Macron, Xi, Putin — The foreign players vying for influence over Africa

While the world’s attention is drawn to Russia’s war on Ukraine and China’s hostility towards Taiwan, a proxy war is raging in Africa.

The region with the youngest population in the world and the fastest growing economy, Africa is without doubt the continent of the future. Yet its past of brutal colonial exploitation still looms large.

Out of the 54 countries that make up its map today, few are spared from external meddling.

While the awkward position of European powers has forced them to recede, emerging powers have been quick to fill the void – keen to take advantage of a burgeoning middle class, plentiful natural resources and a host of potential diplomatic allies. has mapped the evolving spheres of influence in Africa, from French troop numbers across Françafrique to Chinese infrastructure spending as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and misinformation campaigns by Russian mercenary groups. 


At its peak after the 19th century’s “scramble” for territory, French West Africa – or Afrique Occidentale Française (AOF) – was a federation of eight subjugated states: Mauritania, Senegal, French Sudan (now Mali), French Guinea (now Guinea), Côte d’Ivoire, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Dahomey (now Benin) and Niger.

The last of these colonies gained independence in the Sixties, but Paris had long fought hard to maintain deep political, economic and military ties with the country. This tide has turned in recent years.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the ongoing “epidemic” of coups. For the best part of a decade, some 5,000 French troops had led a campaign against jihadist insurgents in the Sahel under Operation Barkhane.

Last November, in the face of “multiple obstructions” from the military junta that seized power in Mali the previous year, they withdrew. Since then, Mr Macron has confirmed drawdowns across the region.

On July 26, Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum was deposed by his own guards, who explained that “deteriorating security and bad governance” were behind the takeover. Anger against the presence of a French military base in the capital Niamey – one of only three the country has left on the continent – has reached a head since, with thousands gathering in a protest at its gates on Saturday.

On August 30, the 56-year rule of the Bongo family over Gabon was ended when army officials overturned the results of the country’s “fraudulent” election and ousted incumbent president Ali Bongo Ondimba. France is thought to have 350 troops stationed at a shared base in the capital of Libreville, but they too may soon be kicked out.


The turn of the millennium was marked by China’s emergence as global manufacturing superpower. By the time Xi Jinping took the reigns in 2012, critical maritime trading routes needed protecting, and the post-financial-crisis-stimulus construction sector needed to break new ground.

The BRI – a revival of the ancient silk roads connecting Europe and Asia by land and Marco Polo’s sea trading route – was born. Africa has been a major focus point, China investing in 52 out of the continent’s 54 countries to the tune of some $150billion (£119billion) over the past two decades.

On the surface, this has bankrolled a boom in African infrastructure projects, from railway lines in Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria, to a hydroelectric power station in Uganda to Algeria’s first deepwater port.

While a clear boon to the countries in which they operate, China has also long been accused of engaging in “debt trap diplomacy” with developing, credit-starved countries who may never be able to pay off their debts to the Asian giant. Many are now crippled by the interest payments they owe, AP reports.

Beijing has been known to drive a hard bargain. According to the World Bank, Djibouti has the largest debt burden towards China of all countries, owing 43 percent of its annual GDP. The People’s Liberation Army opened its first foreign base outside of China there in 2017.

Diplomatic line-toeing is also thought to be a requirement. One by one, the CCP has stamped out recognition of Taiwan’s status as an independent nation on the continent. As of 2023, Eswatini is the only African nation still to recognize the Taipei government.


The Wagner Group’s closeness to the Kremlin were undeniable – at least until their June mutiny and the subsequent death-by-plane-crash of leader Yevgeny Prigozhin last month.

On the one hand, there was money to be made for the businessman-turned-mercenary chief. Following bilateral agreements between Russia and the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2018, military support was exchanged for mining rights. Prigozhin-linked companies like Lobaye Invest and Midas Resources were gifted lucrative contracts.

Over the years that followed, Wagner forces became one of the “dominant agents of political violence” in CAR, according to ACLED, as troop numbers swelled to 2,600. Between December 2020 and May 2023, the conflict tracking project claims, they were involved in 37 percent of all acts of political violence in the country.

But it is through disinformation campaigns – the “intentional dissemination of false information with the intent of advancing a political objective” – that their reach spans far beyond and across the entire continent.

Russia’s brand in Africa benefits from not being tied to colonial exploitation. Indeed, the Soviet Union supported a number of struggles for independence over the past century. Kremlin media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik strive to promote Russia as an ally and amplify anti-French sentiment in West Africa.

In the month since the coup in Niger, content about the country across 45 Russian Telegram channels affiliated with Moscow or Wagner increased by 6,645 percent, according to anti-disinformation firm Logically. And it works. Supporters of the overthrow in the capital Niamey were soon spotted waving Russian flags and holding placards reading “Down with France, long live Putin!” Talks about a troop withdrawal from the country are now reportedly underway.

What does Moscow stand to gain? Plainly, the diplomatic legitimisation of its invasion of Ukraine – and anywhere else Vladimir Putin may choose to invade. At the fourth and most recent UN vote condemning the invasion, 17 African countries either sided with Russia or abstained.

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