Sub-Saharan Africa has in recent years been presented as increasingly smitten by Chinese charms, but a major new survey finds the region retains a more favourable opinion of the would be ex, the United States.
Pew Research found that 74% of Africans—well above the global median of 65%—had an overall favourable view of the US, compared to 70% who held a positive view of China.
The findings came as economists, who have been toting up Chinese-Africa trade figures, report that business reached $210 billion in 2013, from $10 billion in 2000. The Asian giant overtook the US as Africa’s main trading partner in 2009.
But many Africans still perceive the US as the world’s leading global economy, at 48%, above the 45% global median. Only 22% of Africans surveyed named China as the leading economic power.
However, despite the lingering love for America, 43% of Africans believe China will eventually replace the US as the dominant superpower, in keeping with the global 49% average that sees Beijing as the top dog in waiting.
Globally a median of 49% held favourable opinions of China, with almost all seven polled sub-Saharan countries, which represent 35% of Africa’s population, giving it the thumbs up.
South Africa, China’s largest trading partner in the region and BRICs partner, was however split, with 40% finding the Asians favourable and 45% unfavourable.
A big majority of Tanzanians and Kenyans (both 77%), Senegalese (71%) and Nigerians (60%) plumped for Beijing, and by almost similar margins, thought China’s resource-hungry economic growth was good for their economies.
An earlier survey found African countries have an increasingly unpopular view of Russia, the former Cold War power, in the wake of its annexation of Crimea.
Foreign policy criticism
The Pew survey will come as a huge relief for Washington, whose foreign policy has been heavily buffeted from all sides, including by damaging revelations that American intelligence types regularly listen in on people’s telephone conversations and read their private e-mails.
The use of drone strikes against extremists, and storms over gay rights, did not irreparably harm African perceptions of the US over the last year, the survey found. Pew says Brand America has largely stabilised after slipping in the first years of this decade.
While there were falls in support compared to last year in Ghana, Senegal and Uganda, approval levels were still well above 60%.
Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania largely retained a positive view of the United States, with roughly three-quarters having a favourable perception of Uncle Sam’s activities.
Overall, the study notes, the global public’s view of the United States is unchanged from last year, with a favourable median assessment of 62%.
But within individual parameters of the US-China survey the results differed widely.
Egyptians couldn’t care less for America, Pew found, while Kenyans are, surprisingly, still basking in Obama-mania. Senegal, which has a Muslim majority, was the African country that most strongly disapproved of the use of drones against terrorists.
Egypt, which is classified in the survey as a Middle East country, exhibited deep anti-Americanism with only 10% holding a favourable view of the world power; the lowest globally.
This could be due to the perception that Washington, in the end, sided with the Egyptian military and threw the Arab Spring revolutionaries under the bus.
There was also a generational gap among respondents. In Tanzania, more young people had a favourable view of the US than their elders, with 81% of those aged 18-29 happier with the US compared to 62% of those 50 and above.
Senegal and South Africa also showed similar generational gaps of over 10 percentage points.
US President Barack Obama retained his popularity on the continent, apart from in Egypt.
The son of a Kenyan father retained huge support in the east African nation, with 78% solidly in his corner. He was also particularly appreciated in Tanzania (74%), South Africa (72%) and Senegal (73%); countries he visited last year.
Not as enamoured were Ugandans, where their favourable perception of the US has dropped 11 percentage points since last year to settle at 62%.
This could be due to the diplomatic pressure and sanctions imposed by Washington on Kampala after Uganda President Yoweri Museveni in February signed into law a bill that includes life sentences for gay sex and same-sex marriage, which Obama termed a “backward” step.
Kenya, which has been the subject of a string of terrorist attacks since 2011 when its army crossed into Somalia, had the least opposition to the hugely controversial use of unmanned aircraft—-drones—to target extremists.
It was the only country, together with Israel and the US, where at least half of those surveyed approved of the use of drones against suspected terrorists.
Senegal and Uganda saw the largest swing in opposition to the use of drones globally, at more than 20 points compared to 2013.
Kenyans (88%) also particularly support the electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, coming in only second to Italy. In contrast, only 38% of South Africans thought it acceptable, while 61% of Egyptians polled opposed such surveillance.
Many Nigerians - 52% - saw nothing wrong with Americans spying on them, with 53% of Nigerians feeling that the US government respected the personal freedoms of its citizens.
While many Africans did not offer an opinion on the question of individual liberties, according to the researchers, the majority of those who did thought China respected personal freedoms.
Globally, a median of 39% felt this was not the case; still better than the perception of Russia’s civil rights respect.
The survey suggests there is still room for America to work its charms, news that will embolden Obama ahead of a highly-billed US-Africa summit set for next month.