Russia's growing influence in Africa: factors and limits
The colors of the Russian flag have never been as noticeable as such in Africa. The scenes of jubilation that now mark the coups d'état in West Africa have become fairs where the flag of the country of Ivan the Terrible is brandished. The observation can be all the more frightening that in Burkina Faso, after the putsch against Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba in September 2022, it was Burkinabe soldiers who waved the Russian emblem. These facts now confirm the presence of Russia as an influential foreign actor in this part of Africa, as it has been in the Central African Republic, Angola, and especially in Libya. The reasons behind this advance of the Kremlin's presence in Africa are manifold. A historical basis can be put forward, but a change in the strategic paradigm of Russian foreign policy is also the determining variable of Moscow's growing influence on the continent. This article aims first to expose the bases of Russian attractiveness in Africa, to know the factors and the objectives. Then, it remains necessary to distance ourselves from this euphoria and to analyze the limits of a Russian "smart power" which, perhaps, will have difficulty in perpetuating itself over time in Africa.
Factors of Russia's influence in Africa
Africa has clearly become a new priority of Russian foreign policy. "Today the development and consolidation of ties with African countries and integration organizations are among the priorities of Russian foreign policy," Vladimir Putin said at the Africa-Russia Summit and Forum in Sochi in October 2019. It should be understood that Moscow had not given so much importance to the continent since the end of the Cold War. The relations between the two entities had indeed been dynamic throughout the polarization. Russia was at the bedside of African countries in the struggle for independence. It has maintained historical relations with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, and Namibia. This historicity is essential to understand the factors of a growing Russian influence in Africa, which does not come out of anywhere. "Whenever questions are raised and some people want us to take a stand against Russia, we reply: "but you, these people have been with us for 100 years, how can we automatically be against them?" had dropped President Yoweri Museveni during Sergei Lavrov's visit to Uganda, as part of an African tour in July 2022.
Countries like South Africa, which also shares BRICS with Russia, have kept these historical ties with the Kremlin. During the vote on the UN resolution to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, the major abstinence noted among African countries find one of its causes in these historical links. "Some believe that the former liberation movement [ANC] owes a debt to the Russians from the Cold War era. Russian propaganda in many African countries, including and especially in South Africa, aims to revive the old links of the USSR with the liberation movements," explained Angolan political scientist Olívio N'kilumbu. This abstinence of about thirty African countries in favor of Russia also finds its source in a new perception of international relations of African countries. The latter are tending to move away from their western-oriented foreign policy. African countries are now diversifying their foreign partnerships and favoring diplomatic equidistance on issues pitting the East against the West. In recent years, Turkey, China, Russia, and India have become strategic partners, to the detriment of traditional Western partners such as France, the United States, or the United Kingdom.
The question of this new orientation also stems from the paternalism noted in Western policy, which is not found amongst Africa's new partners. Russia does not interfere in the internal affairs of countries and does not make democracy or human rights conditions for collaboration, as is the case with the United States under AGOA. Seton Hall University history professor Maxim Matusevich explains it as such: "Today, the Russians are not offering any ideological vision. What they are essentially doing is contracting with African elites on an individual basis... They insist on the importance of sovereignty and contrast that with the West, which tries to impose its values, such as transparency, good governance, and anti-corruption legislation. Again, I'm not saying that the West is always sincere in doing that, but that's the official message - and they [the Russians] are not doing any of that."
Apart from this diplomatic parameter, the security aspect has also largely enabled the Kremlin to boost its relations with the rest of the continent. Moscow is multiplying its military agreements on the continent. In addition to Madagascar and Cameroon recently, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania had already requested military partnerships with Russia in 2018. But in addition to the agreements signed between states, there is now the presence of the Wagner Group. A private military group headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a billionaire close to Vladimir Putin. Although the Kremlin has often denied its involvement in the agreements signed by Wagner with African countries, the fact remains that it is a foreign policy tool that contributes to Russia's influence in Africa. The fight against terrorism has especially helped put Wagner on the map. Initially deployed in Libya and the Central African Republic, the group has become a partner of Assimi Goita's Mali. The failure of the forces deployed by the UN in the framework of MINUSMA (Mali-Sahel) or MINUSCO (DR Congo) has contributed to the loss of speed of the West in the security field to the benefit of Wagner and Russia. The African peoples, as was the case in Burkina Faso, now see Russia as a savior, which could finally allow them to regain portions of their territory increasingly under the control of terrorist groups. Moreover, between 2017 and 2021, 44% of arms imports into Africa have come from Russia.
