Title Picture Source: Quartz Africa

            Since the early 1960s when West African countries gained independence from their former European colonial rulers, many of them have engaged in political, economic, and geo-strategic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In many cases, these relations intensified in the recent period, with China playing a major role in extensively investing in, providing loans, and engaging in large-scale trade relations with the West African countries. This article provides an overview of these multi-faceted relations, including an assessment of their benefits, drawbacks, and future trends.

Geography:  West Africa is the westernmost region of Africa. It consists of the 16 countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. It also includes the United Kingdom Overseas Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha. Together they comprise an area of approximately 2.50 million square miles.[1]

Population:  The population of West Africa is estimated at about 381,981,000 (2017), of which 189,672,000 are female and 192,309,000 males.[2]

History:  During the colonial period, beginning in the 19th century, Great Britain and France controlled much of the West African region. Britain controlled The Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, while France controlled Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, which it unified into French West Africa. Portugal founded the colony of Guinea-Bissau, while Germany, which claimed Togoland, was pressured to divide it between France and Britain following the First World War. Only Liberia retained its independence. In the early 1960s, most of the current nations in West Africa gained independence.

Regional Organizations:  In May 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) was established to promote the region’s economy. It has defined the region of West Africa since 1999 as including 15 states, with Mauritania withdrawing from ECOWAS in 1999. The West African Monetary Union (or UEMOA) is limited to the eight, mostly Francophone countries that employ the CFA franc as their common currency. The Liptako-Gourma Authority of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso seek to jointly develop the contiguous areas of the three countries.

Religion:  Islam is the predominant religion of the West African interior and the far west coast of the continent (approximately 70 percent of West Africans). Traditional Muslim areas include The Gambia, Guinea, Mali, MauritaniaNiger, Senegal, the upper coast and inland two-thirds of Sierra Leone and inland Liberia; the western, northern and far-eastern regions of Burkina Faso; and the northern halves of the coastal nations of Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, and Togo.

West African Christians are predominantly Roman Catholic or Anglican, with some Evangelical churches also prevalent. Christianity is the predominant religion in the central and southern parts of Nigeria, and the coastal regions stretching from southern Ghana to the coastal parts of Sierra Leone. Like Islam, elements of traditional African religion are mixed with Christianity.

China’s Objectives

            China’s objectives in West Africa (and the rest of the sub-continent, as well) are political, economic, and geostrategic in nature. These objectives are explained by a Chinese proverb, “if you want to prosper, first build roads,” which applies to the spectrum of its activities in Africa where it has been building “many roads, railways, ports, and power plants” to establish its multifaceted presence in the sub-continent.[3] Like other foreign powers, to accomplish its objectives, China reaches out to the region’s countries as both financier and infrastructure builder, promising in return to assist its population to grow out of poverty and raise the region in a prosperous direction on the globalization map. These and other factors have made China Africa’s largest investment and trading partner in the current period.

            Economically, driven by China’s economic needs for demand and supply, on the demand-side, to support the needs of its industrial and economic growth as a major world power, West Africa is a valuable source for raw materials and energy. Thus, geo-strategically, China West Africa presents a significant geostrategic location for China in terms of its oil, rare earth metals, and fish. As part of its geo-strategic requirements, which are part of its strategic plan’s One Belt One Road – OBOR projects China also seeks to use the region as a location to secure maritime routes that facilitate Chinese exports to the wider continent. As an example, Chinese commercial fishing vessels utilize West Africa’s fertile waters for fishing, to the extent of becoming the largest fishing power in the region.

            For the African countries, Chinese-financially backed infrastructure projects serve their quest to build an infrastructure that will spur their economic development and growth. This is done through Chinese flexible financing terms, which, unlike Western approaches that attempt to link financing with democratically-related requirements, include non-interference in their governance and human rights.

            Politically, diplomatically, and economically, by lending needed funds to its West African government clients, China benefits in many ways from having them indebted to Beijing. Economically, such large scale investments serve to consolidate China’s supply relationships with the West African countries for essential commodities, such as in the Angolan oil sector or Congolese rare earth mining. Politically and diplomatically, these lending and investments serve to bind these governments to China, with the debt obligations creating a type of leverage in the form of political “soft power” that China uses to influence these countries to support Chinese diplomatic ambitions globally. Such diplomatic benefits include influencing these nations to support China’s policy of breaking off their relations with Taiwan.

