Africa in 2022: From cold shoulders to a ‘Cold War’ with devastating hot outcomes

Chinese workers in Kenya

Chinese workers in Kenya. The intensifying foreign interest in Africa has started to assume some of the notable features of the Cold War over the past several years.

Photo credit: Yasuyoshi Chiba | AFP

Writing in the March 1983 edition of the New York Times under the intriguing title of Africa: From Cold War to Cold Shoulders John Holmes summed up aptly the treatment Africa endured in the hands of foreign interveners:  ‘Having been carved up and colonised by European powers and turned into pawns, knights and rooks on a cold war chessboard by the superpowers, Africa now faces a devastating new problem: indifference.’

Indeed, there was a moment in the post-Cold War period, marked by America’s brief hegemony, during which Africa was left to its own means and devise. As the late former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan put it in his 1998 report, ‘Africa was left to fend for itself’.

But Holmes characterisation of the problem as devastating was more a projection of the saviour complex than the impact of the experience on its own on the continent.

For Africa, the ‘new problem’ actually worked better than the Cold War, despite the carnage and devastation that genocidal wars and state collapse produced in the 1990s.

From OAU to AU

Indeed, this situation created a policy space for African actors to assume increasing responsibilities for the affairs of the continent. It thus became possible for Africa to witness the transition from the OAU to the AU and notable improvements in its economic fortunes.

Developments in recent years and most notably in 2021 show that the pendulum has swung from the cold shoulders (of the brief unipolar moment of the post-cold war world order) and the new scramble for Africa of late 2000s to the current phase of securitised rivalry reminiscent of the Cold War.

Over the past decade, Africa has been experiencing the intensification of the engagement of plethora of old and new powers in a phenomenon characterised by some as the ‘“new” scramble for Africa’.

With emerging powers, led by China, expanding their international reach and engagement, the next cycle in the intervention of global actors on the continent started to take shape in the first decade of the 21st century.


This has witnessed increase in the volume of Africa’s international trade and diversity of economic relationships. China has outpaced the US to become the continent’s largest trading partner in 2009.

Its investment on the continent also more than doubled in five years’ time from $16 billion in 2011 to $40 billion in 2016. The space on the continent has in recent years become crowded, with increased influence of foreign powers in the political and economic affairs of countries on the continent.

Africa thus faces, once again, the challenge of facing the same fate that it endured during the Cold War. To borrow from Holmes, this is the fate of being ‘turned into pawns, knights and rooks on a cold war chessboard by the superpowers’. 

While initially the main means used in the new scramble are financial and economic instruments of aid, trade, and loans, over the years it has come to assume increased securitisation reminiscent of the Cold War.

This securitisation of the intensifying intervention of foreign powers in Africa has taken three forms.

The first and traditional form involves security cooperation of various forms ranging from training and technical support, deployment of ‘experts’ to the provision of supplies.

Military bases

The second involves the establishment of military bases. As a recent article pointed out, with 13 foreign countries carrying out military operations, more than any other region in the world, Africa has also become home to nearly 50 foreign military outposts, including the first military bases that China and Japan established in Djibouti since World War II.

Third, as the situations in Libya, the Sahel and Ethiopia and Somalia have illustrated, another manifestation of the increasing militarisation of the engagement of foreign powers in Africa is the rising use of drones in Africa’s conflicts with all the attendant monetary and human costs.  

Two major trends in peace and conflict diplomacy in Africa that became evident in 2021 are making this new Cold War more devastating, resulting in very hot outcomes. The first of this is the decline in the provision of effective leadership by African actors.

By all accounts, despite the persistence of the rhetoric of African solutions for African problems, African actors have shown lack of resolve, cohesion, readiness and initiative for effectively responding to the various conflicts and fragile and contested transitions from Libya to Somalia, to Mali, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Africa is in a time of transactional and fragmented politics bereft of ideological basis and a dearth of pan-African leadership. The situation is compounded what one commentator called the danger of hegemonic instability. These have undermined the ability of African actors in providing the level of effective leadership that the conflict situations and fragile transitions warrant.

This is exacerbated by and itself facilitated the aggressive struggle of old and new actors in the current iteration of the Cold War from France, the US, China, Russia, to Turkey, UAE, Iran and Qatar to shape the course of events from Libya, the Central African Republic, to Sudan, Somalia and Mali and the Sahel to Ethiopia.

Foreign forces

Thus, the second trend that became evident in 2021 is the dangerous rise in the (often negative) influence of foreign forces on conflicts and political transitions on the continent.

More and more conflicts and fragile transitions are becoming a theatre for proxy war in which foreign powers seeking influence increasingly flex their muscles for determining the course and outcome of these conflicts and transitions according to their interests.

The intensifying foreign interest in Africa has started to assume some of the notable features of the Cold War over the past several years.

As the new scramble seems to be deepening, a major shift in the nature of international engagement has been introduced during 2017/2018.

That Africa constitutes a major site for big power completion and other forms of rivalry became evident when the ‘new Africa strategy’ of the US was launched in December 2018.

While unveiling the strategy, John Bolton, president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, pointed out, following the logic of the US Defence Strategy, that the greatest threat for US interests came not from poverty or Islamist extremism but from China and Russia.

“Great power competitors, namely China and Russia, are rapidly expanding their financial and political influence across Africa. They are deliberately and aggressively targeting their investments in the region to gain a competitive advantage over the United States,” Mr Bolton argued. The year 2021 made clear that this intensifying rivalry of old and new foreign powers in Africa has come to manifest the consequences of the old Cold War.

Devastatingly hot outcomes

The foregoing two developments of the ‘“new” Cold War’ have already led to five devastatingly hot outcomes.

First, as experienced in Libya in 2019-2020, they have made the conflicts and the transitions in Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Mali, Somalia and Sudan, very complicated, hence much more difficult to resolve.

Putting it differently, these developments are rendering the instruments of mediation and peace making increasingly untenable and ineffective. Second and as a result, these conditions of the deepening securitised interface of foreign powers with Africa have increased the human and material costs of these conflicts and transitions. 

Third, while conflicts and fragile transitions have as a result become sources of major humanitarian crises, it has simultaneously become more and more difficult to mobilise effective humanitarian response to the humanitarian consequences of these situations.

Fourth, the heavy reliance on security instruments in responding to both governances induced conditions of conflict involving terrorism and political disputes have led to an upsurge in defence spending on the continent, thereby diverting the enormously limited resources that could otherwise have been utilised for meeting development needs of the masses.

Fifth, in this context of increasing securitisation, worrying signs of resurgence of military coups and hence reversal of gains achieved in the democratisation process have emerged, with four military takeovers of power in a year, a proportion unprecedented in recent years. 

In 2019, Tekeda Alemu warned that ‘[w]hatever small hope might still be left for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the achievement of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, will be thrown out the window if Africa allows the region to be a platform for the rivalry between the major powers that morphs into military activities which are manifested in a variety of ways, including through proxies.’

Theatre for proxy war

It is evident from the foregoing that Africa has already become a theatre for a Cold War style proxy war, increasingly shaping the course and outcome of conflicts and fragile transitions on the continent.

The policy challenge that African actors, including continental organisations such as the AU, face in 2022 and beyond is how to halt and reverse these dangerous trends of previous years that became evident in 2021.

The starting point for this is addressing the gaps in the ability and resolve of African actors to provide effective leadership in the search for solving the conflicts and the challenges of fragile transitions on the continent.

Dr Dersso is the chairperson, Africa Commission on Human and People’s Rights.