Winning the hearts and minds of Africans: difficult but not impossible


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last week, President Macron of France set out on his latest trip to Africa, the 17th since he assumed the French Presidency. This time, he did not visit the traditional French partners in west Africa and former French colonies, such as Ivory Coast, Senegal, Benin or Chad, but countries further afield. He started in Gabon, where he participated in a major environmental conference on water resource management and reforestation to capture carbon emissions, then on to Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and finally Angola. Angola is a major oil and gas producer, which may explain why it was on Macron’s schedule. The message that the trip attempted to convey is that France is now expanding its horizons to embrace all of Africa beyond France’s traditional zone of influence.

Prior to departing on his trip, Macron gave a speech at the Élysée Palace to present France’s new Africa strategy. He stressed a new approach and a new form of partnership between France and Africa. Out would go the old Françafrique, the years when Paris treated its former colonies as dependent clients that would meekly follow French policies and grant France privileged access to their economy, security structures, and political and military elites; in would come a new approach focused on civil society, youth and education, and helping African states to pursue economic and technological development. France would make a stand on human rights abuses, corrupt practices and electoral manipulations, rather than coddle old dictators or military putschists simply because they promised to protect French economic or security interests. Macron said that France would no longer be on the front line when it comes to fighting jihadists and insurgents, but rather work more in the background, training local forces to undertake this effort themselves. French military bases would be transformed into academies and training centres. The priority on hard security and counterinsurgency would be replaced by an accent on improved governance, fighting climate change, and economic and technical cooperation.

To some degree, events on the ground in Africa had forced Macron’s hand in changing France’s strategy vis-à-vis the continent and seeking to rebrand France’s image. The French military presence in Mali, Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic had become increasingly unpopular, with anti-French demonstrations and a breakdown in relations between Paris and national authorities following French criticism of the military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso in particular. These authorities, in turn, blamed France for not curbing the militants and extremists. They turned instead to Russia and its Wagner mercenaries. The French Ambassador to Mali and the United Nations envoy on human rights were expelled from the country, and France decided to terminate its regional Barkhane operation before subsequently withdrawing its forces altogether from Mali and Burkina Faso. The last 400 French special forces in Operation Sabre left Burkina Faso last week, although small EU training missions remain there and in Mali. Certainly, France was no longer willing to be used as a lightning rod or scapegoat for the inability of local authorities to provide effective governance and security or seriously pursue reconciliation with different ethnic groups and their militia forces.

Is the West losing out to Russia and China?

The new French approach to Africa outlined in Macron’s Élysée speech is not entirely new. Already at the beginning of his mandate in 2017, Macron delivered a speech to an audience of university students in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, in which he declared France’s aim to engage more with African youth and civil society and appeared to indirectly criticise the government for its poor record on governance and human rights. Later, he tasked an academic expert to study the behaviour of the French army, police and intelligence services during the brutal war against Algerian nationalists from 1958 to Algeria’s independence in 1962. The ambition was for greater honesty about the colonial past and for a new beginning. Yet, this ambition was inadequately followed up, given the need to increase the French military presence in the Sahel region and persuade other EU countries to send special forces, aircraft and helicopters to the region to operate alongside the French or contribute to the EU training missions. Counterinsurgency as jihadists regrouped in northern Mali or operated across the borders of the Lake Chad region took precedence.

Time will tell if Macron’s new diplomatic outreach across Africa and recalibration of France’s cooperation programmes bear fruit in helping France to rebrand its image on the continent and gain new influence. The new French-Africa strategy comes at a time when the West, in general, is increasingly worried about its influence on the continent and the political orientation of many of Africa’s key countries. Is the West losing out to Russia and China, to their authoritarian models of government and to the types of no strings attached aid and cooperation that Moscow and Beijing appear to offer?