            Finally, militarily, Chinese concerns about maritime piracy in the Gulf of Guinea (which also affect its commercial fishing activities in the region) and terrorism in the Sahel, have led to initiatives to upgrade local security capacity to counter such threats. China is also involved in military cooperation initiatives, such as under the African Union (AU). In September 2017, China offered $100 million in military aid to fund the African Union Standby Force (CADSF).[4] It is also involved in five United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa, to which it contributed 1,516 troops and personnel, with two of these missions deployed in Mali and Western Sahara.[5]

The Nature of China’s Involvement

            China’s involvement is primarily directed from the government level, not the private sector. Thus, the most significant financial investments in West Africa are undertaken by state-owned companies, not by Chinese private capital. As a result, they tend to focus on large-scale projects such as infrastructure-like highways, ports, and dams, and on public networks such as the electrical grid. According to one estimate, although these figures are Africa-wide, they likely also reflect the proportions of China’s investments in West Africa, as well. Thus, most funded projects are in the Transport, Shipping and Ports sectors (52.8 percent), followed by Energy and Power (17.6 percent), Real Estate (14.3 percent, including industrial, commercial and residential real estate) and Mining (7.7 percent).[6]

            In another component of China’s involvement, an estimated one million Chinese live and work in Africa, with a substantial number of them in West Africa.[7]

China’s Rivalry with France for Influence

            With France the predominant European power in West Africa following the granting of independence from colonial rule in the 1960s, China’s large-scale intervention in the region succeeded in challenging France for regional predominance, especially in the economic sphere, where Chinese companies compete with firms from France for large-scale infrastructure projects. This is particularly the case with Ivory Coast, with Chinese investments and loans also strong in French-speaking Mali, Niger, Senegal, and Togo.

China’s Involvement with West African Countries


                Benin and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) first established bilateral diplomatic relations in 1964, although with Benin recognizing the Republic of China (Taiwan) in January 1966, the relations with China and Benin ceased. However, in 1972 Benin and China reestablished relations with Benin supporting Beijing’s “one China policy.” With China providing economic assistance to Benin over the years, for instance, in establishing public works projects, in early 2018 China began the development of a railway linking Cotonou with Niamey at an estimated cost of $4 billion.[8] In the fields of culture and education, in 1988 the China Cultural Center was established in Benin, and some 25 Beninese students study annually in China.[9]

Burkina Faso

            Burkina Faso and China established diplomatic relations in September 1973, with its initial relations formed with the Republic of China from 1961 until 1973). Burkina Faso again broke off relations with the Republic of China in May 2018, under pressure from Beijing, with whom it re-established diplomatic relations that month.

Cape Verde

            Cape Verde and China established diplomatic relations in April 1976, after Cape Verde gained independence from Portugal. Initially, it adhered to the PRC’s “One China Policy,” but in the mid-1990s, Republic of China (Taiwan) businessmen began investing in Cape Verde, with relations between the two countries growing since then. The PRC has invested in various infrastructure projects in Cape Verde, such as a dam and a sports stadium. Cape Verde also takes part in the Forum for Economic and Trade Cooperation between China and Portuguese speaking countries in Macau.

The Gambia,

            The Gambia recognized the Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China in 1996, with these relations severed in 2013 when The Gambia recognized the PRC as the sole legitimate government of China. In March 2016, diplomatic relations were established between Gambia and the PRC. In the current period, the PRC and Gambia cooperate in fields such as agriculture, education and tourism, including infrastructural development, with China investing more than $75 million for the construction of the Basse-Koina road, bridges at Fatoto-Passamance and Basse-Wuli crossings in the Upper River Region.[10] China also assists The Gambia in developing a national Internet broadband.[11]


            Ghana and China established diplomatic relations in 1960. In the economic realm, China’s investment in Ghana was estimated at $1.6 billion in 2014,[12] with much of it in the manufacturing sector. The building and construction sectors are also a large recipient of Chinese investment. China is the second-largest exporter to Ghana. The more than 700,000 ethnic Chinese migrants who have settled in Ghana[13] engage in various merchant activities, such as trade.


