Playing to win
Why Africa is the new prize in the struggle for global power
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When Bright Ackwerh began posting political cartoons on social media in 2017, he simply wanted young adults in Ghana to pay more attention to politics. He had no idea his debut illustration would turn heads at the Chinese embassy.
In the satirical illustration, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pouring muddy water from a Chinese vase into bowls held by the Ghanaian president and the country’s minister of natural resources. Next to them, the Chinese ambassador is clutching a gold bar and laughing. Ackwerh created the drawing after learning about illegal Chinese mining in Ghana and its environmental consequences.
“I put it up—I think it was a Friday—and by Monday, it was one of the key discussion points on mainstream radio,” Ackwerh said. “The Chinese embassy had issued a statement that they were not pleased about how the Ghanaian media was reporting on the involvement of Chinese nationals.” Their chief complaint? “A certain cartoon that was defaming Chinese leaders.”
Ghanaians like Ackwerh are increasingly concerned about China’s rapid reach into their country’s economy, government, and media outlets. But China isn’t the only country moving fast in Ghana’s neighborhood. Just to the north, the Kremlin-linked paramilitary Wagner Group is making moves in Burkina Faso. Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo issued a warning about Wagner’s influence during a visit to Washington in December.
Ghana’s circumstances are a microcosm of what’s happening on a wider scale across the continent. Actively engaged in Africa for two decades, China has far surpassed the United States as an economic player. But Russia has become the largest exporter of arms to the continent, and Wagner is active in at least 13 African countries, seeking mineral wealth and committing human rights abuses in the name of “government security.”
Washington is treating this game of brinkmanship like checkers, while Russia and China are playing chess—at top speed and with a bent toward cheating. With the explosive growth of violent extremist groups like al-Shabaab, and a population boom that will make it home to a quarter of the planet’s population by 2050, Africa looks increasingly like “the Wild West.”
And the United States is just now beginning to take notice.
THE MONDAY AFTER ACKWERH posted his illustration on social media, he woke up to several missed calls and messages from friends. A popular early morning radio program in Accra, Ghana’s capital, had reported on Ackwerh’s illustrations and the brewing storm with the Chinese. Another friend forwarded a memo from a press conference he attended during which the Chinese embassy warned of deteriorating relations if Ghanaian leaders didn’t muzzle their problematic media and cartoonist. But Ackwerh, now 33, hasn’t stopped drawing, and he’s continued to make a name for himself. He paused during our Zoom call to show me the Wacom illustration tablet he won in a national art competition several years ago.
Ackwerh sometimes includes in his art shows pieces critical of the Chinese-Ghanaian relationship, in part because he is concerned about a lack of press freedom. “I am aware that the Chinese sponsor some of the mainstream media channels and platforms, and so these stories don’t get reported on or they just get reported on for maybe a few days and then the stories die,” Ackwerh said. “Forget anything you may read anywhere that describes Ghana as a democratic country where there’s freedom of press. All those PR strategies are well curated by the government.”
Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute that advocates for democratic ideals, reported “a dramatic expansion” between 2017 and 2020 in China’s efforts “to shape media content and narratives around the world, affecting every region and multiple languages.” Four Beijing-controlled media outlets have swept through the African continent: China Radio International, Star Times, China Global Television Network, and Xinhua. The networks don’t disclose their Chinese Communist Party connections and use recognizable African journalists and hosts to help disguise their agenda.
Henry Tugendhat researches China’s impact on conflict dynamics in Africa for the U.S. Institute of Peace. “From what I know from the secondary literature, all of the editorial decisions are made in the newsroom, and made by Chinese nationals who are sent over to manage these newsrooms,” he said. “And so they do have an agenda to make China look good and avoid anything that could risk criticizing China’s activities or Chinese interests.”
And China’s interests pervade the continent. Beijing has quickly become Africa’s most significant infrastructure partner. In Ghana, massive cranes crowd the skyline as two Chinese-backed port projects race to meet their 18- and 22-month construction timelines. Ghana’s president said in December the ports will boost his country’s economic growth, mirroring the hopes of other African countries eager for partnerships.
