Russia has entered the race for influence in Africa over the past decade, largely on the shoulders of the Wagner Group and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. What happens now is unclear, though Vladimir Putin won't want to cede any ground to other world powers in the race for influence on the continent.
Africa will become increasingly important in Russian foreign policy in the near future, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently declared. Statements by Russian officials are often empty words — but not this one.
Russia entered the race for influence in Africa in the second half of the 2010s, when it became obvious that cooperation with the West was coming to an end. The annexation of Crimea, the war in Donbas and sanctions were already things of the past.
Now, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has returned Moscow's foreign policy to the Cold War era, when it was critical to have political spheres of influence. But Russia is struggling: it has almost nothing it can offer Africa. Instead, it is Russia that needs Africa’s support. As one of the largest blocs of countries voting in the UN, and one of the most promising regional economies, Africa is of huge strategic importance for Russia.
Moscow's return to Africa began after its military operation in Syria in 2015. After it had regained influence in the Middle East, many governments in the Global South appreciated the strength Russia demonstrated in defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and turned to Moscow to aid in resolving regional conflicts.
As confrontation with the West intensified, Moscow needed allies, if only from a rhetorical standpoint. Indeed, Russia’s emphasis on the hypocrisy of Western elites and their colonial projects resonate with people in Africa.
South instead of West
The economic benefits of cooperation are also obvious. Africa is now one of the most promising markets, with a population of 1.3 billion people. According to the UN forecast, of the nine countries that will drive global population growth by 2050, five are in Africa (Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt).
As a result, Africa is a point of serious geopolitical contention: there is something there that’s worth fighting for. As Vladimir Putin himself said in 2019 before the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi: “Africa is increasingly becoming a continent of opportunity. It has huge resources, potential economic attractiveness.”
For years, Russia has been far behind the U.S., the EU and China in terms of trade with Africa. In 2018, Russia’s trade turnover with African countries amounted to $18 billion, much less than that of its rivals: $61 billion for the U.S., $204 billion for China and more than $300 billion for EU countries.
Russian business has little understanding of how to operate in Africa, especially in its central part.
The EU has also been holding summits with African leaders since 2000, China since 2006 and the U.S. since 2014. And there are now other participants in the race for Africa: India, Brazil and even Indonesia — the list is constantly growing.
But Russia did not have to start from scratch, and can still depend on its old reputation from the era of the USSR.
Russia has consistently supplied Africa with weapons and grain. Before the summit in Sochi, Russia was the number one arms supplier to sub-Saharan countries. In 2018–2020, Africa imported 32% of its wheat from Russia.
People demonstrate in Niger's capital Niamey to show their support for the coup plotters, shouting slogans against France carrying Russian flags. 03 August 2023
Game without a plan
Russian business, of course, focused primarily on the West, but also did not miss opportunities in Africa. Among the largest projects are diamond mining in Angola, the construction of a nuclear power plant and an industrial zone in Egypt and the development of oil fields across the region.
But overall, Russian business has little understanding of how to operate in Africa, especially in its central part.
“It’s not so easy with Africa; people are afraid. It’s such a delicate story,” said Artem Bektemirov, a former owner of a popular pharmacy chain, who invested $35 million in a fish factory in Senegal. The main risks in Africa are related to instability in the region and “unfriendly actions on the part of the major political or business players,” he explained.
But Senegal is a “pretty calm country,” Bektemirov said, where “there have been no coups for decades, there is democracy, and the risks of unfriendly actions are not so different from those in Russia.”
The real return to Africa began with a show of force. It has become the main, albeit informal, article of Russian export to many countries.
Russia's increasing presence in Africa
In 2017, the Wagner PMC and Yevgeny Prigozhin's business empire moved to Africa. There, it found the “security in exchange for profit” scheme (receiving money for the provision of military, often security services, among other things) in high demand.
“Wagner” became Russia’s calling card in Africa, although Russian authorities distanced themselves from the group for a long time. Before Prigozhin’s death, they were preparing to replace Wagner in Africa with other PMCs, but their intentions were still essentially the same.
In the Middle East and Africa, the Wagner PMC was never considered separately from the Kremlin, but, on the contrary, was considered one of the conductors of its policies. That is, if chaos can be called politics.