Two weeks ago, a vote in the UN General Assembly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine gave a pointer regarding the mood in Africa. The good news for the international pro-Ukraine coalition is that 141 countries called on Russia to immediately and unconditionally withdraw its forces from Ukraine. This number is broadly similar to two previous votes last year, but seven countries still backed Russia and voted against the resolution. They included Eritrea and now Mali, showing that the recent trip by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Bamako has paid dividends in bringing Mali firmly into the Russian camp, similar to Eritrea, which has sunk into dictatorship and whose troops have committed several human rights violations in their incursion into the Tigray province of Ethiopia. Many countries didn’t vote and 17 abstained, including major African players like South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria. They claim to be neutral vis-à-vis the war in Ukraine, but their refusal to back the West after a year of witnessing the horrors associated with Moscow’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine can only be read as complicity in Moscow’s narrative that places the blame on the United States and Europe.

The West might have hoped that Africa would have blamed Russia

The reasons behind abstentions and no votes can be many. Some African countries are clearly unhappy at the weapons and financial support being given to Ukraine when their own endemic and much longer conflicts receive far less attention. Over 5.5mn people have been killed in the DeRC over the past 20 years and 30,000 at the hands of the Boko Haram jihadists in northern Nigeria in the last five years. Other countries point to the impact of war in Ukraine on their own economies and societies in terms of food supplies, supply chain disruptions, higher inflation and energy costs, as well as thousands of African students forced to come home early from their studies in Ukraine. The West might have hoped that Africa would have blamed Russia for causing all these disruptions, but this is rarely the case. Equally, the attachment of African countries to notions of sovereignty and non-violability of frontiers might have led them to condemn Russia’s unprovoked attack. Yet, this does not seem to have weighed much in the balance either.

At the same time, Russia has been hyper-active in pushing its agenda against the West. Lavrov has undertaken three tours of Africa over the past six months. On a recent trip to Mali, he offered the country aircraft, food, energy supplies and arms. This week, Russia offered African countries 260 000 tonnes of fertiliser, including 20 000 to Malawi. Wagner mercenaries are operating in Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic and Libya. Moscow is also wooing Sudan and seeking to acquire a naval base at Port Sudan. Putin is planning to host a Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg in July, an event that Russian diplomats have accused the West of trying to ‘sabotage’. Russia has been investing heavily in its public diplomacy and information campaigns across the continent, all while presenting the West as trying to undermine the stability of the regimes and putting its own interests before those of Africa’s development. Authoritarian African leaders hoping to play on anti-colonial rhetoric find the Russian narrative highly convenient. Thus, ending the war in Ukraine quickly – even if it means accepting Moscow’s territorial demands,  rather than encouraging Ukraine to resist – is a message that resonates in many African capitals. ‘It’s the West’s war and it doesn’t concern us’ is a widely shared view.

The West will be disappointed with the lukewarm or indifferent stance of much of Africa towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After all, it is not only the French who have been overhauling their policy towards the continent. The United States too has been re-engaging after the gratuitous insults and neglect of the Trump years. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made numerous visits to Africa, followed recently by Janet Yellen, the US Treasury Secretary; the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Greenfield Thomas; and the First Lady, Jill Biden. Her husband, President Joe Biden, hosted the African leaders at the White House last November. He also pointed to a new direction in the US relationship with Africa with more private sector investment in African businesses, consumer goods, telecommunications and supply chains. He announced the establishment of a US infrastructural development fund that would invest in green technologies, smart energy grids, water management systems and improved agricultural yields. Subsequently, Yellen has been leading the debate regarding debt relief for Africa at the recent G20 finance ministers meeting in India. Zambia, with a debt of $18bn, and Ghana are the two countries requiring immediate attention. The US, with support from the European G20 members and the European Commission, has been trying to convince China to restructure part of this debt. Zambia owes Beijing $6bn and China would need to take a haircut on part of that amount. In return, Beijing has been pushing for the International Monetary Fund to contribute to the debt restructuring as well. Normally, China would seek to acquire assets such as ports or mines in exchange for debt forgiveness.