Chinese firms fully or partially own and operate ports in 61 African locations, while American companies haven’t supported any. And in 2017, Beijing built its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Some analysts are concerned about China building a second military base on the Atlantic Coast in debt-strapped Equatorial Guinea.
Bill Roggio, an analyst with Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal, says Beijing is filling a vacuum: “I really think we are starting to see a waning of interest from the U.S. and Europe in Africa and the ascendancy of Russia and China.” He said Africa hasn’t seen much growth or advantage from its two decades of Western involvement and is trying something else. “It’s a mistake, don’t get me wrong, but in some ways you can’t blame them for searching for other options.”
Many of China’s projects appear charitable and include energy installations like a wind farm in Namibia and a solar farm on Zimbabwe’s Kariba Dam. It has helped finance roads, hospitals, dams, and soccer fields at a time when Western governments have pivoted toward protectionism and away from engagement with Africa.
China has helped build more than 9,600 miles of new railway and lent more money since 2007 than the next eight lenders combined. But these loans may come at a steep price.
Ghana has piled up $5 billion in debt from at least 41 Chinese loans during the past 23 years. Now the country faces a looming economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund says Accra may have to relinquish some of its mineral revenue and electricity sales assets to Beijing.
“We’ve seen and read about examples from other African countries that have defaulted on some of these loan repayments in the past and how certain state assets and infrastructure have been literally confiscated,” Ackwerh noted.
Beijing has become Africa’s largest creditor with total borrowing at around $160 billion. The terms of these loans are not publicly available, but some analysts believe Beijing will insist on being paid in full. That’s not good for Africa, and it might not be good for global democratic interests if China uses that debt as a bargaining chip.
Africa holds three of the 15 seats on the United Nations Security Council and represents the largest cohesive voting bloc in the United Nations—54 seats. Already, Africa has begun leaning toward China in recent UN showdowns. In 2020, 53 countries issued a statement supporting China’s crackdown on Hong Kong, and almost half were African.
Another way China stands to gain (and the United States stands to lose) involves the rare earth minerals essential for powering our future. Beijing is after priority access to minerals (copper and cobalt to name two) that are used to make solar cells and the batteries used in mobile phones, jet engines, electric-hybrid vehicles, and missile guidance systems. One-third of the planet’s rare earth metals are found in Africa.
Gen. Stephen Townsend retired last year after serving as the commander of U.S. forces in Africa. In an April 2022 address on Capitol Hill, he warned lawmakers about the continent’s importance: “China’s heavy investment in Africa as its ‘second continent,’ and heavy-handed pursuit of its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, is fueling Chinese economic growth, outpacing the U.S., and allowing it to exploit opportunities to their benefit.”
ANOTHER CARTOON RECENTLY CIRCULATED through social media in Africa takes aim at an entirely different target than Ackwerh’s satirical pieces: the French. The two-minute animation opens with “zombie” French troops invading Mali as local forces struggle to stop the takeover. Just in time, a helicopter swoops in carrying Wagner troops who help secure a victory as civilians cheer in the background.
It’s an example of one way Russia is sowing disinformation to gain influence and treasure across Africa.
As China gains influence in coastal countries, Russia is making inroads farther north in the Sahel and North Africa. Its relatively recent arrival has surprised some observers. Although Russia has had minor interests in Africa for two decades, the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group increased its involvement in 2017, particularly in the Central African Republic (CAR) where it provides a presidential guard and trains troops.
Roggio said Wagner is providing a service that U.S. and European governments often aren’t willing to offer anymore: “These services are what keep the militaries or the coups in power, and that is what’s going to keep them entrenched in some of these African countries.”
Wagner originated in 2014 when Russian President Vladimir Putin hired his chef and former ally, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to create a paramilitary organization to fight his war in Ukraine. Now the group operates in at least 13 countries, including eight in Africa, and is willing to cross lines that violate democratic rules and norms.
