As EU’s Africa plan is undermined by coups, China, the US and Russia sense an opportunity

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has previously declared Africa a priority for Brussels. However, the European Union’s policy now lies in tatters after last week’s eighth coup since 2020 in West and Central Africa, this time in Gabon.
Rich in natural resources, much of Africa has widely been seen as key by many in the EU to its goal of decoupling from Russia and “de-risking” from China in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the region had made democratic gains in the past decade to try to rid itself of its reputation for political putsches.

Yet, this EU vision for Africa is threatened by the recent wave of coups, which former French ambassador Gerard Araud puts down, in large part, to European failure, including from France, but also others such as Germany and Italy. Specifically, he cites the absence of any clear European unity over a shared African strategy.

Even the EU’s current chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, has admitted the recent coups are a “big issue for Europe” that is “opening up a new era of instability in a region which is already very fragile”. What Borrell refers to here is how persistent insecurity and corruption is increasingly giving rise to what Nigerian President Bola Tinubu has called a “contagion of autocracy”. In so doing, coups have gained legitimacy as the credibility of democracy has eroded.

The size of the challenge is so big for Europe, in part, because of changing demographics. In the 1960s, the EU’s collective population was twice that of Africa, yet today Africa is almost double the EU’s size, and by 2050 it could be quadruple the size.

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Military coup in Gabon raises political uncertainty amid strengthening ties with China

Military coup in Gabon raises political uncertainty amid strengthening ties with China

While the EU has launched what it styled as a bold new Africa plan, this has been undercut for the reasons Araud highlights, and more. To be sure, some in the West foresaw the political risks arising from the desertifying Sahel region and West Africa, launching multiple interventions. But this has not been enough, intensified by a wider failure to meet the continent’s development needs.


This European and wider Western policy failure has been intensified by competitive rivalry as a range of world powers challenge Europe’s former political power in Africa. From Middle Eastern and Russian initiatives in the region to the great power game under way between the United States and China, geopolitical interest in the continent is growing fast.
Within the EU, it is France for whom Africa has been a foreign policy priority the longest. For almost 150 years, France maintained a substantial presence on the continent. Building from this legacy, French President Emmanuel Macron has sought to renew the historical relationship, but he has had only mixed success, in part because of competing attention paid by other nations to the continent.
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French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) drinks tea inside the Disco Maghreb record shop during his visit to Oran, Algeria, on August 27, 2022. Macron was on a three-day visit to Algeria aimed at mending ties with the former French colony, which marked its 60th anniversary of independence. Photo: AFP
Russia is also keen to entrench its foothold in the continent, with bilateral trade reaching US$28 billion in 2022. The expansion of Moscow’s influence includes via the Wagner Group, which has footholds in key nations such as the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Mali and Libya.
However, it is the great powers that are having the most impact on the continent, with China showing the most interest. Beijing aims to better connect its Belt and Road Initiative with Africa’s development, with around 40 African countries having signed up to the huge infrastructure scheme.
The United States is also stepping up its interest in the continent, turbocharging the Prosper Africa initiative to boost trade and investment. For much of former president Donald Trump’s tenure, US policy towards Africa lacked clarity and urgency. This was despite key administration figures acknowledging that China and Russia were interfering with US military operations and posed a threat to US national security interests on the continent.

Gabon and other recent coups in west and central Africa

Take the example of Kenya, a key US partner in the region. Kenya’s external debt is largely now owed to Beijing, and many large infrastructure projects are being built by Chinese firms.


This exemplifies that, while the upsurge of attention to Africa by Western powers and China partially reflects geopolitical considerations, broader economic calculations are also in play. From European initiatives to the great power game between the US and China, interest in the continent is only likely to grow, especially if its emerging markets come close to fulfilling their significant economic potential.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics


South China Morning Post

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