The EU has provided considerable financial support to the African Union

The EU too has made Africa a priority in its foreign relations. On the eve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it held its own EU-Africa summit in Brussels. Along the same lines as the US, the EU has been looking to develop a more stable and sustainable partnership with Africa. It is focusing on the empowerment of women, encouragement to small and medium-sized enterprises, developing the digital economy and society, promoting health resilience and vaccine production and the greening of the African economies through innovative technologies. More cooperation on illegal migration is unsurprisingly at the top of the agenda too. Friends of Europe, as a Brussels-based think tank engaging with European civil society, is also making its contribution to this endeavour to bring Europe and Africa closer. Together with the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, it has established a Africa-Europe Foundation to engage African civil society fully in pursuit of these core policy objectives. The EU has not neglected security either. The majority of its training missions (EUTM) are on the African continent, the latest of which is in Mozambique to support the government in combating an Al-Shabaab jihadist insurgency in the north of the country. The EU has provided considerable financial support to the African Union (AU), which has allowed the latter to deploy its own peacekeeping missions, as recently in Somalia and Darfur. An EU Peace Support Facility in the EU’s seven-year financial framework has allocated €5.3bn for the provision of training, equipment and weapons to partner armed forces. However, €3.5bn of this sum has so far been spent on Ukraine, and only €600mn remains available for capacity-building projects for African forces.

Perhaps this new tone and orientation in the West’s approach to Africa has been too recent to shift entrenched anti-Western opinions among the continent’s leadership and elites. The democratic backsliding that Africa has undergone in recent times, with military coups in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan, as well as constitutional changes to enable aged dictators to maintain themselves in power and contested elections in Kenya and now Nigeria, has not made it easier for the Western democracies to get their message across. With rising social unrest, gross economic mismanagement and increased violence and human insecurity in many parts of Africa, the terrain has been ripe for Russia and its allies to offer beleaguered regimes their backing. In January, President Lukashenko of Belarus was in Zimbabwe offering his support to acquire mass surveillance technology to better control and repress its restive population.

Despite the recent re-engagement of the West with Africa, it is going to take time and stamina to change hearts and minds across the continent. New strategy documents and inspirational speeches are all very well, but Africans will be looking at the follow-up and concrete implementation. Persistent engagement and patience will be the name of the game. So, what are the policy priorities?

Even the most intractable conflicts can be moved forward

One is to remind Africans of the price they pay for reliance on Russia and its Wagner mercenaries. Mali and Burkina Faso may have blamed France for the lack of security, but since they opened the door to Wagner, they have lost hundreds of soldiers in ambushes carried out by jihadists linked to the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP). Wagner has been accused by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of multiple atrocities against the civilian population. It has been sanctioned by both the US and the EU, as well as the companies supplying it. The US and UK have declared Wagner to be a criminal organisation and the EU will probably follow suit soon. Wagner has negotiated concessions in mining and resource extraction for its services, which could give it (and Russia) a growing control over the wealth of the countries where it is operating. These deals and transactions are not transparent and can involve organised crime. They are decidedly not in the interests of the African populations that Wagner claims to protect. So, Western democracies need to keep the spotlight on how Russian involvement is perhaps a good deal for Moscow but not for Africans.

Another action is for Europe and the US to become more involved in seeking solutions to the conflicts in Africa. The UN has shown that with dogged diplomacy and skilled envoys, even the most intractable conflicts can be moved forward. For instance, in Libya, the UN has negotiated a ceasefire, a government of national transition, a timetable to hold elections and the withdrawal of foreign forces. Of course, implementing all these undertakings is never easy and there is still no agreement on a date or on modalities for elections in Libya, but at least the parameters for a resolution of the conflict between conflicting parties have been agreed. We need constant international pressure to move them towards implementation. Not all African conflicts will be amenable to diplomacy, so Western democracies need to focus on a few at a time, whether dealing will the M23 rebellion in the DRC, the future status of Tigray within Ethiopia or mediation between Algeria and Morocco over the future status of Western Sahara. It will be essential for the US and Europe not to go it alone on a separate track but to support the UN and the AU, as well as regional organisations such as ECOWAS or the East African Community in their peacemaking efforts. ‘African solutions for African problems’ is a mantra that is deeply embedded within the AU structures. In this context, a useful step has been the invitation to the President of the AU, currently Azali Assoumani of Comoros, to participate in the geopolitical discussions of the G7. When the US and the EU unite their resources and efforts behind a common negotiating strategy towards a conflict, they can be a powerful combination, as their success in bringing Serbia and Kosovo to the table and getting their agreement to normalise their relations demonstrates.

