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(Un)Western Africa

A structural analysis of foreign influence in Western Africa


Since the decolonisation process that granted independence to African states, the continent has experienced a seemingly never-ending streak of coups d’etat. From 1950 onwards, 109 coups have been successfully carried out and 111 have failed.1 More recently, increasing instability has affected Western Africa and Sahel, with several regime changes over the last 10 years.

In this article I try to analyse this phenomenon, considering the role of several external actors. More precisely I will firstly consider the deep reasons for instability in the region, paying particular attention to the (difficult) relationship between Western countries and local populations; then, I will look at foreign powers that are active in the region, such as China, Turkey, the US and Russia, trying to understand what are their objectives and strategies.

West vs. Western Africa, a.k.a. “Neo-colonialism”

The 2023 coup d’etat in Niger was characterised by a strong anti-French sentiment: young Nigeriens showed up in pro-junta rallies waving Russian flags and holding boards with slogans against the French government, and the French embassy was assaulted, with demonstrators attempting to set it on fire. A recent survey commissioned by The Economist reported that the Nigerien population is extremely supportive of the coupists, and the same is true in other neighbouring countries such as Mali, Ghana, Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. Although Russian propaganda might have played a role in organising the demonstrations, it is clear that the local populations share a strong resentment against Western countries, France in particular, which has been a colonial power in the region for decades.

The growing anger towards the Western-led international system is consistent with the emergence of the so-called Global South. Within such a blurred and unorganised group of countries, most have developing or underdeveloped economies and do not exhibit full adherence to democratic standards, but above all they share a common political front against the liberal international order upheld by the West. The hostility is certainly fuelled by powers like Russia and China, but the driving force is rooted in history. The experience of colonisation is of course the fundamental cause, but such forceful anti-Western rhetoric was also exacerbated by policies of neo-colonialism and by failed expectations of economic development after independence.

“Neo-colonialism” is a commonly misused and abused term. In this piece, we will consider it as defined by Cheesaman and coauthors: “[Neo-colonialism is] the maintenance of colonial domination after formal political independence through the sustenance of a relationship of economic, political, or ideological dependence”.

General De Gaulle at the Brazzaville Conference, 1944
General De Gaulle at the Brazzaville Conference, 1944
French neo-colonialist policies were pushed for by President De Gaulle, who aimed to exploit natural resources in the region and expanding the market for French products: the development of these economic and political ties were achieved thanks to amenable moderate elites in the former colonies or, in the cases of Togo and Mali, to the support of military coup d’etats favourable to the French government. Reading recent events through the lens of history helps us understand why support for anti-Western juntas is so strong in Western Africa, a region almost completely included in the so-called Francafrique. French presence is seen as a threat by local populations regardless of the actual intentions of the Exagon, a sentiment that is often fostered by governmental and foreign propaganda (mainly Russian).

Moreover, decolonisation in Sub-Saharan Africa generally failed to improve the political and economic condition of former colonies. Subsaharan and particularly Western Africa is still one of the poorest and most underdeveloped regions in the world. Research has shown that decolonisation had no effect whatsoever on revenue growth and income growth, without the end of the former empires’ dominance over previously colonised countries. Decolonisation in Africa failed to fulfil its promises, mainly because of the looming western influence over the continent. International institutions, which are often Western-driven, have seemingly failed to produce sustainable development in these countries.

It’s not difficult, therefore, to understand the problematic relationship between the West and African countries, with the former trying to propose – or impose – its values (democracy, liberalisation, globalisation) and the latter seeing them as violations of sovereignty perpetrated by former empires that subjugated Africa for decades. Here is where external actors, such as Russia, China and Turkey, seeking to expand their influence, come into play.

The good old Bear

Russia’s role as a partner in the continent goes back to the Cold War, when a decolonised Africa became a new space for competition between the US and the USSR. Fifty years later, the Bear still plays a relevant part in Africa, but its goals and strategies have changed. Russia is a declining power, bogged down in Ukraine while its economy is contracting (partly due to the EU’s sanctions). Russia’s role in the region, therefore, has shifted towards a more opportunistic one – mainly offering military aid in exchange for natural resources. The engagement in the Sahel through the Wagner Group could be interpreted as an anti-West strategy. This involves destabilising the area, forcing migrations to heighten pressure on European borders and hindering the influence of Western countries in Western Africa. However, the role of Moscow in the region is primarily short-term-oriented, without defined strategies and objectives.

