Africa Is a Continent of Contradictions

Africa Is a Continent of Contradictions
African heads of state gather for a group photograph at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Feb. 5, 2022 (AP photo).

It makes sense that a continent that is home to 54 countries and 1.2 billion people would also house many contradictory developments. Africa features several of the world’s fastest-growing economies and a burgeoning middle class. But much of the continent remains mired in debt, burdened by conflict and beset by elites clinging to power. Now, although the human cost of the coronavirus pandemic was less catastrophic than many feared, its economic impact undermined much of the continent’s growth over the past two decades, even as the impact of the war in Ukraine on food and energy prices continues to be felt.

Even during the years when economies across Africa were expanding, many people were driven to migrate—either within Africa or to Europe and even South America—because of humanitarian catastrophes or because economic opportunities were not keeping up with popular aspirations. Those who remained behind at times succeeded in disrupting the status quo. Civilian-led reform movements toppled regimes in Algeria and Sudan in 2019, and recent examples of independent courts overturning fraudulent elections—as well as other signs of democratic institutions taking hold in previously corrupt or authoritarian states—offered hope for the health of democracy in Africa. Yet, the relative frequency of elections marred by fraud and violence, including many that involve incumbents seeking constitutionally dubious third terms, confirms that the phenomenon of long-ruling authoritarian leaders—known as “presidents for life”—remains a problem. And a resurgence of military coups, including in Mali, Guinea, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso and most recently Niger, has underscored the fragility of democratic governance across the continent.

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From a geopolitical perspective, European nations and the United States are looking to shore up bilateral trade and investment across the continent. These moves are driven both by an interest in spurring local economies to help stem migration flows, but also to counter China’s growing presence in Africa. On the back of its Belt and Road Initiative, China has been leveraging infrastructure financing deals for access to resources and increased political influence. Russia, too, has been opportunistically—and controversially—seeking to insert itself into the continent’s affairs through the use of arms sales and military contractors that serve as unofficial state proxies.

Some African leaders say these activities smack of neocolonialism, as they seek to promote greater continental autonomy. They have taken steps to bolster internal trade opportunities and ease freedom of movement. They are positioning the African Union to play a more prominent role in resolving continental disputes, but also to contribute to fields like disease surveillance. And they are increasingly outspoken in criticizing international institutions that appear to punish Africa, to the benefit of others. Nonetheless, Africa is shaping up to be a central arena for competition among the world’s great powers, particularly in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even as middle powers, like Turkey, also seek to expand their footprint and influence.

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Governance and Politics

One of the through lines on the continent has been the persistence of presidents for life and the destructive impact they have on their respective countries. Even as long-standing leaders in Algeria and Sudan were finally toppled in recent years, the regimes behind them remained in place. And leaders in countries from Rwanda to Uganda to Cameroon have shored up their power, often using violent and repressive means to do so. Increasingly active youth movements and civil society have pressured governments for democratic reforms, but with limited success. Meanwhile, corruption—often fueled by Western multinationals—continues to undermine the rule of law across Africa, creating the conditions used by military juntas to justify their seizures of power.


Resolving persistent conflicts continues to be a top priority for African regional organizations, whether in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere. But over the past decade, countering Islamist terrorism has begun to dominate Africa’s security agenda, from established networks like al-Shabab in the Horn of Africa and Boko Haram in West Africa, to new threats, like the emergence of Islamic State affiliates in the DRC and Mozambique. Meanwhile, long-standing violence between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers in West Africa and the Sahel continues to be largely overlooked, despite taking a huge toll in lives lost.

The Competition for Influence in Africa

Some alarmist observers in Washington warn that China, with its upfront financing of major infrastructure projects, is overburdening African countries with debts they will struggle to repay. The claim does not necessarily stand up to scrutiny, but it highlights how, with U.S.-China relations becoming increasingly acrimonious, Africa has become a new arena for their strategic rivalry. Meanwhile, other countries are looking to expand their influence in Africa as well, notably Russia and Turkey.

Migrant Crisis

The flow of migrants from Africa is nothing new. But since the height of Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015, African migration has helped fuel the rise of populist parties in Europe and sparked greater engagement between the two continents in efforts to stem out-migration, often at the cost of the humanitarian regime governing the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers. Displacement is also a regional problem, as sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than a quarter of global refugees. Meanwhile, African migrants are increasingly turning to new destinations as Europe closes its doors.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.

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