The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How other countries are scrambling for Africa alongside the U.S.

Vice President Biden speaks in Washington during the Civil Society Forum at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

This week in Washington, dozens of African heads of state are converging for a landmark series of meetings with U.S. officials and businesses. The event has been billed as the clearest sign yet of the Obama administration's desire to reassert American interests in the continent, which have taken a back seat to the United States' long-standing foreign policy headaches in the Middle East and west Asia. Africa is home to six of the world's 10 most dynamic economies and is a huge untapped market for American goods and services. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, the co-chair of a U.S.-Africa business forum on Tuesday that was part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, expects that event alone to "serve as a catalyst for more than $14 billion in business deals with benefits that travel in both directions across the Atlantic."

But that tantalizing sum will be tempered by other concerns. On the eve of the summit, Human Rights Watch urged the United States to use the occasion to press numerous African governments on questions of human rights. On Monday, Vice President Biden lectured African officials on the importance of safeguarding and deepening democratic institutions while developing their economies. "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together," Biden said, invoking an oft-quoted African proverb.

After centuries of rapacious European colonialism, it's unclear how much patience many African dignitaries may have for Western moralizing — not least because the United States is far from Africa's sole suitor. There is a 21st-century scramble for Africa, where dozens of nations — now on a more even footing — are engaging a host of old powers and emerging economies. In 1992, for example, Brazil, China and India accounted for just 3 percent of Africa's trade; now they represent a quarter of it. Here's a rundown of some of the biggest foreign players on the continent.


Although the Obama administration is forever at pains to stress that it does not see China as a competitor, the shadow of China's enormous stake in Africa undoubtedly hangs over proceedings this week in Washington. China's annual trade with Africa stands at around $200 billion, double the U.S. total. Chinese state companies are heavily invested in the extraction of natural resources across the continent, including oil, natural gas, minerals and ores. Roughly a million Chinese have moved to the continent as part of a workforce that has built massive infrastructure projects, ranging from dams and airports to highways and railroads. Africa is also a huge market for Chinese goods, including textiles and cheap electronics. Here's a recent Agence France-Presse map of Chinese investment in Africa.

Some critics say Chinese practices in the region amount to a new kind of neo-colonialism, a claim that Beijing rejects. Debates over Chinese exploitation, for example, dominated the 2011 election in Zambia, where China has extensive mining interests. Still, others argue that China's role in the continent, while lucrative, is far more collaborative than imperial. The instruction of the Chinese language is spreading in Africa, and more and more African students are electing to attend Chinese universities for their higher education.

The European Union

Many of Europe's main economies have historical ties to Africa, shaped, of course, through the very unequal experience of colonialism. The E.U. as a bloc is Africa's second-largest trade partner, but that status belies its diminishing footprint on the continent. In some ways, things remain the same: To this day, France maintains a significant security presence in parts of West Africa where insurgencies still trouble fragile states that emerged in the wake of a retreating empire. African migrants frequently attempt to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing to jobs and sanctuary in Europe; European soccer dominates the screens on weekends in bars and viewing halls from the Cape of Good Hope to the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Europe still retains something of a hold on the African imagination.

But Europe's share of African trade has markedly dipped over the past two decades (as the Financial Times enumerates), and individual European nations have been slow to turn away from an aid-based policy to one more focused on trade — in other words, to follow China's lead. Officials in Brussels are still struggling to persuade much of the continent to sign on to an Economic Partnership Agreement that would, in effect, create a free-trade area linking the continents.


Historically, India has a deep connection to fellow post-colonial states in Africa. Mahatma Gandhi, after all, first deployed his tactics that would eventually end British dominion in India while living in South Africa. There are significant diasporic communities of Indians across the continent, particularly in South Africa and countries in East Africa. Towering Indian statesmen. including the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, found partners and kindred spirits in African independence leaders such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah.

The importance of that moral and political solidarity may have faded, but India's trying aggressively to beef up its economic interests in Africa. Indian officials forecast that combined trade with the continent will eclipse $100 billion by next year. Africa accounts for roughly a 10th of India's imports. India, like China, is investing in oil exploration projects from South Africa to Libya. The insatiable Indian appetite for jewelry makes mineral-rich Africa a vital source of gold, diamonds and other precious stones. Leading Indian telecom firms have controlling stakes in various parts of Africa.

Unlike the presence of China's vast state companies, most of India's dealings in the region are conducted via small or medium private businesses — this means, in many cases, that Indian enterprise is far more integrated into the local African economies than that of China.


Brazil is technically the most "African" country outside Africa and, as the world's largest Portuguese-speaking country, has natural cause for ties with dynamic, Lusophone nations on the African continent. Under the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who left office in 2011, Brazil noticeably expanded its footprint. In 2010, Lula referred to his country's "historic debt" to the continent; more than 10 times as many African slaves were brought to Brazil than to the United States during the grim decades of that transatlantic trade.

Brazil has 37 embassies in Africa, giving it one of the largest diplomatic presences in the continent. Brasilia, meanwhile, is home to the largest number of African missions in the Southern Hemisphere, according to the Financial Times. Brazil's annual trade with Africa is around $30 billion — an improvement from less than $5 billion in 2000. Brazilian companies are employing thousands in construction in Angola, investing in coal mines in Mozambique, laying new fiber-optic cable across the ocean floor to West Africa and helping finance a whole slate of development projects from Kenya to Guinea-Bissau. Growing numbers of African students, particularly from Portuguese-speaking nations, are enrolling in Brazilian universities, though there have been a few reports of racism and discrimination.