beijing’s growing self-isolation and aggression around the world this has become a top priority. In fact, even the Biden administration is beginning to wake up to Africa’s strategic importance, which is why after the African Leaders summit it announced a new more holistic policy shifting away from the limited securitization approach to fighting corruption, building civil society, and engaging in investment opportunity. For now, however, most of the efforts have gone to climate change initiatives and diplomatic efforts to convince several countries to expel Russian mercenaries present there. Russia, China, and Iran are opening doors for each other to share influence in Africa,Biden administration is beginning to wake up to Africa’s strategic importance.
Iran is not being addressed by this strategy at all, even though Iran’s proxy Hezbullah has been active in many countries in Africa since the late 80s and especially in the 90s. Recently, Iran has been investing more than ever in raising its profile in Africa through the recruitment of religious scholars to the Al Moustafa university, the training of Shia militias in countries like Nigeria, cooperation with local terrorist groups such as Polisario, through Hezbullah, arming, training, and politically backing them, and also selling drones to various countries facing civil unrest or border tensions. Iran has also pushed for outreach to major African players such as Egypt through Iraq, but so far with no result.
Russia has had old ties to Africa from the First Cold War, where it has invested significant resources in propping up corrupt regimes and infiltrating the media and spreading Marxist propaganda as Soviet Union. Currently, it is reigniting these old ties and using the Wagner militia and other groups to promote anti-Western rhetoric, help push out France, assist to the best of its abilities against jihadists (with limited and mixed results), lend support to regimes, and gain access to the mining sector, particularly in terms of smuggling gold for the oligarchs and to fund Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine.
As for China, its interests in Africa have been strategic for some time. It has used its Belt and Road Initiative and “debt trap diplomacy” to build infrastructure around the country but using its own labor force and taking over airports and other major infrastructure sites through what many Africans now regard as “economic colonialism”. Moreover, China has its sites to building additional military bases in Africa. Africa has attracted other players as well – France is reluctant to leave its traditional sphere of influence; Turkey has been expanding its influence through humanitarian initiatives and support of ISlamists and technocrats, Qatar and UAE have been racing against each other in terms of business investments, access to ports, and support for various governments and factions. Some of these goals complement other players, some are done in conjunction, some are completely independent, and some are conflicting. US, however, for now is not coordinating with anyone in particular.
France seems to be losing its grip on Africa. Several African countries are turning their backs on it. Why do you think this is?
The reason for that is a mixture of failed strategy, perceived colonialism, and involvement of other actors. France, by focusing exclusively on counterterrorism, failed to address the issue of spreading ideological extremism and recruitment, sectarian tensions, weak corrupt governments, human rights abuses, inadequate law enforcement, shortage of economic opportunities, and other factors contributing to the destabilization and security failures inside these countries. Russia, on the other hand, successfully utilized anti-colonialist rhetoric to help undermine France’s image exploiting Marxist ideologies embedded in various states.
France is not seen as having anything advantageous to offer; it is seen as politically exploiting these countries, not taking responsibility for past abuses, and using natural resources and political connections to advance and expand its own political interests and image at the expense of Africans. Although Russia and China are doing exactly the same, they are smarter about it. They have always portrayed themselves as “liberators” or investors, and now having learned from criticism and pushback China is adopting a more mixed partnership approach that is more acceptable and similar to the West.
The exit of France from the Sahel (Central Africa, Mali, Burkina Faso, …) seems to be replaced by Russia through the mercenaries of Wagner, and especially by an influence of Iran. What impact will this have on the expansion of terrorist movements in this region?
Russia, China, and Iran are opening doors for each other to share influence. Wagner mercenaries have been largely unsuccessful against jihadists overall; their job is not to fight extremism but merely to safeguard their limited interests in mines and in propping up cooperative governments.
Iran is very flexible and adaptable in the groups it supports, so long as they undermine target governments and are willing to cooperate. That’s why it works with both Shia and Sunni groups, and with Muslim Brotherhood and even international terrorist organizations and their local branches such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. Moreover, some of Iran’s newfound allies such as Polisario, corrupt, Russia, Algeria, and Europe-backed organization are themselves flexible in terms of membership and als cooperate with other terrorists groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and various criminal networks, in pursuit of gold and drug smuggling and criminal funding schemes, such as human trafficking. Hezbullah, too, specifically cooperates with drug smugglers and various criminal enterprises to build and expand its network and to fund its operations as well as to assist Iran.
