The Political Economy of AI Ethics and Governance in Africa in the Rise of the US-China Geopolitics

This article focuses on the technology rivalry between the United States and China to examine how the competition of these two digital empires impacts the development of AI ethics and governance in Africa.


Technology, long an anchor of development, has become a critical component of globalisation. TheFourth Industrial Revolution has ushered in a quantum leap in the application of technology for development. The internet, increased speed in connectivity and data processing, and now artificial intelligence (AI) propelled by big data, machine learning and enormous cloud computing power are transforming every aspect of society.

The benefits of emerging technologies like AI have stimulated unprecedented growth in health provision, higher education distribution and, most importantly, economic transformation and enhancement of military intelligence and national security. Estimates place nearly half of total economic gains by 2030 as arising from AI-driven product enhancements to increase personalisation, attractiveness and affordability. This promise of growth is leading many countries to accelerate their pace in the “AI race” by investing in national research and development, building public-private ecosystems and scaling innovations powered by AI technologies. Since 2015, several countries have shown significant interest in AI, with over 60 unveiling national strategies for promoting development and use of AI. This multinational awareness and the aspiration of governments to be leaders in the sphere of AI development have resulted in a competition for global supremacy in terms of technological advancement. While countries like the United Kingdom, Canada and Singapore are making ambitious investments in AI, the United States, China and the European Union are arguably the three most prominent global actors in AI development.

Coupled with the concentration of many of the world’s tech giants in specific parts of the world, the prediction that AI can be used to develop cyber weapons and control autonomous tools like drones warms that can be used for surveillance as well as attacking opponents has made the technology an important component of increasingly tense geopolitics as its research and development fuel“technology rivalry” between world powers. Statements that AI superiority will determine global power raise questions about the political economy (“a perspective which emphasizes that there are different people and actors in society who have divergent interests and unequal access to resources and power”) of AI. As AI development mushrooms, concerns are growing about regulation and ethical design of AI in light of the divergent interests of the various players as well as increasingly unequal access to technology and power.

This article focuses on the technology rivalry between the United States and China to examine how the competition of these two digital empires impacts the development of AI ethics and governance in the African continent, which contains many countries that are allies to both of these technology powers. The first section discusses the US-China tech race followed by the place of Africa in the ongoing rivalry and lastly how the US-China rivalry may create a bifurcation of AI ethics and governance in Africa.

The US-China Race for AI Supremacy

Within the global AI race, the United States and China have wrestled for supremacy. The increasing tension between the two players is most evident in recent incidents of technological decoupling. TheUnited States has imposed stringent sanctions on China by limiting its access to critical technologies such as semiconductors, placing Chinese companies on the Bureau of Industry and Security EntityList, cracking down on Chinese 5G providers and banning the Chinese social media app TikTok from government devices, with efforts underway to prohibit its use on any device within the US. For its part, China has ordered its central government agencies and state-backed corporations to replace all foreign computers with Chinese products within two years. In response to reports that US data hostGitHub was restricting access to its service within areas subject to US trade sanctions, Chinese tech giants fell in behind local alternative Gitee.

These gatekeeping exercises provide a stark example of how one country can affect another’s access to materials and markets needed for AI development and international data transfer. The effect is intensified when it occurs between players of unequal power. While other nations striving towards digital sovereignty will have to compete in the AI race, the future of AI development globally will likely see more geopolitical alignment that will set in motion a form of "digital influence," in which nations with greater digital power influence the direction of other nations that rely on them for technical advancement.

The Place of Africa in the US-China Rivalry

From a digital standpoint, the African continent is rapidly developing, with notable improvement in internet penetration, proliferation of information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and accelerated adoption of digital services. Moreover, the continent is witnessing increasing application of emerging technologies such as the use of drones for telemedicine and facial recognition technologies in helping to respond to terrorist attacks. With improving infrastructure and application of local talent, Africa is also experiencing a growing application of AI technologies ranging from the use of AI in responding to emergencies to the application of AI-powered chatbots to improve banking, agriculture and healthcare. As at May 2023, the continent is estimated to be home to over2,400 AI organisations operating across various industries, including health, wellness, fitness, farming, law, training, and insurance.

As a result of its growing youth population, maturing technology ecosystem and fast-growing digital economy, Africa has become an investment destination for foreign investors and foreign governments looking to advance their territorial influence for economic growth and bilateral cooperation.However, with glaring lack of local investment to drive and incentivise innovation, foreign actors likethe US and China are increasingly important players in technology development in Africa.

