Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Great Power Competition and the Scramble for Africa
Great Power Competition and the Scramble for Africa

Great Power Competition and the Scramble for Africa

From November 1884 to February 1885, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck convened 13 European powers and the United States to coordinate “commercial activity” in Africa and emerged with the General Act. Never explicitly stating colonialism, but connotating colonial principles, the General Act attempted to regulate imperial activity in Africa by establishing conditions for the acquisition of territory, internationalizing the Congo and Niger rivers, abolishing the slave trade, and recognizing certain spheres of imperial influence. Before Berlin, imperial activity consisted of securing trade with African empires, endorsing private companies to act as quasi-state actors, and establishing infrastructure for economic expansion inland. After the Berlin Conference, The Times coined the term “Scramble for Africa,” and imperial powers began extracting resources under the guise of private enterprise and establishing colonies. Sadly, striking parallels exist between the Scramble for Africa and states vying for power in the continent today.

The world faces a renewed struggle for influence in Africa. Notably, China, Russia, some Gulf States (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar) and Turkey have employed private entities, state-run companies, and predatory lending and diplomacy to secure economic and political power across the continent. Concomitantly, the Trump administration is considering reducing its involvement in Africa to focus on “great power competition” with China and Russia, a priority in its 2017 National Security Strategy. However, a withdrawal will only allow China and Russia to consolidate spheres of influence in Africa and runs contrary to the interests of security, stability, and prosperity articulated in the U.S.’s Prosper Africa policy. To understand the impact that this nascent “great power competition” could leave on African state and U.S. interests, one should observe it through the lens of the original “Scramble for Africa.” The U.S. must take lessons from this historical precedent and remain engaged in Africa to further its interests of security, stability, and prosperity; nurture relationships with incipient African states; and assist African states in resisting outside manipulation and neocolonial advances.


In October 2000, China hosted the first Forum on Chinese and African Cooperation (FOCAC) in Beijing, attended by 44 African state representatives, that called for Sino-African partnership in socio-economic development. Eighteen years later, China concluded its 6th FOCAC meeting by pledging 60 billion dollars in loans to African states and raising African security to one of its top priorities. Between these two events, in September 2013, General Secretary Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a collection of development partnerships that attempts to connect China to distant borders. Africa has become a primary target of this project.

China’s African development practices consist of two overarching methods. First, the “Angola Model,” tested in 2004; it entails China granting a loan to an underdeveloped, resource-rich state, which then backs the loan with its endowment of natural resources. The second principle entails multiple Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE) undertaking ambitious infrastructure projects ranging from railways, including the 3.2 billion USD Mombasa railway in Kenya, to dams, such as the 1 billion USD Soubre mega-dam in Côte D’Ivoire. Both projects needed funding from Chinese state banks to continue.

Chinese interest in Africa lies in resource-rich states like Zambia, Angola, Algeria, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), among many. In Zambia, Chinese firms bought copper mines to strike its rich veins and, by 2018, Zambia had used public assets, including the international airport, to back 6.4 billion USD of Chinese debt. Then, in 2019, Zambia mandated mandarin learning for grades 8-12, making it the fourth African state to do so. China has also used the infrastructure vacuum in Angola, a function of its civil war, to demonstrate its lending resolve, giving 42 billion USD of oil-backed loans to Angola over 17 years. In 2004, China extended a 2 billion USD line of credit to Angola in return for 10,000 barrels of oil a day for 17 years, the brainchild of the Angola Model. In another energy-rich state, Algeria, Chinese companies have committed to a 6 billion phosphate exploration lease while reigniting talk of a trans-Maghreb railway and seeking to become Algeria’s largest arms dealer. In Nigeria, Chinese oil companies have secured oil blocs in the Gulf of Guinea and have signed at least two multibillion-dollar railroad development deals in the past ten years. The Chinese Export-Import Bank financed at least 5 billion USD of these projects after Nigeria could not pay, a prime example of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” that gives China massive leverage over African states. Grabbing resources in the DRC, in 2007, the Chinese Ex-Im Bank loaned the DRC 6 billion USD in return for an astounding 10.6 million tons of copper and mining exploration rights. These rights paved the way for a 2.9 billion USD copper and cobalt project undertaken by a Chinese SOE in 2008.

