EUFOR emblem on a soldier’s arm in mission in Sam Ouandja, northeast CAR, on the border with Sudan’s Darfur. Most of the mission's troops were French; since 1960, France has intervened militarily at least 30 times on the continent. (Photo/ Pierre Holtz for UNICEF)

Africa’s ‘Big Brothers’: The US, China, France And Surprise, Surprise, South Africa

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AFRICAN governments like to talk up pan-Africanism and African solutions, but the data suggests that they see their former colonial powers, the US, and China as their greatest external influence, more than any other African country.

Southern Africa is the exception, where several smaller countries in the region including Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland see regional powerhouse South Africa as the most influential in their country.

Former French colonies are by far the most likely to see the colonial power as most influential, ranging up to 89% of all citizens in Côte d’Ivoire, 80% in Gabon, and 73% in Mali, data from Afrobarometer shows.

Indeed, when countries are ranked by the proportion of citizens who see the ex-colonial power as the greatest external influence, the top 14 countries are all former French colonies.

It is a legacy of France’s official foreign policy towards its former African colonies, sometimes called Françafrique. Françafrique was designed to prioritise French interests in its colonies, even after political independence had been granted.

It provided and secured access to strategic raw materials, such as oil and uranium, and offered preferential investment outlets for French multinational companies.

On the diplomatic front, it maintained the declining status of France as a global powerhouse post-World War II, with a network of ally countries supporting the French vote in international institutions.

And politically, Françafrique deterred the communist expansion in Africa by backing anti-communist régimes as well as increasing the presence of French military bases on the continent.

Since 1960, France has intervened militarily more than 30 times in the continent.

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Former British colonies tend to be far less likely to see the United Kingdom as most influential, instead balancing their assessments between the United States and China (and South Africa, in the case of countries in the Southern Africa region).

Not surprisingly, Liberia overwhelmingly sees the United States as most influential (87%), a continuing legacy of the US’ historical ties with Liberia. The founding of Liberia in the early 1800s was motivated by the domestic politics of slavery and race in the United States as well as by U.S. foreign policy interests.


In 1816, a group of white Americans founded the American Colonization Society (ACS) to deal with the “problem” of the growing number of free blacks in the United States by resettling them in Africa. The resulting state of Liberia would become the second black republic in the world at that time, after Haiti.

The United States would go on to have long history of intervening in Liberia’s internal affairs, occasionally sending naval vessels to help the Americo-Liberians, who comprised the ruling minority, put down insurrections by indigenous communities (in 1821, 1843, 1876, 1910, and 1915).

The United States also takes the top spot as the greatest external influence in Uganda (40%), Nigeria (39%), Kenya (39%).

China’s influence is most widely perceived in Zimbabwe (55%), reflecting the government’s 2003 “look east” policy, which rescued somewhat from being totally crippled by Western sanctions. Zimbabwe is one of the few on the continent that Beijing wields anything approaching hard power in.

Beijing, alongside Moscow, has been a guarantor of Zimbabwe at international forums, including when both countries in 2008 vetoed a US-led resolution at the UN Security Council that would have had even graver economic implications.

As a sign of how much clout China has carved out in Zimbabwe, at one point last year Chinese experts were operating from President Robert Mugabe’s office, apparently seeking to ensure their investments are safe in the uncertainty surrounding the country’s leadership transition.

Mozambique (52%), Sudan (47%), Zambia (47%), South Africa (40%), and Tanzania (40%) also see China as most influential. All these countries have been strengthening their trade ties to China, and have been the focus of much Chinese investment.

In Mauritius, India (33%) is perceived as the most influential external power; more than 68% of the Mauritian population are of Indian origin.

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