Over the years, the US and China have had significant involvement in Africa in many respects, including the continent’s ongoing digital transformation. Market share of mobile devices, a key driver of Africa’s digitalisation, has been dominated by China, the US and South Korea. In addition, between 2017 and 2019, most of the AI tech surveillance systems used in Africa originated in China or theUS. China has been the largest funder of infrastructure projects in many African countries, andChinese investment in Africa's technical structures from undersea cables, satellites, and infrastructure to consumer-focused applications and platforms continues to gain momentum on the continent.Chinese technology now serves as the backbone of network and ICT infrastructure in severalAfrican countries.

Looking ahead, both China and the US have announced significant investment interest to continue to spur technology development in Africa. In December 2022, the US launched a Digital Transformation with Africa initiative, which intends to invest over $350 million and facilitate over $450 million in financing for Africa and entered into a Memorandum of Understanding with the African ContinentalFree Trade Area Secretariat to create a continent-wide, $3.4-trillion market that would constitute the fifth-largest economy in the world.

The presence of the US and China in Africa is undeniable. However, with the wave of the AI supremacy race, it is necessary to investigate the potential influence of these tech empires in theAfrican continent and how their diverging political and economic principles might impact the agency of the African Union or individual countries in the continent on how they approach their regional and national AI ambitions from an ethics and governance standpoint.

US-China Digital Geopolitics: A Bifurcation of AI Ethics and Governance in Africa

Along with the growing interest from tech giants to amass profit and monopolise the space, governments' quest for global digital power, and the accompanying call to curtail the (mis)use of AI, the race for AI supremacy is setting in motion a dynamic atmosphere for who should set technomoral standards for responsible AI adoption. Identification of threats to society from AI have highlighted the need to design automated systems that protect human rights and that do not exacerbate existing inequalities either in the form of systemic racism or gender inequalities. Indeed, the misuse of automated systems for mass surveillance, algorithm profiling and gender and racial discrimination calls for a compelling approach to promote ethics and system governance. However, in the wake of competition for AI superiority at national level, the way different countries approachAI ethics and governance (either from a democratic or authoritarian standpoint) to position themselves as world digital powers will emerge as a new dimension in geopolitics and likely have a ripple effect on the conduct of international politics. As noted by Nicolas Miailhe, as a result ofexisting ties and the potential for future investment, Africa has become a battlefield for the digital empires of China and the United States.

Even though there is a “global standard” on AI ethics – the Recommendation on the Ethics ofArtificial Intelligence published by UNESCO in 2021 and adopted by all 193 Member States, including54 African countries and states, some authors have argued that the current landscape of AI, ethics, and law is largely premised on Western contexts. Within Africa, there is a growing decisiveness in setting standards for data protection. As of 2023, 31 countries have data protection legislation that addresses automated decision making, and 13 countries have established an expert commission or task force on AI. However, only one country has a draft policy or a white/green paper on AI, and only four of the 54 African countries have a national AI strategy. No country on the continent has dedicated AI legislation.

Despite the fast application of AI technologies for a wide range of uses across the continent, African countries have had comparatively low levels of representation in the AI policy world. For its part, theAfrican Union has taken steps to frame guidance for the development of comprehensive AI policy frameworks to promote responsible AI adoption, but the slow advancement of AI regulation inAfrica opens the possibility that this important space will be disproportionately influenced by the continent's two major technology partners. With respect to AI governance, the US and China have adopted divergent, potentially unreconcilable, frameworks. The United States has adopted a hands-off, ‘innovation-first’ approach in response to rules and state regulations that are often considered “barriers to innovation”. China, on the other hand, has placed AI regulation squarely within the central government, in what some have referred to as a “censorship model”.

The US and China are actively seeking to deepen their relationships with Africa; attempts to leverage their support for the continent’s technological development will undoubtedly include application of digital influence to norms of technology governance. Consequently, differences in the American andChinese approaches have significant potential to cause a technology governance fragmentation - a bifurcation of AI ethics and governance in Africa. Such a bifurcation, even if it ultimately proves feasible to implement, has significant potential to impede the benefits Africa can reap from full participation in the AI space.


While international standards and recommendations may have critical lessons for considerations, AIethics and governance cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Hence, to avert the possibility of“techno-colonisation”, Africa leaders must press to advance the continent's technological development by strengthening digital public infrastructures to promote indigenous digital servicesand products, incentivise technology innovations, talent development and research, and most importantly, seek to adopt context-specific regulatory frameworks in the phase of rapid technological advancement.