31 March 2022 14:20
Many African governments have turned a blind eye to Vladimir Putin’s campaign to redraw the map of Europe with blood. It is true that 28 African countries have voted a resolution condemning the invasion at the UN. However, 17 out of 54 countries on the continent abstained and eight were too busy to vote.
Some countries’ hesitation in condemning Russia – including Senegal, a nation usually aligned with the West and holding the rotating presidency of the African Union – owes much to the continental tradition of non-alignment. However, non-alignment and neutrality are not the same. If a psychopath is bayoneting a civilian to death, neutrality does not mean pushing the two to argue about their differences.
To look at the war in Ukraine as an abstract confrontation between Moscow and NATO is to deny that Ukrainians have the right to decide what kind of country they want to build. Many people in Africa are rightly concerned about the impact Western sanctions against Russia could have on their fragile economies, especially food supplies. A war between two of the world‘s top wheat producers will drive up the price of staple foods like bread, a situation that often triggers the kind of social unrest that rocked the Arab world a decade ago or helped topple the world in 2019. Sudanese dictator Omar al Bashir. However, the abstention of many African countries – including Angola, the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique, South Africa, Sudan and Zimbabwe – is also a sign of the creeping Russian influence mixed with misplaced nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
Over the past decade, Russia has stepped up efforts to increase its influence, sell weapons, mine minerals and generally complicate the life of the West on the continent.
Africans overwhelmingly support the principles of democracy even when their leaders are reluctant to guarantee it
Moscow’s growing influence was evident in October 2019, when 43 African heads of state attended the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, an attendance that would not have disfigured before the three-year forum on China-Africa cooperation. In a timely report on Russia in Africa from the Tony Blair institute for global change, Putin’s new interest is explained in purely transactional terms: rekindling Soviet-era ties to extract resources (and UN votes) in exchange for assistance on issues of safety.
Another, more sinister hypothesis is that Putin sees Africa as a so-called “second frontier” to surround Europe “by fueling instability, disrupting elections, exporting weapons and triggering migratory flows” across the Sahel and Libya. Africans will not welcome an analysis that sees the continent as a theater of the so-called rivalry of the great powers. But that doesn’t mean that this isn’t happening.
In Mali, a country where the Russian mercenary group Wagner, which acts like a Kremlin delegate, has a thousand men, Russia is showing clear signs of wanting to end European influence. In January, the military government of Bamako expelled the French ambassador. Now France and its European allies are conducting their counterterrorism operations in the Sahel from neighboring Niger. The Wagner group may also have trained the Front for Change and Concord in Chad which, according to the Blair Institute report, is responsible for the assassination of the country’s leader and staunch ally of France Idriss Déby.
He fought against rebels in the Central African Republic, another former French colony. Across Africa, Russia has trained presidential bodyguards and counseled governments in the dark arts of surveillance of their peoples and election fraud. At least 40 percent of all arms imported by African governments have Russian origins. In the southern African states, the ambivalence over the war in Ukraine has one more reason: a transfer of gratitude from the Soviet Union, which supported national liberation movements, to Putin’s Russia.
Jacob Zuma, the disgraced former South African president, called Putin a “man of peace”. Even the current president Cyril Ramaphosa showed a devious homage with his tweet: “Thanks to His Excellency President Vladimir Putin for answering the phone today so I could better understand how the situation between Russia and Ukraine is evolving.”
Some will argue that a war in Europe is not all that important to Africans. Others will point the finger at the West’s rapacious colonial history, its frequent hypocrisies and the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Libya. But this is not the time to be neutral. Afrobarometer and other opinion polls show that Africans overwhelmingly support the principles of democracy even when their leaders are reluctant to uphold it. The most solid, however imperfect, democracies of Africa, such as Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Niger, Nigeria and Zambia, have lined up against Russia. It is plausible that Moscow’s invisible offensive in Africa will benefit some of the continent’s most autocratic leaders. It certainly won’t help its citizens.
(Translation by Giusy Muzzopappa)