The new Cold War spells trouble for Africa

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has little reason to even pretend it cares for defending democracy in Africa.

Silhouette of three soldiers against the sunrise.
After Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Africa is likely in more trouble than it has ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union, writes Nwanze [Getty images]

People paying any attention to world affairs have known for years that Francis Fukuyama jumped the gun when he declared “the end of history” and announced that the world has witnessed “the end-point of humanity’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government” after the fall of the Soviet Union.

After the end of the Cold War, there was indeed a very brief period when many believed that Western liberal democracy would forever dominate and that the world would always function under an American-led “rules-based order” that values, respects and protects democracy, sovereignty and human rights.

It, of course, did not turn out to be the case. The interests of those dominating this new world order transcended morality. America’s loudly and repeatedly declared commitment to protecting human rights turned out to be all smoke and no substance. Sure, the US and its allies always held on to their façade of doing everything they do to “spread democracy” and “protect human rights”, but when push came to shove they consistently pursued their interests which, many times, ran counter to their professed ideals.

Examples of this are plenty across the world, but I will just list here several relatively recent ones from Africa:

In 2015, the European Union, the US’s leading liberal democratic ally, set up a new immigration policy that saw it pay governments that couldn’t care less about democracy and human rights to keep refugees and migrants away from its borders. Anti-democratic, oppressive regimes from Libya to Sudan received large funds to detain migrants passing through their territories on their way to Europe. In simple terms, the EU has funded a huge kidnap and detention industry right across Africa from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, from the Mediterranean to beyond the Sahara. An unknown number of migrants and refugees have been assaulted, tortured, sexually abused and have perished in detention centres funded by European nations. While all this was going on, of course, the EU continued paying lip service to supporting democracy and human rights around the world, and even sanctioned some nations and individuals that are not that crucial to its interests for their mishaps.

Meanwhile, the US repeatedly offered overt and covert support to authoritarian and illiberal governments to further its interests across the continent. It, for example, continued to see Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni as a significant security partner in East Africa, even after the latter’s problematic involvement in regional conflicts and undeniably illiberal actions, such as the scrapping of presidential term and age limits. Even after Museveni declared himself the winner of a 2020 election that international observers deemed “neither free nor fair”, Western powers continued to provide his regime with nearly $2bn a year in development assistance and maintained their high levels of security cooperation. All this has allowed Museveni’s government to continue its clampdown on the opposition.

The story has been pretty much the same in West Africa. Young Nigerians who risked so much to protest against systemic police brutality in the country in October 2020 were heartbroken to see the US continuing its security assistance to the Nigerian government.

Of course, the US has also been making moves to save face and protect its image as a defender of human rights and democracy from time to time. There have been initiatives led by the US to promote democratic participation and sustainable development in African countries, strong messaging (if not always action) in support of increasing democratic governance, military and economic support for democratic regimes fighting armed groups, occasional (if not always successful) sanctions against oppressive governments, as well as incidents of holding back aid to punish anti-democratic actions of African regimes.

While the US and its allies have long been hypocritical in their commitment to liberal democratic values around the world, with the recent rise of China and Russia as serious geopolitical rivals and adversaries, they became even more open about putting their political, economic and security interests before defending human rights, democracy and development.

Indeed, in December 2018, then-Trump national security adviser John Bolton clearly explained in a speech to the Heritage Foundation the new primary goal of the US in Africa: not supporting democracy or development, but countering Russian and Chinese influence on the continent.

During his election campaign, Biden repeatedly promised that his administration would leave Trump’s “America’s First” policies behind and once again make America a leader and a defender of democracy and human rights on the world stage.

This change in direction, however, has so far not materialised, particularly in Africa.

The news that China is looking to build a naval base in Equatorial Guinea, for example, led Biden to send diplomatic and military officials to the country in mid-February to convince its authoritarian regime to side with Washington against China in the power struggle between the two superpowers on the continent. Now, despite human rights abuses – from arbitrary arrests, unlawful killings by security forces, government-sanctioned kidnappings, and torture to restrictions on freedom of expression and press – being rampant in the country, longtime dictator Teodoro Obiang is looking to secure the future of his oppressive regime either by forming a new relationship with the US or accepting Chinese patronage through a naval base.

So, all in all, the so-called “end of history” and the new world order established under US leadership after the end of the Cold War has not been serving African people’s aspirations for democracy, human rights and freedoms for years.

But in the early hours of February 24, Russia embarked on an all-out invasion of Ukraine, marked the end of “the end of history” and officially began a new global power competition.

And now, Africa is likely in more trouble than it has ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Now that the US and its allies have entered into a new Cold War against Russia, with China rapidly expanding its sphere of influence in the background, they have little reason to continue even pretending to support democracy and human rights on the continent. This likely means no more – albeit half-hearted and short-lived – sanctions against abusive governments, no more cancellation of military aid packages, really no more help for Africans who happen to be suffering under dictators and oppressive regimes that may be willing to support America and its allies in their global competition against their rivals.

Now Africa’s dictators can confidently look to both East (Chinese investments have long been growing across the continent and Russian mercenaries are already replacing Western forces in countries like Mali) and West for support – a development which just a decade ago would have looked preposterous.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.