The next scramble for Africa

As Russia competes for greater influence on the continent, a new generation unbound by the past sets its own agenda for the future.

Abderraouf Arfaoui displays grains of wheat in June after the harvest on his farm in Krib, Tunisia. The North African country imports more than half of the wheat it consumes annually from Ukraine and Russia.

In recent years, Russia has turned increasingly to Africa to compete with China and the United States as a global power broker. But its war in Ukraine has become a setback to its ambitions. Spikes in global commodity prices since the invasion began have compounded a food crisis in Africa, where more than 47 million people were already facing acute malnutrition from drought. Eighteen African countries import more than 50% of their annual wheat from Ukraine and Russia. One in 4 Africans now has too little to eat.

On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov embarked on a four-nation trip across Africa to offer reassurance. Russia and Ukraine reached a deal last Friday to allow grain ships to pass safely through the Black Sea. African and Middle Eastern countries, Mr. Lavrov promised, would soon receive their full annual grain orders. Prior to his departure, he sent African newspapers an essay blaming food shortages on Western sanctions and reminding Africans that Moscow supported their movements to overthrow colonialism.

That message may not resonate as widely as Mr. Lavrov hopes. Moscow’s main point of resistance? Africa’s youth. Seventy percent of Africans are under the age of 30. They are the most educated generation in African history and have no direct memory of life under foreign or minority rule.

A new survey conducted in 15 nations shows that young Africans welcome foreign investment that advances development and creates economic opportunity. It also found that they are particularly skeptical of outside interference that undermines democracy or exploits the continent’s natural resources.

“African youth see equality of all citizens under the law, freedom of speech, and free and fair elections as the most important pillars of democracy,” states the African Youth Survey 2022, published last month by the South Africa-based Ichikowitz Family Foundation. “The era [of] one man, one vote, once, is long gone on this continent.”

Unlike previous generations raised during the Cold War and final throes of colonial or minority rule, most Africans today grew up in a new era marked by the continent’s gradual embrace of democratic ideals and the rapid growth of Chinese investment.

Russia’s entry of late has had a contrary thrust. Military contractors tied to the Kremlin now operate in more than a dozen countries and have been accused of human rights violations. Moscow seeks a naval base on the Red Sea. It is now the second-biggest arms dealer in Africa (behind the U.S.). Mr. Lavrov’s itinerary reflects Moscow’s cultivation of autocratic or military rulers. That agenda raises alarms on a continent where 74% of young Africans say democracy is always the preferred form of government and 75% express concern about political instability.

While African leaders have sought to stay neutral on Russia’s invasion, many agree that the pandemic and the economic impact of the war underscore Africa’s need for self-sufficiency. Africa needs its own investment strategy, argues Joseph Sany, vice president of the Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, “to help build a democracy-driven economic power that can mitigate Russian or Chinese coercive influence.”

A new generation of Africans determined to forge their own prosperity agrees. “Seven in 10 youth say that they are concerned about the influence of foreign powers on their country,” notes Chido Cleopatra Mpemba, special envoy of youth for the African Union. “Our generation wants to craft our own future ourselves.” As Mr. Lavrov travels across Africa, that message may be worth heeding.

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