            Guinea and the PRC established diplomatic relations in October 1959. Chinese aid projects involve the construction of a hospital, as well as other types of aid packages. In September 2017, the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI) entered into an agreement to lend Guinea $20 billion over a period of 20 years in exchange for concessions on bauxite, an ore of aluminum, which is abundant in the country.[14] The projects guaranteed by the loan include an aluminum refinery, a bauxite mine, and another bauxite project, with all located in the northwestern town of Boffa, with the revenue from these projects serving as reimbursement for the loans.[15]  


            Diplomatic relations between Guinea-Bissau and China were established in March 1974, although from 1990 to 1998 Guinea-Bissau maintained diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), not the PRC. Relations with the PRC were restored in 1998. As a Portuguese-speaking country, Guinea-Bissau took part in a $1 billion fund established by China to increase trade between the PRC and Portuguese speaking countries. In 2017, the PRC announced an investment in of $184 million to construct a biomass power plant in Guinea-Bissau.[16]

In the same year, China announced that it was to invest $184 million to build a biomass power plant.[17]

Ivory Coast

            The Ivory Coast and China established diplomatic relations in March 1983. In May 2018, the China State Construction Engineering company won a $191 million contract to build a bridge over the lagoon in the commercial hub of Abidjan.[18] Another Chinese company, the state-run Sinohydro, was awarded a $580 million contract to build a hydropower dam, with 20 percent of the workforce to be Chinese.[19] Chinese companies have also been awarded contracts to build soccer stadiums, a port expansion, a drinking water facility, and a coastal highway between Abidjan and the resort town Grand Bassam. A Chinese company has also established a pay-TV service. China has also committed to invest $7.5 billion in the country’s infrastructure.[20]


            Liberia and China established diplomatic relations in 1977, but were interrupted in October 1989 due to Liberia’s establishment of relations with the ROC. In August 1993, the PRC re-established relations with Liberia, with Liberia retaining its diplomatic ties to the ROC. However, in October 2003 Liberia ceased its diplomatic relations with the ROC, reestablishing its sole ties with the PRC. Reportedly, this resulted from the PRC’s lobbying in the United Nations in favor of deployment a peacekeeping force in Liberia. The PRC has sponsored various development projects in Liberia, such as constructing a university and a hospital.  


            Mali and China established diplomatic relations in October 1960. China’s economic development assistance to Mali has included loans, for instance, to build the Bamako-Segou highway, a grant to construct a bridge in Bamako, and an $8-9.5 billion 560 mile-long railway link between landlocked Mali and the Guinean port of Conakry.[21] Another $1.5 billion was intended to an upgrade of the 765 mile-long railway between Bamako and Dakar, which functions as Mali’s link to the sea.[22] The Chinese company, CGC overseas Construction Group, was involved in mining Mali’s 100 million ton iron-ore deposit at Bale, 136 miles west of Bamako, including constructing a steel plant and a 400-megawatt power plant. Chinese firms were also involved in searching for uranium in Mali’s southwestern region. There is also a small Chinese business community in Mali consisting of about 3,000 people, who live primarily in the capital of Bamako.[23] They operate retail shops, small hotels, and construction firms. A contingent of about 170 Chinese peacekeepers is deployed as part of a United Nations force in Mali.[24]


            Mauritania and China established diplomatic relations in July 1965. Economically, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation drills oil well in Mauritania, with oil production viewed as a significant contributor to economic growth in Mauritania.[25] China’s provision of loans enables Mauritania to develop its infrastructure, such as the international airport at Nouakchott.[26]


            Niger and China established diplomatic relations in July 1974. In June 1992, when a Nigerien transitional government re-established diplomatic relations with the ROC (Taiwan), the PRC suspended its relations with Niger the following month. In August 1996, the PRC and Niger re-established its diplomatic relations. The PRC’s financial investments in Niger have included several dozen projects, ranging from developing a uranium mine, oil exploration and oil refinery, constructing a bridge, agriculture, and hydrology, medical projects, textiles, as well as providing debt relief.[27]  


            Nigeria and the PRC established diplomatic relations in 1971. Nigeria also maintains trade relations with Taiwan (with Nigeria reaffirming that Taiwan is part of the PRC’s territory). Nigeria is a significant source of oil and petroleum for China, with the PRC providing extensive economic and military assistance to Nigeria. In 2011, Nigeria was China’s 4th largest trading partner in Africa.[28] In the military realm, China provides arms, equipment, training, and technology to the Nigerian armed forces. 


            In 1960 Senegal and Taiwan established diplomatic relations. In the early 1970s, Senegal and China (PRC) established trade and economic relations, which were suspended in 1996, when Senegal and Taiwan resumed economic relations with Taiwan. In 2005, the relations with the PRC were restored. The PRC is Senegal’s second-largest trading partner.[29] China imports raw materials such as groundnuts and titanium ore, with Senegal importing technology and infrastructure-related products, such as telephones, construction vehicles, steal and delivery trucks.[30] Senegal’s large Dakar port is a significant economic and geostrategic facility for China as a gateway to the West Africa region. Senegal’s airport is also considered a major regional transport hub for China. Chinese investments in Senegal focus on agricultural and fishing ventures, among others.

