Russia, West vie for influence amid Africa caution on Ukraine war

Harare, Zimbabwe – Soon after landing in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, French President Emmanuel Macron made sure his views on the war in Ukraine were known and that his presence on the continent was felt.

While Europe and the West have characterised Russia’s military offensive in Ukraine as a war, African leaders are being far more cautious in their description of the conflict and remain neutral on the subject.

That impartiality is problematic for Macron, who also visited Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau during his visit last month.

“I have seen too much hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent,” Macron announced as he began his three-nation tour.

“And – I’m saying this very calmly – with some not calling it a war when it is one and saying they don’t know who started it because they have diplomatic pressures.”

Macron was not the only high-profile visitor to Africa that week.

In East Africa, Uganda laid out the red carpet to Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, who was on a four-nation tour to win the continent’s support over to Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

Lavrov seemed determined to outwit Macron in a battle for the hearts and minds of African leaders.

Where Macron was preachy and took the high moral ground on the position of African leaders and the war in Ukraine, Lavrov embraced his hosts and counterparts and did not question their ethical compass.

“We appreciate the considered African position as to the situation in and around Ukraine,” Lavrov wrote in a newspaper column published in Egypt, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Uganda and Ethiopia, the four countries he toured during his visit.

“Although unprecedented by its scale, the pressure from beyond has not brought our friends to join the anti-Russian sanctions. Such an independent path deserves deep respect,” he added.

Lavrov’s strategy worked wonders.

When Lavrov finished his meeting with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, the African leader praised Russia, describing Moscow as a “partner” in the struggle against colonialism going back a century.

“If Russia makes mistakes, then we tell them,” Museveni said, referring to his own participation in student demonstrations against the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968.

“We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody’s enemy,” he added.

Museveni has in the past enjoyed cordial relations with the West and Uganda is set to assume the chairmanship of the Non-Aligned Movement, a global body formed during the Cold War era by states seeking to avoid the geopolitical polarisation at that time.

Supporting Russia

Museveni is not the only African leader the Russians appear to have won over. Even countries Lavrov did not include in his recent visit are rooting for Moscow.

Zimbabwe, which has frosty diplomatic relations with the West, is in Russia’s corner on the issue of Ukraine. This is most apparent in state media coverage of the Ukraine conflict.

The Herald, a state-run daily, takes its cue from Moscow’s description of the war by describing Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a “special military operation”.

Zimbabwe’s ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF), enjoys historic relations with Russia dating back to the 1960s when the party was fighting for independence from Britain. To this day, Zanu PF officials address each other as “comrade”, a term state media in the country reserves for top government and Zanu PF officials.

South Africa, the Southern African economic powerhouse, also seems to be on the Kremlin’s side.

Like Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF, the ruling African National Congress (ANC), has a long-established relationship with Russia that dates back to the country’s struggle against apartheid.

Russia provided military support and training to a number of nationalist forces on the continent during the period of decolonisation.

African support for Russia was illustrated in March at the UN General Assembly when 17 out of Africa’s 54 nations abstained from voting on the war in Ukraine. The African contingent amounted to half of all abstentions recorded in the vote.

Food crisis and neo-colonialism

As a consequence of the Ukraine war, Africa has found itself bearing the brunt of food shortages and increased food prices as global-supply chains remain disrupted.

The West has blamed the crisis on Russia, accusing Moscow of deliberately “exporting hunger”.

That is a characterisation that Lavrov is fighting to change, blaming the disruption to food supplies on the sanctioning of Russia and the “absolutely inadequate reaction of the West”.

The threat of Russia colonialism is also being played up by Macron in a continent that for decades struggled under the yoke of European colonisation.

According to Macron, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is similar in character to conflicts of the “20th, even the 19th century”.

“It’s a territorial war, the likes of which we thought had disappeared from European soil,” Macron said.

“Russia is one of the last imperial colonial powers,” Macron declared.