New economic partners
The economic field is also not hidden. Moscow is looking for new economic partners and Africa is the perfect terrain for this. After the Cold War, trade between the two entities was only $760 million in 1993. "As early as 1992 (under President Yeltsin, editor's note), Moscow announced the closure of nine embassies, four consulates and thirteen of the twenty cultural centers it had on the continent (...) and trade between Africa and Russia only represented 760 million dollars in 1993 or less than 2% of the country's foreign trade," explains researcher Arnaud Dubien. But the last decade has changed everything. Trade between Africa and Russia is now estimated at more than 17 billion dollars, although 12 billion are from North Africa. "We are preparing and implementing investment projects with Russian participation that are counted in billions of dollars," had also confided Vladimir Putin in 2019.
The limits of Russian influence in Africa
Russia is clearly experiencing a boom in its influence in Africa. If African countries also seem to be enthusiastic about a new dynamic relationship with Moscow, this capacity of influence of Russia does not yet have a sure basis to last in time. For the time being, Russia relies on the new alternative that it represents in the eyes of Africa. It is taking advantage of its military capacity and that of Wagner to produce "soft power" with the usual tools of "hard power". Russia's strength on the continent currently lies in its ability to legitimize the use of military force to help African countries in their efforts to secure their borders, mainly against terrorism. However, this "smart power" is double-edged. The Wagner Group, for example, has been accused by reports from international organizations of abuses and massacres in the Central African Republic and Mali. Even if this does not yet prevent people from asking for Russia's help, if these abuses were to be clearly exposed, it would be a blow to Moscow's image in the long term on the continent. Niagalé Bagayoko, a specialist in security in Africa and a doctor of political science, believes that the expectations of Malians towards the Russians in the security framework could end in disappointment. "In 2013, the entire Malian population was enthusiastic about the arrival of the French... Today, they reject their presence. To be honest, I would not be very surprised if, in about two years, the same thing could happen with the Russian presence," she said. The other concern is also the interest of the Russians in the natural resources of Africa, like the Westerners. Mali, for example, would pay the Wagner group with money but also with gold. "The only thing I see Wagner doing is supporting dictators and exploiting the continent's natural resources," said Stephen J. Townsend, outgoing commander of the U.S. Africa Command. Even if the same could be said about France and United States…
The second parameter is that Russia is not yet completely clear about the economic cooperation it wants to have with African countries. During Sergei Lavrov's tour of Africa last July, several discussions were opened on the possibility of investment and trade between Russia and the continent. However, no contracts were signed. "I don't think Russia intends to do what it promises. They have not made any commitments. It's more about public relations and showing the West that they still have friends," said Zawadi Mudibo, editor of BBC Africa. This economic diplomacy is crucial for African countries to continue to diplomatically support Russia, which has become more isolated from the Ukraine crisis.
The final element that could damage Russia's image in Africa is propaganda. Moscow is known to be quite propagandistic in its public diplomacy and this is felt in Africa. In this area, Russia can rely mostly on African activists who seem to work silently for the Kremlin. Kemi Seba and Nathalie Yamb, perhaps the best known, often present Moscow as a potential savior of Africa, which does everything differently from the West and has no imperialist liabilities. This is quite different from reality since, in its sphere of influence, Russia has always tried to impose its vision of the world, especially on the ex-Soviet republics. There is also propagandist communication on social networks of accounts that are often fake. In addition, there are suspicions of interference in the elections of some countries as in Madagascar in 2018. These practices could in the long term, become harmful to the public diplomacy of Russia in Africa.
If Russia is clearly a partner on which Africa can count from now on, all is not yet in favor of Moscow. The Kremlin must continue to work for its credibility and legitimacy on the continent so that it can counteract, as it wishes, the anti-Russian policies of the West in Africa. The African countries also appear to be a godsend for Russia, which is looking for a breath of fresh air following the sanctions and its diplomatic isolation shaped by the West and the United States in particular.
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