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Africa: a strategic support for Russia

Rejection of the West has led many African countries to decisively support Russia and justify the invasion of Ukraine
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AFP/CAROL VALADE  -   A man holds a pro-Russian banner reading "Russia will save Donbass from war" in Bangui on February 23, 2022 during a pro-Russian demonstration.

Private military aid and trade deals: Russia's bargaining chip in Africa.

A few days after the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops began, the world began to take a stance on a conflict that has not yet seen its end. Cities such as Brussels, Paris, Madrid and Rome spoke out unequivocally against the invasion, and the European Union began to push for sanctions against Russia. 

This is what was happening in Europe, but the reality in Africa has been very different: demonstrations in Addis Ababa supporting Russia at its embassy in Ethiopia, rallies with the same purpose in Bangui, capital of the Central African Republic, and most importantly, in the UN vote condemning Russia for the invasion, 17 African countries abstained, 8 did not vote, and Eritrea voted directly against. Russia's influence on the African continent was reflected.

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AFP/CAROL VALADE - A hundred Central Africans gathered in the streets of the capital, Bangui, to thank the Russians for saving them from the rebels and to wish the same to the people of Donbass.

However, to claim that Africa is a new strategic support for Russia is to betray history itself, because neither is the continent new, nor are the Kremlin's strategies for gaining new partners novel. The Soviet Union at that time already provided decisive military and financial support to countries in the process of decolonisation and independence. More recently, after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the first international sanctions, Moscow again expanded this network of influence in Africa. But it is true that the conflict in Ukraine and even France's withdrawal from the Sahel has motivated many African countries to look to Russia for more external support, pushing Western influence away from many African countries.

Russia, in return for private military aid and lucrative business deals, gets the opportunities to lead in mining, energy, financial and strategic projects. "In recent years, Russia has aggressively pursued its strategic objectives in Africa: securing a watchtower in the eastern Mediterranean and port access in the Red Sea, increasing opportunities for natural resource extraction, displacing Western influence and promoting alternatives to democracy," says Joseph Siegle, Research Director of the African Centre for Strategic Studies.

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AFP/AMANUEL SILESHI - A man (C) holds a Russian flag during the celebration of Adwa's 126th victory at Menelik Square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 2 March 2022.

Sudan's post-coup military junta has sought such a rapprochement with Moscow to stay in power amid the economic crisis and protests. Hemedti, commander of the Rapid Support Forces and deputy head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, held talks in Moscow with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The Central African Republic, one of Putin's staunchest allies, also showed its support for Russia in the conflict in Ukraine. On 5 March, more than 100 people demonstrated in Bangui around a statue of Russian soldiers protecting Central African women and children. The same has happened in Eritrea. 

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PHOTO/ONU/CIA PARK - Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh addresses the 76th session of the UN General Assembly.

However, it is not Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has sparked sympathy for Russia in Africa. The Sahel had already established close ties with Moscow, especially with mercenaries such as the Wagner Group operating in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the worst hit by jihadism. But it was the announcement of the withdrawal of French troops from Mali that really increased the sympathy for these mercenary groups. In Bamako's Independence Square, hundreds of people celebrated the withdrawal of Operation Barkhane as an expulsion. The burning of EU flags and shouts of thanks to the Russian forces now operating there were a good illustration of Russia's new position on the Sahel chessboard.

In any case, and returning to the situation on the continent, trade and arms exports keep several of the countries on the Russian side of the balance: Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Central African Republic, Angola, Mozambique, Madagascar, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But this relationship between Russia and the black continent is not just about economic benefits.

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PHOTO/ONU/MARK GARTEN  - Martin Kimani, Permanent Representative of Kenya to the United Nations, addresses the emergency meeting of the Security Council on the current situation in Ukraine.
Pan-Africanism, Russia's stronghold 

Russia has always kept a close eye on developments in Africa, especially in its relations with the West. A key piece that Moscow was to capitalise on was Africanism, the nationalist fever that emerged on the continent during decolonisation and independence in the midst of the Cold War, and which still lingers on in Africa. Its objective, then and now, is practically the same, to expel any Western loophole, both European and American, and to look for a new pivot on which to rely: the Kremlin.

And so it is happening. While Russia's image is being shattered by the conflict in Ukraine, African leaders, opposition figures and influential people are showing full support for Moscow. "Putin wants his country back," declared French-Beninese pan-Africanist Kemi Seba, the leading figure in pan-Africanism. "He does not have the blood of slavery and colonisation on his hands," he argued. The son of Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni, Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, justified the same: "Putin is absolutely right! The majority of (non-white) humanity supports Russia's position in Ukraine," he posted on his Twitter account at the end of February.