China, the big player

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Senegal, 2018
Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Senegal, 2018
China has always been a strong partner in Africa. However, it has recently scaled up its involvement, emerging as a leader in the funding of infrastructure and development. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) was founded in 2000, and since then China and African states have been meeting every three years to coordinate their partnership; with the Belt and Road Initiative, the forum has become even more relevant.

Chinese economic involvement in the continent includes FDIs, lending and trade. In 2019, Chinese FDIs amounted to $44bln, which constitutes only 2% of total Chinese FDIs and lags behind US FDIs in Africa. Trade with Africa accounted for 4% of Chinese foreign trade, whereas China comprised only 11% of African exports and 16% of imports. Moreover, in 2021, Xi Jinping announced a $20bln cut in Chinese general investments, which decreased from $60 to $40 billions.

Although these figures might lead one to underestimate Chinese influence in Western Africa, it is essential to consider its role as lender. In 2015, 62% of African bilateral debt was owed to Chinese creditors and since 2015 China has accounted for 13% of lending to Africa, being the first lender in the region. Most Chinese loans to African countries are undertaken by the government or state-owned enterprises and banks. Research has shown that these contracts are often characterised by higher payment safeguards for debtors, alongside other features that make them more attractive for developing states than other creditors.

China is also heavily investing in education and social capital, through university scholarships and training for African government officials in China. These policies contribute to establishing positive relations with younger generations and strengthen diplomatic connections by teaching the CCP’s approach to development and governance to African leaders. Indeed, a recent survey shows that the Chinese model of development has become increasingly popular in Africa and China’s influence is considered positive by 60% of the interviewed population. China is viewed particularly positively in Burkina Faso and Mali, which also happen to be two of the most underdeveloped states in the region and have recently experienced coup d’etats associated with an anti-Western sentiment.

Chinese activities in Africa, however, are not only related to economic influence, but also to geopolitical competition. After the inauguration of the first People’s Liberation Army’s base in Africa, in Djibouti, the Chinese administration has been striving to establish a new base in the continent, this time on the Atlantic Ocean. Whilst the base in Djibouti helps the patrolling activities in the Aden Gulf and allows the PLA to compete for the control of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, a potential military establishment in Western Africa would have a significant impact on the global struggle between Beijing and Washington. By getting closer to American borders, China would be able to scale up pressure on the US in the Atlantic, which has always been considered by Americans as a natural buffer. Many possible locations for this military base have been suggested: among those, Equatorial Guinea and Sierra Leone seem the most promising. In fact, Beijing has been fostering its relations with these states by funding the realisation of the Port of Bata in Equatorial Guinea and announcing the construction of a fishing harbour in Black Johnson Beach, Sierra Leone. These concrete activities should be understood within the wider geopolitical picture of Chinese interest in the continent, which aims at obtaining international support from developing countries, especially in the context of international institutions.

Turkey on the rise

Over the last decades, Turkey has been gradually scaling up its involvement in the African continent. If North Africa was its main focus up until 20 years ago, it has since expanded to sub-saharan Africa as well. Although it’s not in the same league as Russia and China yet, Ankara has acquired a solid geopolitical influence in Africa and is planning to keep it going in the future.

The founding block of this renewed strategy in Africa has been to step up diplomatic effort. In fact, the Turkish administration has attached significant “importance to opening diplomatic missions in all African countries, in order to enhance its relations with the Continent.”, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says. Between 2002 and 2022, the number of Turkish Embassies in Africa increased from 12 to 44 (all the new diplomatic missions are located in sub-saharan Africa, including Western Africa). Diplomatic relations have been strengthened through The International Junior Diplomats Training Program, an annual initiative organised by the Diplomacy Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that provides training for African diplomats. Taking China as an example, Ankara has also started providing academic scholarships to African students, with the aim of “strengthening Türkiye's African policy”. Interaction between Turkish and African citizens has been facilitated by the expanding outreach of Turkish Airlines. The flag carrier of Turkey now reaches 60 destinations in 39 African countries, and plans to broaden its portfolio in the near future.

