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The new scramble for Africa – Antiquated relationship with Europe unchanged while China and Russia show increasing interest in the continent


Dr Oluwaseun Tella is Director, The Future of Diplomacy, at the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for the Future of Knowledge.

Despite the ambitions for equal partnership expressed at the recent Africa-EU summit, the outcomes of past summits and pledges give little confidence that we will see the end of an asymmetrical donor-recipient relationship that harks back to a colonial past.

On 17 and 18 February 2022, the sixth European Union-African Union summit was held in Brussels, Belgium, with the EU welcoming more than 40 African leaders. 

The two-day meeting was held against the backdrop of the EU’s poor response to Covid-19 in Africa, and in the context of a wave of recent coups d’état across the continent, from Mali to Guinea and Burkina Faso, to mention but a few.

In her opening speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen noted that Europe and Africa share a vision for a stable and prosperous society grounded in economic and social dynamism. The summit thus provided the platform to strengthen Africa-EU collaboration and to achieve set goals in areas such as “good governance”. Also, to achieve investments, most especially in the form of the “Global Gateway” (a plan to invest in people and infrastructure such as renewable energy, green hydrogen capacity, transport corridors and health).

Through the Global Gateway — which seemingly provides an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative — Von der Leyen envisaged that Europe would invest about €150-billion in Africa over the next seven years. 

The European Investment Bank pledged €500-million in the form of cheap loans to strengthen African healthcare systems. Given the ongoing pandemic, investments in the health sector are critical. 

Europe has faced criticisms for the hoarding of vaccines — an action which has been described as “vaccine apartheid” and “vaccine nationalism” — which has seen only 11% of Africans being fully vaccinated, compared to  81% of EU citizens and a global average of 50% fully vaccinated by the beginning of February. The EU has seemingly realised the need to restrategise its vaccine diplomacy.

Despite the fact that the EU is the world’s largest vaccine exporter, claiming to have donated 400 million vaccine doses to the Covax initiative and pledging 450 million doses to Africa by mid-2022, African policymakers have felt strongly that the EU has not done enough. 

However, the bloc now supports Africa’s capacity to produce its own vaccines and factories are planned to be built in Rwanda and Senegal this year. It has thrown its weight behind the World Health Organization (WHO) initiative to establish technology transfer hubs for mRNA vaccine production in six key African states announced by WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus at the summit. The six countries involved are Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya, Tunisia and Senegal.

This is a clear victory for the African Union and African hegemons such as South Africa and Nigeria that have been vocal in their calls for patents to be lifted to ensure vaccine production on the continent. 

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been quoted as saying, “A situation in which the populations of advanced, rich countries are safely inoculated while millions in poorer countries die in the queue, would be tantamount to vaccine apartheid.” 

Ramaphosa also criticised the travel bans imposed by the West on African states following the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa in November 2021.  

It is concerning that despite the rhetoric of “equal partnership” promoted by the EU, the Africa-EU engagement continues to reflect the traditional donor-recipient relationship evident in areas of priority such as investments (boosting Europe’s economy) and migration (securing European borders) that were highlighted in the summit. 

Indeed, there is a divergence in the understanding of the migration conundrum as the EU continues to view it as a security issue, while the AU perceives it from a developmental lens. 

The EU’s Covid humanitarian assistance to Africa is arguably motivated by the fact that the disease is a pandemic, as there was a lesser response when Africa was hit by epidemics such as the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak. 

The new scramble for Africa — seen in the incursion of states such as China and the United States, as well as Russia, India and Turkey, most especially in the economic, security and environmental spheres — dictates that Europe now competes with other global and regional actors. 

These states, particularly China and Russia, have become quite assertive and appear to aspire to fill the void left by traditional actors such as the United States, France and the United Kingdom who are losing their hegemonic grip on African states. 

While France recently announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali following military coups there, Russia is building its military influence in Africa. Similarly, China outstripped the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner in 2009. 

Europe thus needs to recalibrate its strategy to remain relevant in Africa. Indeed, the EU conceded at the summit that its past strategy in Africa had not yielded the desired outcomes, hence the decision to establish a follow-up mechanism to monitor the EU projects implemented across Africa.

The imperative to reset the relationship in the face of common opportunities and challenges prompted the AU and EU to commit to a Joint Vision for 2030 during the 2022 summit. The key commitments as stated in the declaration include: two unions with a joint vision; a renewed partnership; a prosperous and sustainable Africa and Europe; renewed and enhanced cooperation for peace and security; an enhanced and reciprocal partnership for migration and mobility, and a commitment to multilateralism.

Despite these lofty ideas and the ambitions of “equal partnership” and “mutual respect”, the minimal impact of past summits and pledges suggest that, for now and possibly for the foreseeable future, an Africa-EU “partnership” will continue to perpetuate the format of a donor-recipient, asymmetrical relationship which is reminiscent of the colonial past. DM


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