The result is the increasing globalization of terror, growth of exchangeable Iran-trained proxy groups that can be used anywhere in the world, and broaded narcoterrorist conglomerates. This also means that terrorists can get intelligence from state actors and vice versa and could be asked to attack targets anywhere even if it is outside the scope of their immediate interests. Such cooperation creates a very dangerous dynamic and facilitates recruitment in vulnerable areas. Chaos begets chaos, which means these developments compound growing instability and make it even more difficult to fight extremism. Sahel is already becoming a no-go zone, whats’ worse, jihadists are now emboldened by splintered movements in the East of Africa as well, and so militant factions are converging from both ends of the continent.
What are the strategies of the US and China in Africa?
China is increasingly relying on “mixed” investment, learning to imitate Western partnership approach in response to the criticism of the debt trap diplomacy, but also seeking stronger security ties despite overall disinterest in getting involved in local sectarian matters. US so far does not have a clear strategy, though increasingly it is willing to work with whatever governments are in place to safeguard its own interests, prioritizing access to renewables above everything else.
For instance, it has recently signed an MOU with the DRC government to build an independent supply chain for electric vehicles, since DRC controls most of the global supply of cobalt necessary for EV operations and China has a major presence threatening to throttle US access. However, this also means taking sides in political and possibly even military disputes against other allies such as Rwanda because DRC is willing to leverage this obsession with EVs to its own political advantage. US has also promised to make investments in various sectors across the continent, but so far has no clear path to doing so successfully, at least not without addressing other local conditions.
What are the impacts of the war in Ukraine on the relations of African countries with the great powers?
The war in Ukraine created and expanded economic and humanitarian crises for many of these countries – such as food insecurity/shortages, inflation over all, energy price hikes, increased poverty, and reversal of progress for women who have had to leave schools or to enter forced marriage including as child brides as a result of poverty. It has also reversed progress on FGM, access to medical treatment, overall access to education, and other immediate concerns. US and other Western countries have a unique opportunity to assist with addressing social needs and winning hearts and minds, and also to show their broad economic and social investment in African countries beyond climate change pus that many in Africa view as resentment because they do not see themselves as contributors to climate related challenges.
Likewise simply dumping money on climate change initiatives will not offer practical help; especially in corrupt countries that money will simply disappear. US and others need a carefully calibrated engaged approached facilitated through measured partnerships with local verified organizations to implement initiatives that can actually improve life. Otherwise these countries will be forced to embrace competing and malevolent countries who do not necessarily care about quality of life in African countries, only using them – at any cost – to their own advantage.
Who is Irina Tsukerman
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security lawyer based in New York. She runs a boutique national security law practice. She is a member of the American Bar Association’s Energy and Environment and Science and Technology Sections. She is the Program Vice Chair in the Oil and Gas Subcommittee. She is also a member of the New York City Bar Association’s Middle East and North African Affairs Committee and an affiliate member of the Foreign & Comparative Law Committee.
In addition, Irina Tsukerman is the President of Scarab Rising, Inc., a media and security strategic advisory, and the Editor-in-Chief of The Washington Outsider, a project of Scarab Rising, focused on foreign policy, geopolitics, security, and human rights. Irina hosts The Washington Outsider Report program on The Coalition Radio station, and frequently writes about world affairs in diverse US and international publications. She has appeared in the media all over the world as a geopolitical specialist dedicated to actionable analysis, and her writings and comments have been translated to over a dozen languages. Irina is a member of the editorial board of The Maghreb and Orient Courier. She is a member of the New York-based Foreign Policy Association.
Irina specializes in information warfare; she has written and spoken extensively on active measures by Russia, China, and Iran and influence campaigns by Middle Eastern state actors, as well as on the impact of active measures and influence campaigns on the human rights and NGO world; she has also published on a wide range of global issues touching on energy, geostrategy, strategical alliances, Great Power competition and its impact on geopolitics, domestic policy, and business, information security and digital rights/cybersecurity, big tech, terrorism and extremism, as well as issues in intelligence and counterintelligence.
Most recently, Irina was honored for her contributions as a woman leader and a global humanitarian at the World Humanitarian Drive’s Trilateral Trade for Peace Conference in London. Her comments and writings have been translated into over a dozen languages; her latest major appearance was on Australia’s #1 podcast the Red Line to discuss counterterrorism and economic warfare in Mozambique.
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