Africa and the Global Race for Critical Minerals

Bradley Intelligence Report

Client Alert


This week, a group of military leaders in Gabon ousted the country’s newly elected officials in the eighth coup in Africa since 2020. Five of the 15 members of the regional political body Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) were suspended, as regional leaders, the United Nations and Western democracies pressure military juntas to step back and permit a return of civilian-led governments. Rampant political instability in Africa adds further complications to what is becoming the world’s largest stage for geopolitical competition over the minerals that are crucial to the global green transition. The U.S., China, and Russia are vying for influence and real estate in an increasingly unstable arena, with significant ramifications for technologies of the future, the domestic U.S. economy, and the environment.  

U.S.-China Confrontation in Africa

Critical minerals are rare-earth minerals vital to the manufacturing of modern and next-gen technologies, such as advanced semiconductor chips and batteries for electric vehicles and solar panels. Africa is home to 30% of the world’s critical minerals, and higher percentages of some individual minerals – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, houses 70% of the world’s cobalt. Gabon has the second largest deposit of manganese in the world and is currently the world's third largest producer. According to research by the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. is 100% import reliant on 14 minerals on the critical minerals list, and more than 75% import reliant on 10 others.

China is the largest player by far in the African mining sector, having invested billions over the last several years as part of its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In 2022 alone, China imported $10 billion in rare-earth minerals from the continent. In addition to dominating the African mining sector, China is the world’s largest refiner of many strategic minerals; Chinese refiners supply 68% of the world’s nickel, 40% of copper, 59% of lithium, and 73% of cobalt. African nations see China as a desirable partner for mining operations not only due to their deep pockets, but for Beijing’s laissez-faire strategy: Chinese investments come with none of the strings, like human rights scrutiny or sustainability, that Western projects can.

The U.S. has a weaker foothold in Africa due to years of perceived neglect and a more hands-on strategy to foreign investment and partnership. President Biden has made significant efforts to deepen economic and political partnership, organizing high-level state visits and pledging investments of $55 billion in Africa over the next three years. Progress is being made. In 2022, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding with Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to collaborate on building the electric vehicle battery supply chain, and construction started just a few months ago in Tanzania on a U.S.-backed battery-grade nickel refining factory that will be the continent’s first.

Political Instability and Russia’s Wagner Group

Post-COVID-19 economic and social pressures have roiled African nations, stoking the popular discontent and dire material conditions that contribute to contentious elections, conflict, insurgency, and military coups. Extreme weather events intensified by climate change have displaced millions, exacerbating already poor economic and political situations. Islamist insurgency groups are at an all-time high on the continent, driving yet more displacement and political change – several of the recent coups in Africa have been predicated on militaries seizing control to more effectively fight Islamist terrorist groups encroaching on their countries’ territory. Political instability has made effective relationship-building in Africa difficult for the U.S. and other Western countries amid regime changes, lowered capacity and physical threats to the mining infrastructure in which Washington hopes to invest. Public-private partnerships to boost critical mineral investments have also suffered (the White House hopes to direct $15 billion in private investment into Africa), as private companies are understandably spooked by the volatile political situation in these markets. In what mining companies may see as their own crystal ball, more than one oil company has had to declare force majeure on multibillion-dollar projects on the continent in the last several years due to physical risks.

A further complication in attempts to build relationships in Africa is the increasingly prominent role of Russia, especially its state-funded military company the Wagner Group. Moscow and the Wagner Group have played an expanding role in African conflicts in recent years, using military support against jihadist insurgencies to expand political influence and secure their own access to natural resources (primarily gold and other valuable minerals, but potentially critical minerals as well). The aims of these engagements are both to secure physical resources, as well as edge out Chinese and American efforts to establish their own influence there. The Wagner Group has boots on the ground in Libya, Mozambique, Mali, the Central African Republic, and Sudan (with rumors of a deployment in the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In Mali, the Wagner Group essentially supplanted French forces, reportedly supporting the military coup that ended defense cooperation with Paris and now assisting Malian forces with a more aggressive anti-terrorism strategy. With the recent death of Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin – in a suspected assassination ordered by the Kremlin – Wagner forces are expected to fall under direct control of the Russian military. Like China, albeit for vastly different reasons, Russia is a difficult regional partner for the U.S. to oppose, as Washington cannot (and does not want to) supply the kind of support that Moscow provides regional capitals. U.S. engagement in Africa will be challenged as Russia competes for relationships there, and its militaristic methods of doing so further fuel instability and displacement.

The Future of the Green Supply Chain

Despite significant challenges, establishing a stable and secure supply chain for critical minerals is crucial to the United States’ economic future, and Africa remains a necessary component to that strategy. Much of President Biden’s economic strategy for the U.S. relies on fostering a domestic manufacturing industry for next-gen and green technologies such as semiconductor chips and electric vehicles, and the scientific consensus more broadly urges the global economy to transition to greener technologies as climate change progresses. If the U.S. is unable to secure reliable, resilient access to critical minerals – whether due to persistent political instability in Africa, accelerated fractures in the trade relationship with China, or other reasons – disruptions could be felt on the business and individual level, from broader lack of economic growth to a shortage of technological goods.