Last Tuesday, 21 people were killed and many more injured in an armed attack on the upscale Dusit hotel in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. Responsibility was claimed by the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Shabab. In addition to the immediate carnage it caused, this atrocity highlights the risk posed by such militant factions to wider African security.
It is easy to think that this growing threat is why the Trump administration has ramped up its level of engagement in the Horn of Africa, where the Somalian terror organisation is based. In December, the US unexpectedly instituted a new set of policies for the whole continent, approved by president Donald Trump and announced by his national security adviser John Bolton. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington DC, Mr Bolton said that America’s priorities included enhancing economic ties with African nations and combating extremist groups.
However, this new approach has far less to do with developing mutually beneficial economic and security links than curtailing the ambitions of China and Russia in a rapidly developing and resource-rich territory. This much was clear when Mr Bolton accused both China and Russia of "deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States".
China was singled out for particular criticism, with Mr Bolton stating that it has employed bribery, opaque agreements and “strategic use of debt” to hold African countries “captive to Beijing’s wishes and demands”. By way of example, he referred to two nations: Zambia and Djibouti.
Copper-rich Zambia has lately witnessed a wave of popular protest over its massive debts and economic ties to China. Since 2017, the strategically located east African nation of Djibouti has been home to China’s first-ever overseas military base. It is no coincidence that it also owes 80 per cent of its external debt to China. In September last year, concerned US senators accused China of engaging in “economic warfare” in such countries.
Regardless of the recent reconsideration of his policies, it is worth remembering that Mr Trump's presidency has been one of the worst in the history of US-Africa relations. In January last year, he alienated large numbers of people by describing African nations as "s***hole countries". Soon after that, he threatened to withdraw aid from states that voted against his controversial decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. To many observers, his recent manoeuvres look like a desperate scramble to regain waning influence in a region where much of the goodwill traditionally extended to the US has evaporated.
More importantly, for many, increased US engagement carries chilling Cold War resonances. During that era, various African states took clear sides in the ideological battle between eastern communism and western capitalism. Wedged between competing superpowers, ordinary people all too often paid a heavy price, from the Congo crisis (1960 to 1965), to the first civil war in Chad (1965 to 1979) and the Mozambican civil war (1977 to 1992).
Russia took many observers by surprise last year with its sprint to offer weapons, military support and nuclear power to nations such as Chad and Zimbabwe. It has also been particularly active in the war-ravaged Central African Republic – where, in August last year, three Russian journalists were killed while investigating the presence of mercenaries linked to Kremlin-backed businessmen.
In March last year, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made a high-profile visit to six African countries, including Ethiopia and Mozambique. Mr Lavrov’s trip was designed to renew Russia’s economic ties with Africa after a decades-long hiatus following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia also wanted to open a military base in Djibouti, but was rebuffed by the government of president Ismail Omar Guelleh, “so that [it] is not used in the conflict in Syria”.
In many ways, the new Africa programme laid out by Mr Bolton is designed to flesh out what “America First” foreign policy will look like on the continent. The US has long neglected Africa. Under Barack Obama, it was seen solely through the prism of international security, rather than as a viable place to invest in. This allowed China to project its will unchallenged, laying out vast sums in loans and on infrastructure projects in return for access to vital resources, such as oil from Angola, copper from Zambia and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
America’s desire to limit China’s economic incursions is clear and understandable. The only problem is that it lacks the economic might to compete with the colossal amounts of money the Asian giant has funnelled into Africa. In fact, the only real advantages the US has are its soft power and military expertise.
But the current situation is not all gloom. Regardless of its motivations or its inadequacies, the US is paying real attention to Africa for the first time in years. That renewed focus gives African nations unprecedented opportunities to pursue their own interests, rather than simply act as client states. America’s drive to contain both Russian and Chinese influence brings chances to secure foreign investment and to leverage strategic advantages into a more prominent presence on the world stage. And, after centuries in the shadow of global powers, it is high time that Africa finally found its own voice.
Ismail Einashe is a journalist based in London and a 2019 Alicia Patterson fellow. This article was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting