How Putin Played The Africa Card Just Right
African countries have mostly stayed quiet on the war in Ukraine. And with good reason. Western influence is diminishing on the continent, and Russian President Vladimir Putin knows how to push the right buttons of African autocrats.
On his return from a visit to Russia in June, Senegalese President Macky Sall made a momentous statement. He declared that most African countries have avoided condemning Russia, “despite enormous pressure.” His pride in this stance was obvious, and his words confirmed a suspicion that political leaders across Europe and in the U.S. have long held about African attitudes towards the West.
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In March and April, when the United Nations was voting on which sanctions to impose on Russia in response to its attack on Ukraine, around half of the African countries abstained. Many did not even attend the vote. Sall also repeated Moscow’s misleading claims that the sudden shortage of wheat and fertilizer across the Global South was not caused by the war in Ukraine, but by Western sanctions. In fact, the West had not restricted the trade of these products.
Sall was not only speaking for his own country, Senegal. As current Chairperson of the African Union – which recently turned down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request to address them via video link – he represents the entire continent of Africa.
Of course, not all African countries are in agreement. Kenya, for example, has condemned Russia. However, the war in Ukraine has shown that Africa is gradually distancing itself from the West. Studies by Freedom House and the Economist Intelligence Unit show that in recent years, along with Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa has suffered the most serious setbacks in its progress towards democracy. However, the surveys still show that 75% of Africans are in favor of a democratic government.
Many African states clearly believe their best option is to adopt a neutral stance towards the old Western powers. The trend is similar to the Non-Aligned Movement that emerged during the Cold War, with a group mainly composed of developing countries forming a neutral alliance to provide a counterweight that could act as a mediator in the conflict between East and West.
At that time, many African politicians were educated in the Soviet Union, old ties that are still very much felt today. This is especially true today since heavy Chinese investment over the past few decades has resulted in the West losing some of the influence it wielded in Africa through debt repayments.
The BRICS alliance is also becoming more attractive to the African continent. So far, South Africa is the only African country in the alliance, along with Brazil, Russia, India and China. However, on Sunday, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that he was interested in joining. A few days earlier, Iran had also applied to join. According to Russian reports, Argentina has also expressed an interest.
That is very bad news for Europe. Firstly, because for Western countries seeking to reduce their dependence on Russia for oil and gas, African countries such as Nigeria provide the best alternative. Nigeria has around a third of the unexploited reserves on the continent. And it has not been lost on the country’s politicians that up until now Europe has been reluctant to invest in infrastructure that would not only allow exports to the West but also enable the country to provide energy for its own population.
Cyril Ramaphosa, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia in 2019
Secondly, autocratic rulers across the African continent are seizing the opportunity to consolidate power. War crimes in Ukraine are providing a distraction from the fact that rulers in countries such as Rwanda and Uganda have stayed in power after the end of their term.
Some of these leaders rely on support from Russia. President of the Central African Republic Faustin-Archange Touadéra is holding onto power with the help of 2,000 Russian mercenaries. In Mali, which has been plagued by political instability for over ten years now, the military junta has also managed to stay in power through making a deal with Russian mercenaries to help it fight Islamic terrorism.
In contrast, Mali’s relationship with the French government, historically a strategic partner, has become increasingly tense. Early this year, France and its international partners announced the end of their counter-terrorism operation in Mali.
In Sudan, a strategically important country due to its size and its position on the Red Sea, millions of people celebrated the supposed end of decades of military rule in 2019, but now the military has regained a similar level of power to what it enjoyed before the revolution. That is also thanks to support from Russia. In return, Putin is hoping to establish a naval base in Port Sudan on the Red Sea.
The BRICS alliance is also becoming more attractive to the African continent.
Although border disputes are common across Africa, it is rare for countries to declare war on each other. Rwanda and Uganda have sent troops to the Congo multiple times to secure access to raw materials, without being held accountable. Civil wars are far more common, usually when the state loses control of a few breakaway regions and armed groups temporarily seize power.
According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, there are currently 16 wars being waged in sub-Saharan Africa, but Africa’s populist politicians are unconcerned. Among them is Julius Malema, founder of the radical left-wing group Economic Freedom Fighters, which occupies 11% of the seats in the South African parliament. “We are with Russia,” he recently said, encouraging Putin to teach NATO “a lesson” and calling for the establishment of “a new world order”.
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