New Sierra Leone President Visits Europe as EU Tries to Counter China, Russia Aspirations for Dominance in Africa

November 6, 2018 Updated: November 6, 2018

BRUSSELS—Sierra Leone’s new President Julius Maada Bio arrived in Europe this week for his first round of talks with EU chiefs.

Bio paid his first visit to Brussels as he looks to tap into a new sense of European urgency on Africa policy, prompted by concerns over future migration patterns and China’s expanding global influence.

Asked whether he would prefer to receive UK and U.S. investment, rather than Chinese cash, Bio told The Epoch Times: “We’ve been with the UK and the United States forever. The relationship we have with China has not come with any strings attached.

“We’re very smart about our relationships and we always make sure that whatever relationship in terms of trade that we get into, that it’s in the interest of our own people.”

At the European Parliament building on Nov. 5, the president was met by a delegation of representatives, led by the British lawmaker Steven Woolfe, as well as leading businessmen and diplomats from the UK government.

The British members planned to talk about Brexit and the possibility of a free trade deal with Sierra Leone once the UK leaves the European Union next year.

A source close to the UK delegation said they sensed an opportunity after Bio, a reformer who won the elections on March 7, refused a $400 billion Chinese loan for a new airport project, saying it wasn’t in the national interest.

A soldier with the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic holds a Chinese hand grenade.
A soldier with the African-led International Support Mission to the Central African Republic holds a Chinese hand grenade he received from a resident of the Muslim enclave of the PK5 district in Bangui on June 8, 2014, during a spontaneous disarmament program in which civilians have surrendered weapons in their possession. (Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

China has been exceedingly getting involved in economic and military affairs in Africa in recent years in an effort to increase its geopolitical influence. At the time that former Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma signed on the project, the World Bank and IMF warned that the project would impose a heavy debt burden on the Western African nation.

New Direction

EU’s new diplomatic drive to engage Africa comes amid growing concern in European capitals that Russia, and in particular China, are trying to gain an unassailable foothold in Africa.

Member States have already expressed concerns about Russian activities in the Central African Republic, where they believe Moscow is attempting to gain more influence.

“There’s a certain Russian interest in the Central African Republic, not so much for the reasons of the country itself but because this is a relatively weak and vulnerable area where they can sell weapons and establish themselves in Africa vis-a-vis the Chinese,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The diplomat added that the EU is trying to establish a presence in the Central African Republic because “there’s an important security interest” in the African nation.

“The Russians would not want to see the West making progress in the Middle East or North Africa or Afghanistan or elsewhere. They have an interest to undermine our efforts and misrepresent our efforts in the Central African Republic,” the diplomate said.

As a result, Europe is trying to grow its influence in Africa and earlier this year leaders of the EU member states pledged to drum up more than 44 billion euros ($50 billion) in “sustainable investment” for Africa and some countries in the Middle East by 2020.

However, their offerings may be dwarfed by the amounts China has been promising African nations in loans. According to a paper by Brookings Institution, Beijing owns 14 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s total debt stock, making it the region’s largest creditor.

As part of securing the loans, African and other developing nations tap into their strategic assets including oil, mineral, and land rights. In one infamous case, China ended up taking control of a port in Sri Lanka after the country failed to make payments on a construction loan it had taken from China.