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PHOTO/AFP - File photo, African heads of state attend the 35th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022.

South African radical leader Julius Malema, on the anniversary of the Sharpeville Massacre, declared in his speech: "We are here to tell NATO and the United States that we stand with Russia. Today we want to say to Russia thank you for being there and don't doubt our support. Teach them a lesson, we need a new world order, we are tired of being dictated to by the United States".

For its part, Russia was not going to miss this argument. Now the invasion of Ukraine has the same motivation as the USSR's help in decolonisation in Africa: to liberate a territory from Western influence. This argument was also used by Kemi Seba in an interview with the Russian Federal News Agency. "Russia's special operation in Ukraine has exposed all the consequences of Western influence on the Kiev authorities. At Washington's behest, the once fraternal state has become a bastion of neo-Nazism and Russophobia, which is unbecoming of any Slavic nation. Ukraine's liberation from Western hegemony has been compared to the process of decolonisation in Africa because the states of the black continent have also lived under the oppression of the imperialists".

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AFP/ PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on screen to address the Portuguese Parliament by video conference in Lisbon on 21 April 2021.
 A continent divided by the Ukrainian conflict

Africa is divided. The UN vote to condemn Russia for the invasion left a very different scenario to that of these pro-Russian countries. In the first General Assembly vote, Kenya, Ghana, Gabon, Rwanda, Djibouti, Congo, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo voted "yes". 

But for Kenya, voting in favour of condemning Russia was not enough. Kenya's ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, did not miss the opportunity to deliver one of the most unique speeches on Africa's position on the conflict in Ukraine: 'Mr President, this situation echoes our history. Kenya and almost all African countries were born out of the end of an empire. Our borders were not drawn by us, but were drawn in the distant colonial metropolises of London, Paris and Lisbon without regard for the ancient nations they divided. If we had chosen to create states on the basis of ethnic, racial or religious homogeneity, we would still be fighting bloody wars", the Kenyan defended in relation to Russia's recognition of the uprising republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

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PHOTO/AFP - File photo, African heads of state attend the 35th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022.

Kimani also condemned "the tendency in recent decades for powerful states, including some members of this Security Council, to ruthlessly violate international law".

Western reaction

The failure of much of Africa to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine has been a problem that Ukraine did not count on. Ukraine is counting on Western help, but its president, Volodymir Zelensky, needs much more than that. Ukraine needs the support of many more nations, and especially those that undermine Russian influence.

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AFP/ PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on screen to address the Portuguese Parliament by video conference in Lisbon on 21 April 2021.

The solution for Zelesnki seems to be clear: address the African Union Assembly. The Ukrainian leader requested this in his last phone call with Macky Sall, the current chairperson of the African Union, and the first African president Zelenski has spoken to since the invasion began. 

In this speech, following on from others made in various parliaments, he is expected to make a reference to colonialism and the shared struggle for independence from the invading imperialist power. However, the ties of several African countries to Russia will make this speech one of the most difficult for Zelenski, but there is one key element that can move African rifts.

 Hunger and inflation

Wheat is at the centre of geopolitics and lack of food is the biggest concern for Africa. This is the new reality left by the conflict in Ukraine, which threatens to leave many countries on the black continent that depend almost 100% on wheat from Russia and Ukraine without grain. Eritrea is one of them, as are Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia and Uganda, which buy more than 90% of their imported wheat from these two countries.

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PHOTO/AP - Malians demonstrate against France and in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, in Bamako, Mali, 22 September 2020.

However, the World Food Programme (WFP) believes that Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia may be the countries most affected by the food shortages. "A circle of fire has been created where war, climate crisis and COVID come together. It is creating a wave of hunger that is spreading around the world," says the head of WFP's Global Partnership Lab.

The same assessment is made by the Executive Director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva: "The war in Ukraine means hunger in Africa. The continent is particularly vulnerable for four reasons: higher food and fuel prices, reduced tourism revenues, and difficulties in accessing international capital markets".

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AFP/AFP - Map of Africa showing countries where Russian mercenaries have been identified, from 2016 to 2021.

This lack of grain, seed and fertiliser supplies, coupled with rising fuel prices and possible droughts, could severely affect inflation in many African countries, and this reality, experts say, is the only one that can change Africa's position.