Africa's Population Explosion: How the "Last Frontier" Will Change the World

Keiichi Shirato


With the relative decline in power of the United States and other Western nations that have led the formation of the global order in the post-WWII era, a shift is underway from that order toward establishing a new one. China, a 21st-century superpower; India, embracing the world's largest population; and Russia, the invader of Ukraine, are the great powers increasingly diverging from the Western-led global order; many emerging countries also express discontent with it.

In these circumstances, African nations, representing over a quarter of the 193 member states of the United Nations, have lately gained significant attention. Especially noteworthy is their diplomatic stance over Russia's February 22 invasion of Ukraine. Its unexpectedness has prompted Western nations to take a more proactive approach toward Africa than before.

Shortly before the Ukraine war began, some pointed out that Africa was becoming a theater for hegemonic competition among great powers and a "new scramble for Africa" was emerging.1 However, Africa today is not merely a passive actor in the global order. African nations had long been assigned to a "peripheral" zone in international relations; nonetheless, they deftly utilized external involvement to seek economic interests and to strengthen their political underpinning. They are taking advantage of the international situation to pursue their interests and are becoming active entities attempting to transform the current global order to their benefit. This essay will examine the responses of African countries to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and consider how the African situation is affecting the transformation of the international order.

1. Africa Shocks the West

In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the UN General Assembly adopted, on March 2, 2022, a resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. 141 of the 193 UN member states voted in favor, while five voted against, 35 abstained, and 12 did not vote. Looking at those countries that avoided criticizing Russia, 17 of the 35 that abstained, 8 of the 12 that did not vote, and 1 of the five that opposed were African countries—26 in all, or nearly half of the 54 African countries, did not support the condemnation of Russia. About three weeks later, on March 24, 2022, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for Russia to halt attacks on civilians and for strengthening humanitarian assistance. The voting result was as follows: 140 countries in favor, 5 against, 38 abstentions, and 10 no-shows. The breakdown of the votes of African countries is 27 in favor, 1 against, 20 abstentions, and 6 no-shows. In other words, just half of the 54 African countries did not support condemning Russia.

On February 23, 2023, one year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution condemning Russia. The votes of African countries were 30 in favor, 2 against, 15 abstentions, and 7 no-shows.2 Although there was a slight increase in the number of countries voting in favor and condemning Russia, the number of African countries that abstained or did not vote still stands out compared with any other part of the world.

Due to the fact that the Ukraine war is a proxy war between Russia and the West supporting Ukraine, each country's diplomatic stance on the war is inseparable from its assessment of the current Western-led global order. That many African countries did not support the condemnation of Russia means that the current global order is not supported as much by African countries as the West had anticipated.

As described above, on March 2, 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia. Out of the 54 African countries, 28 voted in favor of the resolution, including Kenya, Ghana, and Nigeria. Needless to say, African countries are anything but monolithic; their relations with Russia and China vary from country to country.

At the April 7, 2022 UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution calling for suspending Russia's membership at the UN Human Rights Council, nine African countries voted against the resolution, 24 abstained, and 11 did not vote. Even leading countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, all of which had voted in favor of the March 2, 2022 UN resolution following the Russian invasion, changed their position to either abstention or no-show. Obviously, a move to not take the position Western countries expected of them was spreading among African countries.

The economic scale and military power of many African countries are small. If they individually make some demand to the international community, the influence of such a move is negligible. Consequently, African countries often send joint messages and coordinate their policies through the regional organization African Union (AU). Thus, it is a significant diplomatic agenda for the West or for Russia/China to gain as much support as possible from African countries, which account for more than a quarter of the 193 UN member states, if they want to legitimize their action before the eyes of the international community.

The West, which has been leading the global order, was shocked by the voting behavior of African countries that rejected the condemnation of Russia; as a result, they proactively approached African countries. In August 2022, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. In December 2022, the Biden administration held the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, announcing before representatives from 49 African countries and the AU its plan to invest at least $55 billion in Africa over the next three years.3 In March 2023, Secretary of State Blinken visited Ethiopia and Niger.

President Azali of Comoros, the African Union (AU) chair, was invited to the G7 Summit in Hiroshima in May 2023. Incidentally, Ukrainian President Zelensky also attended. The Comoros President and Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, held a separate meeting.4 Before the Summit, Prime Minister Kishida had visited Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique, and Egypt, announcing support for and the strengthening of ties with African nations.

2. Africa's Discontent with the Current Global Order

Why do many African countries not condemn Russia's military aggression explicitly but choose "abstention" or "no-show"? So far, only two African countries, Eritrea and Mali, have voted against a series of resolutions condemning Russia in the UN General Assembly. An extremely anti-American regime is ruling Eritrea, while the present Mali government is dependent on the Russian private military company Wagner. The voting behavior of the two countries is not representative of African nations.