Parallels to the Scramble for Africa: State-Mandated Actors

During the Scramble for Africa, powers reached a foothold in Africa by giving private actors state mandates to secure trade agreements and seize territory. In 1899, the Royal Niger Company, modeled on the East India Company, sold the territory it had acquired, through building trading posts, to the British Empire. Today, in another form of attaining neo-colonial power, Chinese SOEs commit to expensive infrastructure projects that, if not serviced, stipulate a share of Chinese state control or profits, like China taking over control of the international airport and national broadcasting corporation in Zambia. Furthermore, 19th century colonial powers recognized the need for infrastructure to access new markets, like Belgium building railways to bolster trade throughout the Congo, similar to China constructing railroads to link infrastructure projects in the unforgiving deserts of Algeria and Chad to explore for minerals and gas. To protect this infrastructure, China has recently raised African security to the top of its agenda. Likewise, once colonial Belgium had developed adequate extractive infrastructure, its next step was focusing on security, establishing the brutal Force Publique. Finally, during the Scramble for Africa, Morocco became a protectorate of France, under the Treaty of Fez, after failure to make payments on its debt. Likewise, accompanying its ambitious infrastructure projects, Chinese state banks make massive loans to African states, employing debt-trap diplomacy that renders states subservient to Chinese interests if they cannot pay. Though China has not established colonies, the trajectory of its activity in Africa parallels that of the infancy of the Scramble for Africa. The U.S. must scrutinize China’s recent focus on security and the extractive nature of its agreements with African states if it wishes to maintain influence in and advance the goals of a secure, stable, and prosperous Africa.  

Chinese Activity in the Context of Great Power Competition

China has stepped up in Africa, while the U.S. is contemplating withdrawal. Untenable Chinese development projects and loans will see more African states become beholden to Beijing, allowing it to exercise its will over indebted states. However, with continued U.S. involvement and international oversight, the U.S. and the African people can realize massive benefits from this Chinese investment. Under its Prosper Africa policy, the Trump administration envisions security, stability, and prosperity in African states, underpinned by U.S. international economic agencies coordinating interaction between the private and public sectors. These agencies can link U.S. firms to BRI projects, ensuring U.S. business expansion in tandem with Chinese. Furthermore, the U.S. can reinvigorate the BUILD program, an underfunded initiative that attempts to organize public and private development finance, which can expand the U.S. presence in underdeveloped areas that are fertile ground for ambitious development projects. Instead of viewing the BRI as a mission to counter, the U.S. should consider it a mission to work with, using and bolstering existing policy tools to channel benefits of extractive infrastructure or trade deals to the African people and directing U.S. firms towards new infrastructure projects. The U.S. will most likely not match the billions of dollars of aid given to African states, but it can increase current initiatives, maintain a presence in the region, and use its diplomatic tenacity to ensure that Chinese loans and infrastructure projects help African states develop sustainably and do not yield China inordinate neo-colonial power.


In November 2019, President Vladimir Putin hosted the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, securing trade deals, energy projects, and military agreements with many African states. Similar to Putin’s backing of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Russia considers Africa a power vacuum that it can use to expand its sphere of influence by exploiting conflict, manipulating governments, and selling arms to earn deals for its state-run energy companies. As a revanchist power, Russia seeks to augment its standing in the world order, and a foothold in Africa has become a critical target.

Russia uses the Wagner group, run by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s Chef,” to further Russian state interests in an unofficial capacity. Wagner, an international private military company, often blurs the line between private and public Russian interests in Libya, Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Madagascar, and Mozambique. In energy-rich Libya, General Khalifa Khaftar fights with Russian weapons supplied by Egypt and around 1,000 Wagner members back Khaftar’s forces. Wagner also trained the forces of former Russian friendly Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir, who then gave Prigozhin’s mining company, M-Invest, access to gold mines. M-Invest has connections with the Russian Ministry of Defense, and it provided Bashir a framework for suppressing the protests that led to his ouster. Furthermore, in CAR, Wagner has provided bodyguards for and signed exploitation deals with President Faustin Touadéra, but has also discussed platinum and mercury access deals with the Séléka rebels. These moves yield resources to Russian-state connected companies while supporting both sides of the conflict, keeping the situation unstable for perpetual Russian activity. In 2018, Wagner continued its subversion in Madagascar, unsuccessfully trying to rig the Malagasy election in favor of Hery Rajaonarimampianina, a candidate who would have given a Prigozhin-controlled SOE a lease to mine chromium, an essential resource in the production of steel. Finally, after Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi met with Putin and signed energy deals in August 2019, 200 Wagner mercenaries landed in Maputo to support unsuccessful antiterrorist operations in the energy-rich North Mozambican region of Cabo Delgado. Each instance represents Putin’s employment of non-state actors to secure natural resources and facilitate power vacuums in which Russia can augment its influence.