Roggio points to Mali as an example. After two decades of faltering French anti-terrorism efforts, a military junta booted out the French after a 2020 coup and brought Wagner in. Human Rights Watch blames Wagner for numerous atrocities, including the summary executions of several dozen civilians in Mali since December 2022.
“I would argue that ejecting the French isn’t going to help, and Wagner really isn’t interested in suppressing that insurgency,” Roggio said. “But that’s the reality of the situation on the ground in many countries in Africa today.” He said it could be years before countries like Mali acknowledge the problems attached to partnerships with Russia: “And then we have to ask how they are able to even act upon this when the men holding the guns in any country generally are the ones who make the decisions.”
The paramilitary group trades its security services for the right to plunder Africa’s rich mineral resources in countries that include Mali, Sudan, and Libya. Moscow uses much of that wealth to fund its war in Ukraine. In January, Washington accused Wagner of “widespread human rights violations and natural resource extortion” in Africa and sanctioned the group’s gold and diamond mining activities in Mali and CAR.
Russia’s disinformation campaigns tap into real grievances about the West’s failures in Africa but also attempt to glorify Moscow’s global ambitions. The television channel Afrique Media recently signed an agreement with RT, a Russian state-sponsored network, and regularly promotes Russia’s war in Ukraine to millions of African households. And Wagner chief Prigozhin claimed to be making Africa “even more free” during an August video address—his first after a failed rebellion against Moscow in June and one of his last before he died in a plane crash on Aug. 23. While the future of Wagner remains unclear, most analysts don’t expect Putin to give up on his Africa investment.
These campaigns are happening in the context of dwindling press freedom. A 2023 Reporters Without Borders study claimed Africa’s Sahel region is at risk of becoming a no-go zone for independent reporting and listed Wagner as a primary aggressor. The report noted Mali suspended its two French media outlets and said journalists in the region are afraid to report Wagner atrocities.
IN APRIL, ACKWERH POSTED on social media a new drawing he hopes to turn into a painting. In the piece, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris throws dollar bills to Ghanaians who are waving American flags and catching the money.
Harris was one of five U.S. dignitaries, including the secretary of state, to make Africa tours in the first four months of this year. During her visit in March, Harris pledged aid to the country amid mounting concern about debt and mercenary and terror groups in the region. It’s part of increasingly frantic efforts among Washington and its Western allies to court Africa and counter Russian and Chinese influence.
The West will need to identify what matters to Africans if they want to be “the partner of choice,” and terrorism is one of the continent’s top grievances. During his April speech to lawmakers, Gen. Stephen Townsend said “deadly terrorism has metastasized” on the continent and highlighted al-Shabaab, a branch of al-Qaeda active in Somalia.
Roggio agreed and said jihadist groups are also spreading rapidly in Mali and Burkina Faso, just north of Ghana, as well as in Nigeria and a host of other countries along the coast and in south-central Africa. These worrisome trends are taking place as Africa is on the cusp of a population boom unrivaled in the world today.
In the next 35 years, the continent’s population is expected to double, totaling one-fourth of the world’s population by 2050. The epicenter of that growth is taking place in a 600-mile coastal zone that stretches from Ivory Coast, through Ghana, and all the way to Nigeria. Ackwerh’s home city of Accra is projected to become part of this “megalopolis.”
These trends could lead to increasing unrest and immigration to the West. But they could also make Africa a global manufacturing center, giving it a greater role in the global economy and geopolitics. And with Russia and China racing to extract the continent’s resources, Townsend urged lawmakers to pay attention: “The winners and losers of the 21st-century global economy may be determined by whether these resources are available in an open and transparent marketplace or are inaccessible due to predatory practices of competitors.”
Back at his home studio in Ghana, Ackwerh’s portfolio of illustrations continues to grow. One piece shows the Chinese president stealing the African continent as the presidents of Ghana, Senegal, and Nigeria argue over a plate of rice.
He hasn’t received any direct threats from China and said he is finding ways to be careful without compromising his convictions. “I try to use my artwork to revive [these conversations] and keep them in the public consciousness. But I’m just one artist, and I can only do so much.”
—This story has been corrected to clarify that Bill Roggio is an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal.
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