The African continent had long been under colonial rule since the 19th century. Most of the African countries gained their independence after the late 1950s. For example, South Africa achieved its independence in the early 20th century. However, the apartheid policy, initiated by the descendants of European immigrants, was not abandoned until 1991. In 1994, African descendants first participated in national politics. For African countries sharing a history of domination by other races, the principle of "national self-determination" is crucial to their existence. In addition, for economically and militarily weak African countries, the acceptance of changing the status quo by force is tantamount to suicide. There is no guarantee that they will not become a target of aggression, or the possibility cannot be ruled out that domestic anti-government forces will intensify their efforts of secession by military force. For these reasons, African countries cannot admit to the precedent of Russia's changing the status quo by force, an apparent violation of international law. Except for Eritrea and Mali, African countries have no reason for squarely opposing the UN General Assembly's resolutions condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

On the other hand, the African side has reasons why they cannot or are unwilling to accept the Western-led global order as it is.

First, there is the practical problem that Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the West's sanctions against Russia are inflicting grave economic damage on African countries. Since African countries had been importing wheat and fertilizer from Russia and Ukraine, the Russian invasion and Western sanctions have exacerbated food shortages in Africa. Senegalese President Macky Sall, AU chair at the time of the Russian invasion, visited Russia in June 2022 and asked President Putin to resume grain exports to Africa. In an interview carried in the French newspaper Le Monde on June 10, during his visit to Russia, President Sall stated, "The AU is not a party to the conflict. We are asking to stop the war. First of all, stop the war and then talk. We're not really in a debate about who's right and who's wrong. We simply want access to grain and fertilizers. We are stuck between war and sanctions."5

Second, there is a widespread recognition among African countries that they fail to receive legitimate benefits from the existing global order. For example, in recent years, droughts and floods have ensued in various parts of the African continent, allegedly related to climate change. However, African countries are small emitters of greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gas emissions have primarily come from Western countries, lately joined by China, India, and others. From Africa's point of view, they suffer most from the problems for which great powers are responsible.

African countries are still angry about the actions of Western nations against Libya during the Arab Spring turmoil, when NATO forces led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France launched massive air strikes on Libya in March 2011, toppling the Gaddafi regime in short order, in defiance of opposition from many African countries. Since the Gaddafi regime employed many mercenaries from African countries, it was feared that if it collapsed, those armed mercenaries would return to their homeland, rekindling anti-government armed struggles there. However, African countries' concerns received no consideration, and NATO carried out the airstrikes. As a result, the Gaddafi regime was quickly overthrown.6 The fears shared by African countries were destined to become a reality. In Mali in 2012, Tuareg mercenaries returning from Libya, in conjunction with an Islamic militia, declared secession. Although more than a decade has elapsed since then, Mali remains stuck in the quagmire of civil war.

The result was that many, if not most, African countries do not support a UN resolution implying recognition of a Western-centered global order while not opposing one condemning Russia out of respect for international law. Their voting behavior of "abstention" or "no-show," which is neither for nor against a Russia-condemning resolution, is considered to have been chosen as a synthesis of comparison and contemplation.

3. Pursuit of a "Non-Alignment" Policy

It is the Ukraine war that has made apparent African nations' discontent with the Western-led global order. Meanwhile, the presence of China, India, Russia, and emerging countries like Turkey had been growing in Africa even before the war began. In particular, China has undoubtedly become a prominent actor in African development in recent years. Since 2007, African primary imports have been coming from China; in 2021, they amounted to $148.4 billion, almost four times the $37.9 billion worth of imports from India, second only to those from China. China is also the largest export destination for African countries; exports from Africa to China reached $105.9 billion in 2021, about 2.4 times the $44.6 billion worth of exports to India, second only to those bound for China. Total trade (exports and imports) between China and African nations reached a record high of $254.3 billion in 2021,7an approximately 25 times increase over the past 20 years—total trade between China and Africa was $10 billion in 2000. According to the UNCTAD World Investment Report 2022, in 2020, the United Kingdom ranks first in total investments in Africa with $65 billion, while China is the fifth largest investor with $43 billion.8

The BRICS Summit, held in South Africa in 2023, decided on six countries' accession to BRICS from January 2024, including two countries from Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia. Reportedly, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, and some other African regional economies are also interested in joining BRICS.

These developments have led some to believe that African countries are increasing their distance from the Western powers—former sovereign states represented by the United Kingdom and France; and the United States—and are being drawn in by China and Russia. However, many African countries are only using Chinese and Russian funds and military assistance in so far as they deem it beneficial to their stability and development. The fact is that they have not alienated themselves from the West to be captured by China and Russia.

The speech given by Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission (AUC)—the executive body of the AU—at the May 25, 2023 ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity (the forerunner of the AU) is noteworthy as representing the basic diplomatic stance of African countries. Referring to the deepening confrontation between the West and China/Russia over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the AUC chairman stated, "In this international context of confrontation of divergent geopolitical interests, the will of each side threatens to transform Africa into a geostrategic battleground.... we must resist all forms of instrumentalisation of our Member States, taken individually and collectively....", emphasizing that Africa should not take sides either with the West or China and Russia.9 The speech showed a strong sense of caution that Africa might be exploited by great powers―the West, China, Russia, and India.