The Russian state has sold arms to and signed military agreements with several African states. Since 2001, Russia remained one of the principal benefactors of the Bashir regime in Sudan, selling the dictator fighter jets, combat helicopters, and other military equipment. Russia has also played on Cold War ties in other north African states, selling the autocracies of Algeria and Egypt over 10 billion USD of weaponry since 2010. One of Russia’s main state-run energy companies, Gazprom, has been collaborating with Algeria to build oil pipelines and, in 2019, Russia secured offshore drilling rights with Egypt. At Sochi, Russia signed military cooperation and supply agreements with other oil-rich states, such as Nigeria, slowly attempting to spread its influence out of North and Central Africa. Finally, Russia attempted to sign a 76 billion USD civil nuclear deal with former President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, which South African courts deemed unconstitutional in 2017. South African institutions realized Russia wanted to take advantage of a corrupt president and become a significant player in their economy, which dealt Russian activity in South Africa a setback. Russia attempts to take advantage of governments and willingly supports brutal regimes with weapons while its state-owned companies realize massive gains. 

Parallels to the Scramble for Africa: Private Actors as a Proxy for the State

Russia’s methods have greatly aligned with those of colonial powers during the 19th century in terms of fueling conflict and employing non-state security actors to forward state interests. The Wagner group has deployed mercenaries, surreptitiously in the interest of the Russian state, to fight proxy wars, secure resources, and augment Russian power. During the Scramble for Africa, England licensed explorers and multinational corporations to secure trade agreements, territory, and power in the name of the state, even mandating the British South Africa Company to found Rhodesia. Colonial Belgium also established a private army in the DRC, known as the Force Publique, composed of then-current and former European army officers—just as former siloviki fight for Wagner. Concurrently, these private colonial entities would negotiate with groups irrespective of their ongoing conflicts, similar to the Wagner group negotiating mining agreements with the CAR government and Séléka rebel group. This conniving by colonial powers would provide them with networks from which they could pick their ideal regional strongman, similar to Russia in its duplicity in Libya, backing Khaftar but calling for peace. Russian action in Africa shares marked similarities with the colonial powers of the 19th century, and the U.S. must take the lead in condemning Russia’s manipulation of private agents as plausible deniability for pursuing state interests.

Russian Activity in the Context of Great Power Competition

In the face of these obtrusive Russian actions in Africa, the Trump administration has contemplated a withdrawal from Africa. Unlike China, Russia’s activity in Africa proves almost completely predatory and runs entirely contrary to the U.S. interests. Russia has attempted to undermine democracies, propped up despots under U.S. sanctions, and supported rebels across Africa. However, the U.S. can counteract Russia’s activity by reinvigorating its role in Africa. The U.S. must take proactive steps in exposing and countering Russian activity, notably Wagner and other PMCs, in Africa. In addition to the principles articulated in Prosper Africa, the U.S. should reiterate its support for democracy across the continent and expose the malicious actions of Wagner. Using mechanisms available in Prosper Africa, the U.S. can coordinate with Western companies to help win infrastructure and oil bids over Russian state-linked competitors. Furthermore, and most importantly, the U.S. should work with allies to provide counter-terrorism assistance to replace that of Wagner’s, which uses counterterrorism as a guise to augment Russian influence in states. Many African states would prefer to collaborate with the U.S. on security, but the offer just is not there, and Russia fills in the gap. Reaffirming U.S. military and diplomatic support for counter-terrorism initiatives in underdeveloped areas and working through Prosper Africa will allow the U.S. to further its interests of security, stability, and prosperity in Africa while sealing off power vacuums to Russia.

The Saudi, Emirati, Qatari, and Turkish Approach

In 2017, the Sunni community ruptured, causing the “Gulf Crisis,” pitting Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, and their periphery against Qatar and Turkey. Viewing the Horn of Africa as their backyard, the three major Gulf states (in this scenario) of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, followed by Turkey, began heavily investing in ports, military bases, and agriculture production and amplifying their military and diplomatic presence in the region.

Each state possesses interests in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. The UAE, through its SOE DPWorld, has built and attained control over military and commercial ports in Djibouti, Eritrea, Somaliland, and Puntland, allowing it and Saudi Arabia logistical sites for their war against the Houthis in Yemen and also giving the oil monarchies disproportionate influence in weaker states, notably Djibouti, which tried—and failed—to abrogate its port lease with DPWorld. Meanwhile, Turkish companies have leased or developed military and commercial ports in Somalia and Sudan, embroiling states in intra-Sunni competition. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has bribed Sudan and Somalia to sever their relationship with Iran, demonstrating the monetary and political influence that Saudi enjoys in the region.

