Russia’s Engagement in Africa Requires In-depth Study

March 22, 2024
Samir Bhattacharya Russia's Engagement in Africa

Kestér Kenn Klomegâh

Within the current geopolitical changes, Africa is experiencing sharp disintegration characterized by differences in political systems, economic structures and cultural norms in member countries. Unfortunately, military takeovers have become a distinctive feature (or accepted form) of regime change, particularly in West Africa. For instance, the Africa Governance Report 2023 focuses on unconstitutional changes of government in Africa.

The 35th Ordinary Session of African Leaders Summit, held in February 2022, urged leaders to deploy concerted efforts in promoting democracy and good governance, including upholding term limits, as per their respective constitutions. The Accra Forum II also underscored the commitment to facilitate the consolidation of constitutionalism in Africa through stakeholder engagement.

The Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, summit declaration (April 2022) further urges the African Union (AU) Member States, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the AU and the Regional Economic Communities especially ECOWAS, to strictly adhere to what was referred to as the Lomé Declaration and the Johannesburg Declaration on ‘Silencing the Guns’ in Africa, adopted at the 14th Extraordinary Session on 6 December 2020.

The declaration warned external partners collaborating and supporting military governments to hold onto political power. Given the case of and with particular reference to Russia, it condemned external interference in peace and security matters in Africa. In addition, African leaders have expressed grave concern over the resurgence of military takeovers and further urged the adoption of serious measures to intensify efforts at addressing the root causes of coup d’etats.

In this interview, Samir Bhattacharya, an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), where he works on geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in the changing global order, says Africa has witnessed six military takeovers since 2022, with several abortive coups, sanctions on the military juntas have been lifted but generally the French-speaking West African countries continue to face multiple democratic challenges with a wider negative impact across the region. Here are the interview excerpts:

To begin with, what are your arguments that Russia supports military coup makers (Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger et cetera) in Africa?

It is true that the Russian Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner Group provided political advice to many African leaders throughout the continent, particularly in Sudan, and had offered military support to weak authoritarian governments in nations like Mali and Libya, primarily to combat extremist organizations and insurgencies. The Western experts also emphasized how Russia frequently portrays Africa as a victim of neocolonialism and how it often supports or forms partnerships with autocrats who usually advance anti-Western regimes.

For instance, the Niger coup occurred precisely during the time Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Saint Petersburg receiving the Heads of State and ministries from Africa. There are no coincidences in politics. The president of Ukraine’s advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, was prompted by this to openly accuse Russia of masterminding the coup. Suspicion was aroused by the coup’s timing as well as the Russian flags being flown in the streets in the days that followed.

The narrative that depicts Russia as a proactive coup advocate is compelling and seems to hold water. Nevertheless, it is based on unsubstantiated hypotheses and ignores what Russia has done to help the junta leaders in the nations where it has started to contribute. Naturally, there are claims of human rights violations followed by denials. Nobody has, however, attempted to investigate if the Wagner group attempted to impose a Russian model of governance on these junta officials.

Wagner most likely wants to promote an African style of governance by demonstrating that it is not interfering in any way beyond its duty as a security provider. My point here is that we need to study Wagner in more detail before parroting what some Western media people are repeating.

Russia is seemingly interested in military governance in Africa. Does that set the precedence for future military takeovers in Africa?

Indeed, Western observers continue to be upset by Moscow’s relative popularity in coup-hit Africa. Most African scholars from North America or Europe indeed seem emphatic that not only does Russia support military coup makers, but a greater Russian engagement would also lead to more coups across the continent. Regretfully, there is hardly any empirical evidence to support these general statements. Therefore, it’s crucial to pay attention to what is happening on the ground rather than succumbing to their narratives and attempting to formulate morally sound responses in support of these arguments.

Do transitions from democratic governance to military governments have meaning for fighting growing trends of neo-colonialism in Africa?

Coups can spread quickly. Many observers warned about Burkina Faso when Mali collapsed, and many predicted that Niger would follow when Burkina fell.

Frustration over the government’s inability to put an end to terrorism and other instability in the Sahel region is the driving force behind all of these coups. Russia seems to appeal to a lot of African sentiment when it attempts to position itself as an anti-colonial power.

However, it would be overly generalizing to attribute the coup to neo-colonialism alone. With eight coups in three years, the Sahel region in West Africa is most affected by coups. However, a close examination reveals that the Sahel Region has endured violent extremism, civil unrest, and poor governance for a very long period. It unmistakably shows how France and other Western powers are losing ground in this region. Frustration with France and other foreign powers increased fairly naturally as their military intervention failed to stem the Islamist insurgency that was spreading throughout the region.