South Africa, a BRICS member and a prominent regional power in Africa, is a typical country that pursues a foreign policy of keeping a certain distance from the West and China/Russia. South Africa has consistently "abstained" from voting on all UN resolutions related to the Ukraine war. A contribution by the country's Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Alvin Botes, in the May 16, 2022 issue of the Daily Maverick, clarifies the South African government's course of action. The article reads, "South Africa has not taken a neutral position on the war in Ukraine, but rather a non-aligned one.... The war in Ukraine and the wars waged against Iraq and Afghanistan are similar in nature in that the big powers have executed their aggression with a sense of impunity." Botes identified the US attacks in Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2001) with Russia's invasion of Ukraine.10

South Africa is implementing this policy of "non-alignment" in its diplomacy. In June 2023, President Cyril Ramaphosa, with the presidents of Senegal, Zambia, and Comoros, visited Ukraine and Russia and made a 10-point peace proposal, focusing on finishing the ongoing conflict through negotiations between Ukraine and Russia. Under the current circumstances, Ukraine is unlikely to accept the proposal premised on Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territory; yet, many African countries, represented by South Africa, are keenly cautious about the possibility of becoming involved in a confrontation between the West and China/Russia; they are seriously pursuing "non-alignment."

4. Population Explosion

The more the confrontation between the West and China/Russia deepens, the more critical it becomes for both camps to draw in Global South countries, including African nations. Their support will help both camps appeal for the legitimacy of their actions to the international community. African countries are well aware of the value of their existence in the international community and are consequently cautious against being at the mercy of the power politics of great powers. They are emitting messages on the need to reshape the global order through, among other steps, voting at the UN General Assembly.

In response to these moves of African nations, major countries and regions, including the United States, the EU, China, India, Japan, and Russia, had been emphasizing engagement with Africa even before the Ukraine war broke out. This trend has intensified since the war began.

The primary reason for this trend is not only that Africa is home to many UN member states but also that it is a promising region often described as the "last frontier." Today, the population in sub-Saharan Africa is growing at a pace never before experienced by humans. According to The State of World Population Report 2023, the world population exceeded 8 billion in November 2022, 1.174 billion of which were accounted for by Sub-Saharan Africa.11 Noteworthy is the high rate of population growth in the region. According to the world population projection released by the United Nations in 2022, the world population growth rate in 2021 averaged 0.82% through the year, while that of Sub-Saharan Africa marked 2.51%, the highest in the world by region. According to UN global population estimates and projections (medium variant), the world population will be 9.687 billion as of January 1, 2050, in which Sub-Saharan Africa will claim 2.094 billion, or one-fifth of the world population. By 2100, the population in Sub-Saharan Africa will account for 3.43533 billion or one-third of the estimated world population of 10.355 billion. This rapid population growth can be referred to as a "population explosion." In addition, some 60% of Sub-Saharan Africa's population is younger than 25 years old, while only 3% of its total population is 65 of age or older.12

Sub-Saharan Africa's demographic conditions provide an attractive environment for global enterprises to furnish goods and services over the long term; they also offer Sub-Saharan countries excellent opportunities to develop their economies.

The "demographic dividend" represents the phase in the demographic transition in which the working-age population (15-64 years old) grows faster than the dependent-age population (0-14 years old and 65 of age and older) and, as a result, economic growth accelerates. Sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to undergo a demographic dividend phase until around 2080. A society amid a demographic dividend is one in which young people enter labor markets in droves, and their burden of social security costs is light because of the scarcity of an elderly population. This situation makes it easier for governments to allocate national budgets to industrial policies and to attract investment from overseas as domestic consumption increases—all of these are favorable to economic growth. The sharp increase in investment in Africa by other countries is considered to indicate high expectations for Africa, which will continue to undergo a demographic bonus.

That said, it is important to note that even during the demographic dividend phase, economic growth and social stability can only be achieved if sufficient job opportunities are available for young people entering the labor market. The demographic dividend can only benefit economic growth if there is a stable food supply and ample employment opportunities for the youth. On the contrary, if the young population strata continue to increase without an adequate supply of food and employment, the possibility is undeniable that the food crisis and mass unemployment will worsen. The discontent of young people who cannot find employment opportunities after completing their school education may often find an outlet in extremism, forming the hotbed of terrorism and armed conflict. These developments will not only torment African countries but also destabilize the world as a whole through the outflow of refugees and the rise of terrorist organizations. Since African countries want to avoid such a dismal future at all costs, they are desperately calling for an influx of foreign investment in order to secure development funds.

Can African nations enjoy economic development predicated on a population explosion while continuing to secure investments for their domestic development? Or, will Africa be unable to create jobs for its growing youth population, fail to stabilize society, and create threats globally? At this moment, Africa stands at a crossroads, and the international community must determine how to engage with the continent.

(Professor, Ritsumeikan University)

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