A third step would be to reorganise the Western military footprint in Africa. Mali and Burkina Faso have shown that putting Western troops in unstable places where governments are not willing or able to cooperate fully with them is only a short-term fix. So, it makes sense to set up training centres, intelligence outposts or special forces units in countries where they are more likely to be able to operate in the long term. In the French case, this means moving their residual assets to Niger, Senegal or the Ivory Coast. In the case of the US, this means Morocco, Kenya or Djibouti. The focus should be on helping Africans to develop their own robust security structures through a train-and-equip programme and working with the AU as it tries to establish a rapid reaction force and dedicated logistics and air transport capacities. International partners can help in deployments by providing air support, intelligence and strategic lift, but otherwise, they should stay firmly in the background.

The West may not get the credit that it deserves for its help to Africa

Russia may have run an incompetent military operation in Ukraine, but where it has been successful is in pushing its narrative as the victim bravely resisting Western aggression throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. Russia has established its own broadcasting channels and proved adept at penetrating local media and inserting its messages into social media conversations. So, Western democracies need to think harder about how they make their own public diplomacy more effective, for instance, by getting their embassies and EU missions more systematically engaged in this effort or by boosting the budgets and resources of radio stations, such as Radio France Internationale, BBC Africa, Deutsche Welle or Voice of America. Western governments need to act faster to counter Russian fake news and disinformation and to better showcase the aid and support that they are giving to Africa. Where the media in Africa is still free and diverse, Russia is still subject to a fair degree of scrutiny and criticism. An example is South Africa where the country’s recent joint naval exercise with Russia and China was lambasted by much of the media and political opposition.

Anti-corruption measures also have their role to play. It is no surprise that Russia has the most influence in countries that have a high level of corruption in public procurement and government-owned infrastructures, services and industries. Where a political elite has been in power for a long time and has essentially captured the state, doing under-the-counter business with an authoritarian state like Russia becomes much easier. This can apply to arms sales beyond a country’s actual security needs or prestige projects dear to the leadership, but which do not create jobs or provide added value to the economy. Rigorous anti-corruption guarantees have to accompany all Western aid and investment into Africa beyond immediate humanitarian relief in crisis or natural disaster situations. Although Western leaders such as President Macron have stated that their countries will no longer interfere in the internal affairs of African states, anti-corruption measures are key to the success of most types of aid and economic cooperation. So, an exception to the principle of non-interference has to be made for them.

Finally, it might be helpful to put a different face on the EU’s engagement with Africa. It is usually the former colonial powers, such as France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany and the UK, which take the lead. Given their history, and despite the commendable efforts of France and Germany to acknowledge the dark side of their African past, many Africans will usually regard these former colonial powers with a degree of suspicion and scepticism. So having more Finns, Swedes and Estonians front the EU’s activities and operations in Africa can be no bad thing in helping Europe to rebrand its image and build stronger bridges.

In sum, the West may not get the credit that it deserves for its help to Africa and is often a convenient scapegoat for regimes that cannot always blame their failures on the colonial past. Breaking the nexus between backsliding African authoritarians and the growing influence of Russia and China will not be easy. The situation may get worse before it gets better. But winning African hearts and minds, particularly on a continent where half the population is under 25, is not impossible. After all, Africa has 54 countries and many of them have consistently voted in the UN General Assembly to call on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine. Yet a Western re-engagement will require some of the perseverance, energy and skilful diplomacy that Europe and the United States are currently demonstrating in pushing back against Russia in Ukraine.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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