Military scramble ‘mirrors Cold War’ as Russia, US and China vie for influence

By Robert Bociaga
Posted on Wednesday, 14 December 2022 12:20

Africa has not traditionally been a high-value market for arms exports, but Russia has been very active on the continent. (Photo by Robert Bociaga)

The world is witnessing a military scramble for Africa by great powers. Western countries have been confronted by Chinese and Russian military assistance programmes. What is driving this and how has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected the battle for foreign influence on the continent?

According to recent analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an organisation that monitors arms trade, Russia was Africa’s top exporter of weapons from 2017 to 2021. Russia sold 44% of the stocks imported into Africa, followed by the US (17%), China (10%), and France (6.1%).

Supplying just under half of military equipment in Africa, Russia has nourished its African ties since the liberation struggles era. However, over-reliance on the Russian armaments might be putting some of Africa’s defence systems at peril, as both sanctions and difficulties in replenishing their own weapons has hit Russia hard.

The black market is expected to thrive as African governments stop trading openly with Russia for defence gear and services. There is a significant risk that black market arms transactions involving both state and non-state actors may once again become common on the continent.

Nevertheless, it creates an opportunity for Russian-made equipment to be maintained and serviced by professionals in Africa’s defence sector. Countries like South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, and Algeria have competent domestic defence sectors that could fill the gap created by Russia.

The biggest buyers of weaponry from Russia are Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and Uganda. These include both small arms and heavy weapons.

In North Africa, Russia’s trade and investment has grown significantly, unabated by the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Even though it remains a minor economic player in Africa compared to the US or China, Russia provides support to countries shunned by the West. 

Russia’s strategy involves arms sales and political support to authoritarian leaders in exchange for business opportunities. This later translates to support of African allies at the UN.

Gibraltar Straight & Red Sea 

Africa only imports 7.3% of total major weaponry sales, compared to Asia and Oceania (42%), the Middle East (33%), and Europe (12%).

Nevertheless, the continent is strategically important on a global scale. The corridors around the Strait of Gibraltar, the Strait of Sicily, the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Mozambique Channel support one-third of commerce between Asia and North America, and one-third of global oil shipping.

“US and global security depend on unhindered access to these waters”, as declared by the US Africa Command, which vows to counter transnational threats and malign actors.

Contrary to the Trump-era, during which Africa was sidelined, “the Biden administration is [now] engaged in more of reactive than proactive policy and action towards Africa”, says Ibrahim Sakawa Magara, a policy leader fellow at the School of Transnational Governance.

Africa is allowing a lot of influence, but there is a need to make progress in terms of infrastructure and security

“The US is always interested in furthering its security interests and economic interests while countering the influence of rival powers, especially China, on the continent,” he says.

China’s expansion  

Earlier this year, on the backdrop of China’s plans to build a military navy base in Equatorial Guinea, the US sent an interagency delegation to discuss their security concerns, believing that “synchronis[ing] diplomacy, development, and defence […] can yield a continent of partners tomorrow”.

Stephen J. Townsend (former commander of the African Command in the US army) also stressed that “a Chinese base on Africa’s Northern Atlantic Coast could be its closest to US national waters”. It would also play a strategic role in cutting off US access to resources from Africa should a conflict break out in the future.

A permanent Chinese military post in Equatorial Guinea is the result of over a decade of investment in Africa, and might not be the last of its kind on the continent’s Atlantic coast.

Djibouti already hosts China’s first foreign base, having more foreign military bases than any other country in the world. This highlights the military scramble at the confluence of The Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.

The rest of the Horn of Africa constitutes a special case. While “Eritrea’s belligerent leadership plays a huge role in the destabilisation of Ethiopia”, the geopolitical significance of the region brings the Gulf powers to the Horn, unlike anywhere else, Magara says. 

Ethiopia has received weaponry from Sudan, Turkey, UAE, India, Israel, in addition to supplies from China and Russia.

Allowing external influence

Uche Igwe, a Nigerian political economist, says China holds a chunk of foreign debt, and its military assistance will predominantly ensure economic dominance. 

“While Nigeria is looking at options to defeat Islamists, Chinese have a lot of investment here and there, and can suffer collateral damage,” he says. “It is in their interest to protect it and support it.”

Across the continent, China has become an increasingly active player. For example, Seychelles received transport aircraft and a patrol boat for counter-piracy roles. In Kenya, police were provided with training to protect a railway financed and built by Chinese companies. Talks have been underway on providing support to the Congolese army following the ambush on the Chinese gold miners.

“Africa is allowing a lot of influence, but there is a need to make progress in terms of infrastructure and security,” Igwe says. “We won’t escape […] globalisation anyway, whatever happens in Taiwan and Ukraine, it already affects us.”

Insurgencies happen as a product of social exclusion

China has been selling military equipment to Nigeria for many years, and it might “bring political implications [one day]. It can lead the US and their allies to recalibrate relations with Nigeria,” he says.

Many countries in the region are fighting insurgencies and China has voiced concerns over the security of its nationals. “[…] stability is highly important for them,” says Ngboawaji Daniel Nte, Nigeria’s security expert of Novena University, referring to previous kidnappings of their nationals and infrastructure damage.

Nevertheless, these vulnerabilities, combined with issues related to the long-term policies, lessen African countries’ bargaining power, which brings them to the status of client states, says Nte.

Limits of foreign interventions 

The current military scramble for Africa looks “pretty much like in the Cold War”, Magara says. “They will devise and reinvent new strategies to [countering each other’s influence] and, depending on contexts and dynamics, the intensities of the rivalry will vary just as who takes the lead in various situations.”

As a result, “the issue of the US countering China and Russia in Africa, whether through weapons supply, training[…], or any form of military assistance to African nations is deeply problematic”, Magara says.

In his view, the drivers of conflicts and extremism in Africa are too diverse, therefore their root causes need to be addressed by Africans themselves “through their own means and tools”.

Protracted conflicts in the DRC and Mali have not proved to be resolved by external military interventions. “Regardless of the number of external resources poured into these processes and whether they come from China and Russia or the US and its Western allies, it all ends in so little if anything, or even worsens the situation,” Magara says. 

“Insurgencies happen as a product of social exclusion, there’s a lot of marginalisation in these countries, so you must understand the mindset of people,” Nte says. “Let’s not forget Boko Haram. Rebellions are brewing amid […] extreme poverty.”

For Magara, amid the military scramble, who provides the weaponry or training is not as important as the purpose of these actions. According to him, they are not aimed at addressing security challenges, but rather advancing the interests of major powers and its clients.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options