The Future of EU-AU Relations amidst the rise of Russia and China in Africa

Gallous Atabongwoung, PhD |

The European Union (EU) and African Union (AU) continue to have robust conversations on the future relationship between the two continents. The conversation seeks to address some complex socio-economic and political issues such as, among others, migration (due to the geographical proximity of the two regions); economic partnerships; and security cooperation (Miyandazi et al. 2020). The complex nature of the challenges is a result of violent European and African encounters that produced slavery and slave trade, colonialism, and neocolonialism (to name but a few) (Césaire 2023).
Hitherto, the historical, cultural, economic, and political scars that European countries have left on Africa continue to cause hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) (D’Souza 2002). Africa is sweating more than normal because of the pressure it faces as a result of Euro-North American competition against Russia and China regarding the control of Africa’s mineral resources (Tallman et al. 2018). This has placed Africa in a precarious position in terms of decision-making (Sidorova & Lyubenova 2021).
Present-day Africa does not believe it has had a genuine relationship with Europe at any historic time. The reason is that the interests of Europe have always been prioritised above that of Africa (Rodney 2018). That is why, arguably, it seems Africa is withdrawing from Europe and turning towards Russia and China. Part of the reason Africa is gazing towards Russia and China is because of the legacy of European colonialism — neocolonialism (the last and most brutal stage of imperialism) which created inequality, poverty, and underdevelopment in Africa (Nkrumah 1965).
Walter Rodney (2018) argues Europe instigated underdevelopment in Africa by transforming Africa into satellite states (Rodney 2018). These states remain vulnerable to superpowers until now. For example, Europe was previously Africa’s highest ‘aid donor’ (Liu & Tang 2018). The donor-recipient relationship Europe had with Africa influenced the unequal trade partnership the two continents had (Idrissa 2021). In the same line of argument, even during joint frameworks for cooperation in specific areas, Europe tends to interrogate the capacity of Africa (Lewis 2005).
Europe perceives itself as a model of governance and democracy that Africa should emulate. Contrarily, it is the origin of governance and democratic challenges confronting Africa (Suzuki & Gokcekus 2013). Africa is no longer naïve to the manipulations of Europe, except for a few of its undemocratic political leaders who remain loyal to Europe at the detriment of economic progress in their countries (Wilder 2010).
However, this group of African leaders who remain loyal to Europe are gradually leaving power. The question then is what happens when they all leave power and a cohort of leaders such as in the case of the Sahel takes on leadership? The precedent question is important because any reflection on the future of EU-AU relations should not exclude the events unfolding in the Sahel and the humiliation of France (Wing 2024).
The French military was successfully kicked out of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, partly because of Russia’s increasing security presence in Africa (Kohnert 2022). Russia is increasingly becoming a viable security partner in Africa (Paczyńska 2020). Some African leaders see Russia as a reliable partner to the former colonial powers. Russia has demonstrated its security strength in a couple of African countries including the Central African Republic (Strong 2022). This has drawn admiration towards Russia.
Furthermore, the fact that Russia does not intervene in national politics like other European countries has made the relationship between Africa and Russia to be ironically perceived as equal. Russia did not have colonies in Africa. But instead, it supported anti-colonial movements across Africa (Filatova 2006). In similar ways, China supported anti-colonial movements in Africa. And is presently Africa’s highest lender (Brautigam 2019). After being Africa’s third biggest trading partner (Looy & Haan 2006), Johnston et al., (2015) attest as of 2009, it has become Africa’s largest trade partner and export destination.
Export from Africa to the rest of the world according to Mudronova (2018), is dominantly mineral resources. Fituni and Abramova (2010) posit mineral resources from Africa are what has historically built Europe. The question that should be asked is, does the increasing presence of Russia and China in Africa symbolize the decline of Europe? Nonetheless, some scholars argue that Chinese loans and trade agreements in Africa perpetuate similar satellite–metropolis relationships which kept Africa at a disadvantage position (Muruko-Jaezuruka & Birks 2024). As Africa’s mineral resources are extracted and transported to China.
Africa needs a vibrant manufacturing sector in the global chain of production. The reason is that the manufacturing sector is regarded as the backbone of socio-economic development in most countries (Seliger 2000). The sector can create quality employment with a positive multiplier effect. More than a decade ago, the sector contributed about 40 per cent of the GDP of China (Eloot et al. 2013). Therefore, for China to extract raw materials from Africa and transform them into finished products in China creates the same unease that Europe created in Africa. This is because manufacturing industries have the potential to accelerate agriculture modernization which can promote food security and create job opportunities in the secondary and tertiary sectors.
Therefore, the growing presence of Russia and China in Africa poses a serious menace to the future relationship of the EU and AU. However, to reverse such menace, Europe needs to invest in rebuilding trust in Africa. European countries should practice honesty and avoid double standards when dealing with Africa (Headley 2015). They must condemn all forms of wrongdoing when engaging with Africa. One of the ways Europe can build a relationship of trust with Africa is by displacing some of its manufacturing industries to Africa. So raw materials from Africa are transformed into finished products in the continent and the products are exported to the rest of the world. This is a concrete action that can help to build trust.
Such action would create more employment for young people on the continent. The creation of employment in Africa would help in resolving future migration crises from Africa to Europe. Europe should also rephrase its migration rhetoric because Europeans historically have constantly moved beyond the borders of Europe in search of better living conditions (Nassy Brown 2009). This is important because China strives in Africa if Europe maintains its previous colonial mentality of master-slave relationship.
Europe can learn from Russia and China when engaging with Africa. China’s win-win trade model, for example, allows the extraction of mineral resources in exchange for infrastructure construction in Africa (Han & Webber 2020). The evidence of China’s infrastructure development in Africa has captivated the mind of Africans. Europe might decide to create manufacturing industries in Africa that can transform raw materials into finished products. To do so, Europe would need to build the necessary infrastructure. This, in turn, would rebuild trust because Africans are pragmatic. They are more interested in results today than politics. Europe therefore must redefine the basis of its engagement in Africa. It must analyse what has not worked and derive new partnership strategies that place the EU and AU as equals. If not, Europe might not be able to access mineral resources in Africa.

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