Sierra Leone

            Sierra Leone and China established diplomatic relations in July 1971. Chinese investments in Sierra Leone focus on gaining access to its mineral resources and establishing infrastructural projects, such as road and rail transport and dam construction, hospitals, telecommunications networks, and water systems.[31] In return, Sierra Leone also benefits from China’s low-interest loans. 


            Togo and China established diplomatic relations in September 1972. Chinese investments in Togo have included road projects and the provision of various types of loans for infrastructure-related projects.


            In assessing the impact of China’s multifaceted intervention in West Africa, one finds benefits and drawbacks, with several significant future trends. For China, its extensive investments in in these countries’ infrastructure and capital projects (I&CP), including providing loans at low interest rate and, particularly, in playing a crucial role in mining extraction projects, has provided Beijing with valuable imported resources, such as oil and gas, uranium, and other raw materials, as well as a large market for its exports.

            In a beneficial outcome to China on the diplomatic front, China’s financial investments and provision of loans have served to influence a number of West African countries to sever or decrease their diplomatic and economic involvement with Taiwan – a major objective of China’s foreign policy.

            In terms of benefits to the affected West African countries, China’s extensive investments and provision of loans have been valuable in helping them to industrialize and diversify their economies, promote private sector activity, and create new employment opportunities for their populations, thereby helping to alleviate the overall poverty of these societies. By increasing business confidence, it also helps to draw in investments by other societies in these economies, as well as trades in goods and services.

            In a negative economic outcome to the West African countries, although exact econometric figures are unavailable, a criticism of China’s financial investment in large infrastructural projects is that these have produced limited benefit for the local economies while increasing their overall debt burden. In a negative diplomatic outcome, these countries’ continued dependence on China for its conditional foreign assistance is that it limits them from pursuing their own independent foreign relations, particularly with Taiwan – which is still a major Asian economic power and whose economies ties can benefit them, as well. 

            These trends in political, diplomatic, economic, and military relations between China and West African states are expected to continue at the current rate for the near-term.

[1] http://www.afro-vision.com/Five_Regions/West_Africa.html.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_Africa.

[3] https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/insights/us/articles/za22330_consider-building-roads/DI_If-you-want-to-prosper-consider-building-roads.pdf.

[4] https://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-militarizes-its-influence-africa-36667

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/industry/public-sector/china-investment-africa-infrastructure-development.html.

[7] http://www.saisperspectives.com/2016issue/2016/5/12/n947s9csa0ik6kmkm0bzb0hy584sfo.

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benin%E2%80%93China_relations.

[9] Ibid.

[10] http://thepoint.gm/africa/gambia/article/gambia-china-relations-1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China%E2%80%93Ghana_relations.

[13] Ibid.

[14] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-guinea-mining-china/china-to-loan-guinea-20-billion-to-secure-aluminum-ore-idUSKCN1BH1YT.

[15] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-guinea-mining-china/china-to-loan-guinea-20-billion-to-secure-aluminum-ore-idUSKCN1BH1YT.

[16] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bissau-china-power-idUSKBN1650SN.

[17] Ibid.

[18] https://www.straitstimes.com/world/africa/china-battles-france-for-business-in-its-former-african-colonies.

[19] Ibid.

[20] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ivorycoast-stanbic/standard-bank-works-chinese-connections-in-francophone-west-africa-idUSKBN1HH1VW.

[21] https://moguldom.com/75390/mali-leans-on-china-as-investments-heighten/.

[22] https://www.reuters.com/article/mali-china-cn-railway-const/mali-signs-1-5-bln-rail-deal-with-china-railway-construction-idUSL8N14F06320151226.

[23] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_people_in_Mali.

[24] https://www.oxfordresearchgroup.org.uk/blog/chinas-un-peacekeeping-in-mali-strategies-and-risks.

[25] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mauritania-energy/total-to-start-oil-drilling-in-mauritania-idUSL0525402120080305.

[26] https://china.aiddata.org/projects/168.

[27] https://www.businessinsider.com/niger-oil-and-chinese-investment-in-africa-2015-9.

[28] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China%E2%80%93Nigeria_relations.

[29] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China%E2%80%93Senegal_relations.

[30] Ibid.

[31] https://standardtimespress.org/?p=4633.