Africa is no stranger to geopolitical competition. From the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 to the Cold War, external powers have long sought to colonize, carve up, and exploit the continent. Once again, regional and global powers are focusing on Africa to extend their military and economic influence and to gain an edge over their rivals—whether in terms of diplomatic clout or access to land and natural resources.
As French influence in its former West African colonies wanes, a string of coups in the Sahel region put Niger—a country rarely covered in the international media—front and center this year. The military takeover raised the question of whether neighboring African countries, especially Nigeria, would take the lead in managing a crisis and possibly intervening, rather than looking to external superpowers.
The outbreak of a full-fledged civil war in Sudan in April exposed the rifts between regional powers that usually see themselves as allies as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (and Egypt) backed opposing sides in the conflict and the fighting threatened to engulf the broader region.
The killing of Yevgeny Prigozhin in August after his Wagner Group staged a failed mutiny in Russia two months earlier led to questions about the mercenary group’s future in Africa, where it has carved out zones of influence from the Central African Republic to Mali and has often acted as a proxy for Russian interests.
Meanwhile, resource-rich and strategically located Mauritania, long viewed in the West as something of a backwater, became the object of intense interest and competition after the coup, in Niger, with everyone from China to Saudi Arabia to NATO seeking closer relations with Nouakchott.
And as the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—continued to push for an alternative to the Western-led economic order, talk of de-dollarization and a new international reserve currency grew as the bloc expanded to include several new members, including Ethiopia and Egypt, which are set to join at the start of the new year.
Below are five of Foreign Policy’s top reads on these issues from the past year—and an edition of our weekly newsletter covering the continent, Africa Brief.
1. How Sudan Became a Saudi-UAE Proxy War
By Talal Mohammad, July 12
Sudan’s descent into civil war left two regional powers on opposing sides of the conflict, with Saudi Arabia supporting the Sudanese Armed Forces and the United Arab Emirates backing the rebel Rapid Support Forces. As scholar Talal Mohammad writes, the Saudi and Emirati positions are a sign that “[a]s emerging Middle East hegemons, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are now at odds—each seeking to control Sudan’s resources, energy, and logistics.”
“For the UAE, any RSF gains create leverage to weaken Riyadh’s grip over the Middle East—which would be a win for Abu Dhabi,” Mohammad writes.
2. Will Nigeria Reclaim Its Role as a Regional Power?
By Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, Aug. 2
The strong reaction by regional body ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) in the wake of Niger’s coup left many observers asking whether Nigeria, the region’s largest power, would intervene or lead a multilateral force. It didn’t happen in 2023—but as analyst Afolabi Adekaiyaoja argues, a crisis on the border “provides an opportunity for a president with the smallest mandate among elected presidents since the country’s return to democracy in 1999 with a chance to shore up his reputation. Unlike Nigeria’s increasingly powerful state governors, he actively leads on foreign policy.”
3. Niger’s Coup Is a Turning Point for Africans
By Howard W. French, Aug. 8
A coup in Niger at a time when French military presence in West Africa is receding and U.S. influence is waning put the onus of responsibility for managing a regional crisis on Niger’s neighbors. FP’s Howard W. French writes that the regional response to the coup demonstrated that “Africans will ultimately make or break their continent’s geopolitical landscape—and foreign interlopers, however muscle-bound they may appear, are ultimately fated to play a secondary role.”
4. Why the Wagner Group Won’t Leave Africa
By John Lechner and Marat Gabidullin, Aug. 8
A former Wagner commander and his co-author, analyst John Lechner, argue that the demise of Prigozhin won’t mean the end of Russian mercenary activities in Africa because “the Russian state needs Wagner more than Wagner needs the state.” The Kremlin’s footprint on the continent bolsters its global influence—not to mention its war chest, funded in part by African gold and other natural resources.
5. Why Everyone Is Courting Mauritania
By Samuel Ramani, Sept. 21
The coup in Niger left Mauritania looking like the “sole bastion of relative political stability in the Sahel region” as well as a promising investment option. As Samuel Ramani writes, everyone is now paying attention to the country. The “competition revolves around Mauritania’s natural gas reserves and the green energy potential presented by its vast desert terrain—not to mention its strategically valuable position on the Atlantic coast,” he writes.
Plus: Why the BRICS Aren’t Crumbling in Africa
By Nosmot Gbadamosi, Aug. 23
Although talk of de-dollarization hasn’t caught on everywhere, many African countries—facing dollar-denominated debt in a time of rising interest rates—are drawn to the idea of a new global reserve currency and an international diplomatic club that is not run by the West. “Many African leaders view the dollar’s dominance over the global financial system as impeding their nations’ economic growth,” FP’s Nosmot Gbadamosi writes in this edition of Africa Brief.