Mr. Erdogan dedicated remarkable time and energy to visiting African states, becoming the most frequent visiting Head of State in the continent. His most recent appearances in Western Africa have been in Togo, Nigeria and Senegal between 2021 and 2022. During these trips, he signed bilateral military treaties with these three states. More broadly, Turkey is gradually intensifying military assistance to African countries, primarily by selling military equipment (notably its famous drones) and offering its experience in counterinsurgency, which is of paramount importance to governments in such an unstable region.

"Recep Tayyip Erdoğan" Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia
"Recep Tayyip Erdoğan" Hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia
Finally, Turkey gradually stopped providing aid through UN agencies, shifting to bilateral humanitarian assistance. By making sure that populations and leaders know where the money is coming from, Ankara hopes to enhance its soft-power and economic influence over the region. The most evident example is the new Recep Tayyip Erdogan Hospital, named after the Turkish President and located in Mogadishu, but many other instances of Turkish-funded infrastructure projects were recently launched. Turkey is also taking advantage of the large muslim population in Africa by funding religious infrastructure, primarily mosques. This is particularly true in Western Africa, where most countries have a muslim majority, such as Niger, Burkina Faso and Senegal.

The US and Sino-Russian propaganda

Although Africa is not the focus of American geopolitical strategy, Washington can still be considered among the big players in the continent, at least in terms of foreign aid. American foreign aid to Africa is considerably higher than China. In fact, the Biden administration pledged to deliver $55 billion in aid to the continent between 2022 and 2025 alone, which is more than what the Chinese government spent on foreign aid globally between 2003 and 2021. However, American influence in Africa, and particularly Western Africa, is not even close to the power Beijing has acquired over the last decades. This is due to a number of factors.

Firstly, the US is not carrying out any kind of cultural activity in Africa, as opposed to China’s engagement through academic scholarships and governmental training. The most important US-backed activity in low and middle-income countries, known as Build Back Better World, besides having a vague geographical scope, has a very narrow focus on infrastructure. While the US is dropping “helicopter aid” to Africa, China is carefully pondering its investments in the region and simultaneously striving to befriend local governments.

US initiatives are often associated with the promotion of democracy, rule of law, government transparency and sustainable development, all of which have always been at the core of the American doctrine in international politics. These ideological premises clearly reduce the efficiency and responsiveness of US-backed initiatives. Conversely, China adopts a more realist approach, unquestioning the specific characteristics of recipient governments, and avoids fussing over the sustainability and transparency of funded projects. By doing so, Beijing is ensuring its perception as a responsive, efficient and tolerant alternative. If Western African countries need immediate assistance, they are more likely to turn to China, rather than losing time and resources with a picky partner like the US.

POTUS Joe Biden at the second Summit for Democracy, 2023
POTUS Joe Biden at the second Summit for Democracy, 2023
Washington is also the target of a joint effort by Sino-Russian propagandists to spread disinformation and fake news in the Global South, primarily through governmental social media accounts and “troll profiles”. The kind of narrative that is constructed portrays the West as an adversary for underdeveloped countries, while promoting a positive perception of China and Russia. This also includes the diffusion of Russian propaganda on the war in Ukraine. These initiatives have proved to be particularly effective at altering the perception of citizens and governments on the influence of Western countries. The result, as we’ve seen before, is a widespread discontent primarily directed towards France and the US.


Neo-colonialist policies were launched as an immediate replacement of the previous colonial status quo, but their long-term social effects were certainly underestimated by Western policy-makers, thus progressively leading the continent away from the North-Atlantic bubble. If added up to the chronic underdevelopment of the region, which, among other things, was also caused by the long-lasting presence of colonial powers, a lethal recipe is ready. Western Africa is today arguably one of the hardest regions in the world for Europeans and Americans to gain influence in. As I’ve discussed, several foreign powers have taken advantage of the situation to build up sophisticated systems of humanitarian aid, soft-power and military assistance.

However, abandoning the region is out of discussion, especially because of its growing demographic and economic relevance and its richness in natural resources. Therefore, policies both at the European and national level should be accurately drafted, taking into account the historical process that gave birth to  the current situation.


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