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Russia: Friend or Foe to Africa?

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Graphic: Historically Russia has been a strong African ally. Apart from the ANC, the Soviet Union supported liberation movements across Africa including in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, and refused to bring economic sanctions against Zimbabwe.

By Kim Heller

During a state visit to Russia in April 1999, President Nelson Mandela expressed his appreciation for the “solidarity of the Russian people in the South African fight against apartheid and for freedom”.

The Soviet Union, a clear ally to the ANC in the prolonged battle against the racist apartheid regime, trained thousands of MK cadres, including Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. This contrasts sharply with the stance of the United States (US), which, in 1989, declared the ANC as one of the “world’s more notorious terrorist groups”. South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Mandela, remained on the US terrorism watch list until 2008.

Historically Russia has been a strong African ally. Apart from the ANC, the Soviet Union supported liberation movements across Africa including in Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia, and refused to bring economic sanctions against Zimbabwe. In a significant investment in education, it is estimated that well over two hundred thousand Africans were given the opportunity to study in the Soviet Union.

The yesterday, today and tomorrow of Russia’s role in Africa, is a story that is unlikely to be told in glowing or even neutral tones by the world’s media. Propaganda is a global language, fluently spoken by millions, although often without much comprehension. It is so powerful that it can reversion history, narrate a present that bears no or little comprehension to real-time, and determine a future that was never in the making.

Propaganda has the power to erase our yesterday, our today and our tomorrow. In our ever-ready, supercharged, info-byte age, it is often difficult to discern between information and misinformation. Especially in the war zone of a singular narrative, which wipes out all other voices.

The narrative of Russian relations with Africa as a strategy to dilute US interests and influence over the Continent is a mastered and often repeated one.

In a chapter of the book ‘Exploiting Africa’s permissive environment to advance Moscow’s geostrategic influence’, Joseph Siege writes about the expanding influence of Russia in Africa: “Africa, with its weak governments, abundant natural resources, colonial legacies, proximity to Europe, and fifty-four votes at the United Nations General Assembly, provides Russia an easy and attractive theatre where it can advance its interests with limited financial or political costs.”

The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, speaks a different language. In an interview with Russian news agency, TASS, ahead of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum in October 2019, which aimed to strengthen relations, Putin spoke of the significant support the Soviet Union had given to Africa in the fight against colonialism, racism, and apartheid. Putin said: “We went ahead to assist Africans to protect their independence and sovereignty, gain statehood from the basis for national economies, and create capable armed forces.”

The president of Russia spoke of how key infrastructure facilities, hydro-electric power plants, roads, and industrial plants were built in Africa, and how thousands of Africans had received quality education in Russia over many decades. As Putin evoked “the memory of those pages of history”, he spoke of a new chapter in Russian-African relations. “Today, the development and strengthening of mutually beneficial ties with African countries and their integration associations is one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities,” he said.

Currently Russia’s economic involvement in Africa centres primarily on energy and mining. A flagship project with Zimbabwe involves the development of the largest platinum-group deposits in the world. On the military side Russia supplies arms to many countries on the Continent, including South Africa, Zambia, and Rwanda. Putin has spoken of the competing interests on the “continent of opportunities”. He has clearly articulated that Russia is not looking to be part of a new “repartition” of the continent’s wealth.

For many countries with interests in Africa, any inroads by Russia is a worry. Not because these nations are concerned about the interests of African people or African nations, or value African sovereignty. Rather they simply want to preserve and expand their own interests.

For now, with the world’s attention fixed on the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, or put differently the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, the Western media has, as expected, cast Russia as the super-villain, the super-invader, the conqueror of all conquerors.

Global media has portrayed the conflict almost blanketly as an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The world-wide blackout of Russian television, and a Russian perspective, has denied us the benefit of a second or alternative narrative. One has to question why, if one is so convinced of the righteousness of one’s own view and position, one would need to block out, with such might, alternative views, images and commentary.

It is in the darkness of informational blackouts that lies breed, with a terror and tenacity that even truth itself cannot always tackle. It is in the shadows of a singular narrative that imaginary enemies are made, unholy pacts forged and innocence lost. Information is war. As deadly often as weapons themselves. Propaganda is so well infused into the public discourse that one begins to absorb this as common wisdom rather than contrived armoury.

To the dismay of many nations, Africa has not surrendered, as many have expected or wished, to the master narrative. In the United Nations’ emergency session in March, twenty-eight African countries chose to abstain in the vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For Western leaders, used to instructing and directing their African counterparts, who often do simply mimic Western ways, this was a blow. Many analysts were quick to say that the African states that did not vote against Russia were either ideologically manipulated or too dependent on Russia economically or militarily to vote any other way.

But it could simply be that for these African states, Russia is less foe and more friend. In Putin’s recent speech at the Kremlin, he spoke of the West’s history of colonial exploitation, of slavery and destruction, of cultural denigration of African people and cultures as “running contrary to human nature, truth, freedom, and justice”.

In the end whether Russia is a foe or friend to Africa must be determined by ordinary Africans not by Western powers who have hardly concerned themselves with the wellbeing of Africans.

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.