Therefore, the West cannot address the issue merely by blaming Russia. And Russia cannot blame only neocolonialism. I am afraid as many African nations continue to be beset by widespread complaints of poor governance, nepotism, and distress, many more within the region and beyond may eventually see military takeovers of a similar nature.

Despite the above narratives, do you think ECOWAS, the 15-member regional economic bloc, must be firm with the ‘Silence-the-Guns’ policy adopted several years ago by the African Union?

The African Union has presented its flagship project, “Silence the Guns by 2030,” which is also an essential component of “Africa’s Vision 2063,” to establish an Africa free of conflicts. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, African leaders decided to concentrate more on other concerns, like the security of food and energy. As a consequence, the 2020 deadline for “Silencing the Guns” has finally been moved to 2030.

And ECOWAS, one of the earliest regional organizations, must take the initiative and maintain its resolve. But it must demonstrate that it is capable of acting. Its image has been tarnished during the recent coup in Niger when the ECOWAS threatened the Junta government with military action in favour of a return to the democratic government before reversing course. Furthermore, claims have been made that France controls ECOWAS. In light of the circumstances, ECOWAS needs to take action in the interest of the continent and restore its reputation as a powerful regional organization.

A research report from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) describes Russia as ‘a virtual investor’ in Africa, most of its pledges largely aimed at luring (woo-ing) African states and leaders to support its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. What are your expert arguments here?

I have not read the report. However, the “African agency” is the most prominent victim in the narrative outlined above. It presents Russia as an all-powerful force that supports the overthrow of elected governments, many of which have the backing of the West and seeks to woo or persuade its allies into following its lead or “corrupting” them in the process.

Russia has not been in Africa for nearly thirty years, ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. When Russia hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit in 2019, many people believed it would only add to the already many Africa+1 conferences without offering anything new. However, the pace at which Russia is gaining ground in Africa has startled Western academics. Russia has been more politically and economically involved in Africa in recent years. But in this particular case, one private military group—the Wagner Group, as we all know it—has spearheaded the most successful kind of engagement on behalf of Russia, as opposed to a government-to-government or business-to-business model.

Since late 2017, Wagner’s military presence in Africa has increased significantly. Troops have been stationed in Sudan, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Burkina Faso, and Mali, and the company is actively seeking to expand into several more states. Nevertheless, it still cannot compete with China, the US, or the EU in terms of physical infrastructure.

In practical terms and compared to China, do you think Russia has made a visible impact on infrastructure development in the continent since the collapse of the Soviet era in 1991?

Africa currently has a $12 billion trade deficit with Russia because it imports five times as much as it exports. President Putin vowed to boost Russia’s trade with Africa from approximately $16.8 billion to $40 billion yearly in five years following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit.

Currently, it remains stagnant at roughly $18 billion each year, representing 2% of the total trade on the continent. Furthermore, two-thirds of Russia’s overall trade with Africa is confined to merely four countries. They are Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa.

On the other hand, China is Africa’s largest trading partner for 15 consecutive years. South Africa is China’s largest trading partner among all African economies, accounting for 19.9 per cent of total trade with the continent, followed by Nigeria and Angola. China’s total trade with Africa grew by 1.5 per cent in 2023 from 2022 to $282.1 billion. Chinese exports to Africa reached $173 billion, an increase of 7.5 per cent over 2022, while its imports from the continent dropped by 6.7 per cent to $109 billion. While the $100 million year-on-year increase made 2023 bilateral trade a record, Africa’s trade deficit with China continued to expand, from $46.9 billion in 2022 to $64 billion in 2023. Comparing Russia with China would not be logical.

Can we conclude this discussion with the significance of peace, justice and strong state institutions (UN SDG 16), what has been achieved over the past few years, the challenges and the way forward in West Africa?

Recently, a very significant event took place in West Africa. Three junta-led governments—Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger—decided to leave ECOWAS and establish the “Alliance of Sahel States,” a mini-lateral regional organization, in response to the organization’s threat of military action. It’s being referred to as the “Brexit of Africa” by many, and it might have disastrous repercussions in the neighbouring countries. In response, ECOWAS chose to lift these nations’ economic sanctions. However, maybe it is too little, too late. The United Nations will have a tough time in its quest for SDG-16 in the Sahel.

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