These states have also aggressively pursued access to and the establishment of military bases while attempting to position themselves as diplomatic mediators in the region, with Qatar deploying troops to inhibit conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti and Saudi Arabia hosting the seminal Eritrea-Ethiopia peace conference. Moreover, the UAE has paid mercenaries in Somalia to protect its commercial interests, while Turkey and Saudi have each committed to counter-terrorism initiatives in the Horn, increasing state influence with boots on the ground. Finally, Saudi and the UAE have showered states across Africa with massive investments, such as each pledging 10 billion USD to South Africa’s energy sector, indicating their resolve to buy allies and spread their influence beyond the Horn of Africa.

Scramble for Africa Parallels: The Race for Ports and Military Establishments

In the 19th century, when establishing spheres of influence, imperial powers viewed coastal settlements and inlets along navigable rivers as crucial to expanding their empires. Evidenced by the internationalization of the Niger and Congo rivers under the General Act, imperial powers wanted to expand their capacity to project power using their navies. However, despite agreements like the General Act, imperial competition persisted. In Morocco, upon French soldiers deploying to Fez, Germany docked a gunboat at the port of Agadir, ostensibly to protect German trade interests from the French, culminating in the Second Moroccan Crisis. Similarly, Turkish and Qatari companies have followed DPWorld in its activity, such as committing to infrastructure and counter-terrorism initiatives in Somalia after DPWorld’s construction of a port and Emirati use of private mercenaries in the state. Moreover, Saudi Arabia’s use of grants to compel Sudan and Somalia to sever ties with Iran also evokes methods used during the Scramble for Africa, where imperial states would bribe local African chiefs for control of a territory. Saudi Arabia’s resolve to demonstrate its influence in the Horn and intra-Sunni competition could gravely jeopardize the sovereignty of weaker states, notably Somalia, and drag the Horn of Africa even further into the war in Yemen.

Gulf Activity in the Context of Great Power Competition

The Trump administration did not list the Gulf States as competitors in its 2017 National Security Strategy. However, policymakers would prove remiss to ignore the current activity embroiling the Horn of Africa. The U.S. maintains strong bilateral diplomatic relations with each of the Gulf States and shares interest in counter-terrorism initiatives in the Horn. Therefore, the U.S. can work to ensure that the struggle for influence amongst the Gulf States does not spill over into a regional conflagration and has the means to do so. With five military bases in Somalia, the U.S. can use its footprint and influence to maintain peace between the Sunni states while bringing them together in the regional fight against terrorism. Furthermore, under its Prosper Africa policy, U.S. policymakers can work in tandem with the private sector in the Horn to ensure that the massive investments benefit the African people and ameliorate structural causes of radicalization, such as unemployment and illiteracy. As the U.S. already maintains an active military presence in the region, the Horn of Africa presents an opportunity for the U.S. to show its leadership by using economic development and coalition forces to constructively combat terrorism and broker détente among strategic partners.


The continent of Africa faces a new struggle. Not only China, Russia, and Gulf states vie for influence, but also the former colonial powers of France and England remain present while other states, such as India and Iran, seek to secure a foothold. However, some African constituencies, such as Zambia and South Africa, have begun to recognize the malign influence of these competitors and argue for restructured loans or revised agreements. African democracies possess the ability to hold unsustainable deals accountable and ensure the integrity of these agreements, and the U.S. should work with and support these democratic states whenever possible. Likewise, the U.S. must employ the tools at its disposal under Prosper Africa and the BUILD Act to help transparently coordinate investment while calling on the international community to do the same. Furthermore, with the vice president of parliament in Burkina Faso the first African fatality linked to COVID-19, lesser developed African states face an unprecedented crisis. In response, the U.S could consider launching global health programs that show its resolve in the face of a pandemic, similar to George W. Bush’s landmark PEPFAR initiative to combat HIV/Aids. A U.S pioneered initiative would increase U.S standing in Africa and demonstrate its commitment to global leadership and health security in our fragile time.

President Donald Trump’s great power competition outlook will take place globally, and pulling resources from Africa will only reduce the Trump administration’s position in a region where this competition will play out. If the U.S. wants to maintain productive relationships with African states, then it should take lessons from history and remain engaged in the region to inhibit malign influences while supporting its interests and ensuring sustainable development that benefits the African people.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.