“In those countries in which I am quite well immersed, I believe that we do absolutely nothing. Our bureaucracy is keeping things stable ... The Americans, the French and other players on the African continent are many times, tens, hundreds of times more active than we are,” Prigozhin said in April.
Russia wants Africa to develop economic ties and political support in the confrontation with the West.
He expressed what Russian Africanists have been saying for years: Russia did not and does not have a clear strategy for developing relations with Africa (as well as with the Middle East). It was only after the 2019 summit that they began to streamline their strategies and decisively build relations with Africa. They discussed business plans, the return of Russian cultural centers and news agency bureaus, broadcasting in Africa, and increasing scholarships for African students. The result was an action plan for 2023–2026 adopted at the second Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg in July.
There have been no significant successes in the four years between the summits. As a result of the war in Ukraine, only 17 African presidents and four prime ministers came to St. Petersburg, compared to 45 in Sochi.
Trade turnover has not changed: the same $18 billion in 2022 as in 2018. Taking into account the pandemic and sanctions, this may not be a failure, but it is certainly not an achievement.
Sanctions cannot be circumvented
Russia wants Africa to develop economic ties and political support in the confrontation with the West.
At first, Russia hoped for help in circumventing the sanctions, but it quickly became clear that this would be in vain. A year ago, Morocco rejected a proposal to build a hub for the supply of goods to Russia.
Experts from the Center for African Studies at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Russia warn not to expect help from Africa in this regard. African countries can seek concessions in sanctions, but otherwise they pursue their own interests, choosing those countries with whom economic ties are strongest.
Examples are Egypt’s refusal to accept the Russian Mir payment system and the suspension of Royal Air Maroc flights to Russia. “Most African countries will not expose their own, already successfully functioning financial institutions to secondary sanctions,” write experts from the Center for African Studies.
Guinea-Bissau's Minister of Foreign Affairs Suzi Carla Barbosa and Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov during a signing ceremony after their meeting in Moscow, Russia, on October 18, 2021
Just before the 2023 summit, Russia announced it would withdraw from the Black Sea grain deal, which allowed Ukraine to continue to export grain during the war. This decision made gaining political support from African countries all the more difficult.
The deal aimed to provide grain and fertilizers to developing countries (primarily in Africa) and to keep prices down. During the year, Russia had not interfered with the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea ports, and Putin had been persuaded not to withdraw from the deal. The more grain on the market, the lower the prices and vice versa. Africa bought 12% of its grain from Ukraine, but Putin said Russia could easily replace Ukraine by providing more of its own grain.
At the summit, Putin promised to supply 25-50,000 tons of grain to six African countries, for free. But South African President Cyril Ramaphosa replied: “We did not come here to ask for gifts," and called on his Russian counterpart to continue with the grain deal.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, the president of Zimbabwe (also a country to which Putin promised grain) said that the country does not need this. At the end of the forum, Russia began heavily bombing Ukrainian granaries, making discussions of political support from African countries ever more difficult.
Support for Russia in Africa varies by country
Moreover, African countries are highly sensitive to issues of territorial integrity and foreign military-political interference. The invasion of Ukraine greatly worsened Russia's image on the continent. African politicians are well aware that Russia is becoming more and more dependent on third countries that are ready to support it politically or bypass sanctions.
At the same time, Russia can give little to Africa in exchange for its support. In terms of investment, it cannot be compared with the West and China.
But for many African countries, cooperation with the Russia is still important. The primary reason for this is that Russia will continue to support countries even when they do not adhere to democratic values — and Russia is more than happy to provide military support to individual regimes.
Perhaps that is why the attitude towards Russia in Africa varies greatly from country to country. According to a Gallup study, just 8% of the population in Mali had a negative view of Russia, but in Botswana the figure was 61% .
It is no coincidence then that in recent months, Ukraine has begun to pay close attention to Africa. “Our strategy is not to replace Russia,” explained Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba, “but to free Africa from the Russian grip."
Russia, he said, “is trying very hard to keep countries in its orbit through coercion, bribery and fear.”
Kyiv entered the race for Africa after the full-scale invasion, when it realized that the attitude of these non-Western countries towards the war was less clear-cut. “We are starting from scratch in Africa,” Kuleba admitted.
Since then, he has visited the region twice. At the beginning of the second trip, Kuleba commented: “The first visit was historical; the second will build a relationship.”