For the old guard of nationalist African leaders who experienced segregation and the evils of colonial rule, such claims may hold sway.

Western diplomats also warn that it is not just the blatant invasion of Ukraine that should worry African leaders.

They point to the role of Russia’s Wagner Group – a private military contractor operating on the continent that they see as an increasing cause for concern. The West believes that the Wagner Group, which stands accused of human rights abuses, is controlled by the Kremlin.

Despite this, Russia is still influential in Africa and that is why Macron and other Western leaders are spooked.

‘New Cold War’

Ronald Chipaike, a lecturer in peace and governance at the Bindura University in Zimbabwe, said Lavrov’s visit was designed “to cement relations that have historically been premised on an anti-imperialism axis since the days of the Cold War”.

Stephen Chan, a professor of world politics at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), said the visits by Macron and Lavrov demonstrated the increased need to woo Africa at a time of growing global tension and a potential “new Cold War”.

“These (countries) are opening diplomatic overtures at the start of what looks likely to be a new Cold War,” Chan told Al Jazeera via email.

The West now realises that African support will come in handy at some stage, he said.

“France, Russia, the US and China are all courting African countries – both for diplomatic support in organs like the UN, but also as economic and political allies and partners. But there is a limit to this first stage,” Chan said.

Chan believes the recent diplomatic developments are part of efforts to set the stage for the “second and third stages” of a “rivalry from which Africa can benefit if it plays its cards astutely and does not rush towards the first courtier with what seems like a ‘good deal’.”

French President Emmanuel Macron greets Guinea-Bissau’s President Umaro Sissoco Embalo before leaving at Bissau’s airport, on July 28, 2022 [File:AFP]

The race to win over Africa is becoming more heated by the day. Even the United States, which for years appeared uninterested in sub-Saharan Africa, has joined the diplomatic fray.

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, visited South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda last week. During his three-country trip he appealed to “governments, communities and peoples” across the continent to embrace Washington’s vision of democracy, openness and economic partnership.

The tour was seen as an attempt by the US to limit Russia and China’s influence on the continent but Blinken insisted that Washington does not see Africa as the “latest playing field in a competition between great powers”.

The US is not “trying to outdo anyone else” in Africa, he said.

“This is not our demand or insistence on democracy, it’s what people in Africa want, it’s clear in poll after poll, they want openness, they want it on an individual basis, as communities, and to choose their own path [as nations],” Blinken said in Pretoria.

China, on the other hand, does not care much for human rights and democracy in Africa.

Beijing has opted to work with Africa’s strongman leaders and offers assistance without criticism or calls for reforms. This approach has augured well with some despotic governments, such as Zimbabwe.

Lavrov did not pledge financial assistance during his visit, while Washington promised a total of $1.3bn to ameliorate the effects of hunger on the continent. France also promised to help with its French-led Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission (FARM) initiative to help African agriculture.

A Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for October in Ethiopia and it remains to be seen what it will bring in terms of aid.

“What we can draw from all this is that the Cold War never really ended. It has just been presenting itself in a different way over the years,” Bindura University’s Chipaike told Al Jazeera.

There are just more players now than there were during the bipolar political order of the Cold War, he said.

Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s senior consultant for Southern Africa, said there is increased interest in the continent from “a growing number of actors vying for market share of the African economy”, including the European Union, a post-Brexit United Kingdom, and “France trying to resuscitate its Francophone relations”.

This competition presents opportunities for Africa if handled skilfully, Pigou told Al Jazeera.

Africa should avoid being pushed into partisan political alignments, especially when several countries are pursuing a non-aligned position with “various degrees of sophistication with respect to its messaging and public reasoning”.

Kenya has articulated that non-aligned position very well, Pigou said, while South Africa has been more muted.

“There is increased realisation from international powers of the need to pay more attention to Africa. And this has accelerated an already growing competition for engagement that we have seen.”

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