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Russia remains strategically important for Africa

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Picture: Eduardo Soteras/AFP – Sergey Lavrov, minister of foreign affairs of the Russian Federation, greets Demeke Mekonnen, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of Ethiopia, at the Russian embassy, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 27, 2022.

By Sizo Nkala

Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who has served as the Kremlin’s top diplomat since 2004, visited four countries in Africa in the penultimate week of July.

Lavrov’s African tour took him to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of Congo coinciding with France’s President Emmanuel Macron’s West African whirlwind tour which took him to Benin, Cameroon, and Guinea-Bissau.

The coincidence of the two trips brought into sharp relief the ongoing tug-of-war between the world’s major powers over the African sphere of influence. While both Russia and France were quick to cite the development of their respective relations with Africa as the major reason for these tours, the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war and its impact on the global economy loomed largely.

No sooner had they both set foot on Africa’s shores than they started trading blame for the debilitating economic and humanitarian impact of the Russia-Ukraine war.

Lavrov blamed western-imposed sanctions on Russia for the raging global food inflation while Macron claimed that Russia was deliberately causing the global food crisis as a weapon of war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stifled the global supply of important grains such as wheat and maize which saw food prices rise by about 80% compared to two years ago according to the World Bank’s Food Commodity Price Index. The World Bank also estimates that the year 2022 will see a 50.5% rise in energy prices, a crisis to which the war has contributed a great deal.

Africa has been one of the hardest-hit regions. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Africa’s inflation will reach 12.6% in 2022, the highest the continent has seen since 2008. The region’s already unsustainably high 40% expenditure on food is expected to increase further following a surge in global food and energy prices. Moreover, Africa’s oil-import bill is expected to rise by $19 billion thus placing the oil-importing countries in a precarious fiscal situation.

Russia is well-aware of the impact the disruption of global supplies as a result of its war with Ukraine is having on Africa. The African Union (AU) Chair, President Macky Sall of Senegal, very likely raised this issue with President Vladimir Putin on his visit to Russia early in June. His pleas did not fall on deaf ears as only one-and-half months later Russia signed a deal with Ukraine to restart exports of millions of tonnes of embargoed grain from Ukraine’s blockaded Black Sea ports. The first ship of grain left Ukraine’s Odessa port on August 1, five months after the blockade was effected.

It is not a coincidence that Russia deployed its top diplomat to Africa hard on the heels of this new development. Mr Lavrov’s trip to Africa served multiple purposes. First, the trip had the symbolic value of showing the world that Russia was not completely isolated despite a spirited campaign by the West for its global isolation at the United Nations. His warm reception in Africa including in Egypt which voted to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine in a UN resolution in March 2022 showed that the perception of Russia as a pariah state in the West was not universally shared. Secondly, Lavrov intended to push back against the western-sponsored narrative that Russia was the bad guy whose actions in Ukraine were a threat to the global order. The impact of this narrative could not be taken lightly.

In the UN resolution in March, a substantial number of 22 African countries voted to condemn Russia while 17 countries abstained. As such, Russia could not be complacent in Africa hence Lavrov’s visit is prepared to earn Africa’s sympathies.

The inclusion of Egypt in his tour also sends a message that Russia does not hold a grudge against those countries that voted to condemn its actions in Ukraine. This is a far cry from Macron who lambasted African countries who abstained or decided to vote in favour of Russia calling them hypocrites.

Thirdly, although Russia’s economic ties with Africa are comparatively thin, it is a strategically important partner for Africa in peace and security. Africa sources about 49% of its weapons and military equipment from Russia including major weapons such as fighter aircraft, warships, anti-tank missiles and combat helicopters among others.

Moreover, the Russia-linked Wagner Group has been supporting several African governments in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mozambique’s fight against rebels. Hence, Russia remains a strategically important ally for Africa, and it is unlikely that African leaders would buy into the West’s campaign for Russian isolation.

The continent’s leaders have insisted on a non-aligned position which Russia seems to be comfortable with. Lavrov’s visit to Uganda, the incoming chair of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), seems to be calculated to reinforce non-alignment. Indeed, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni emphasized his country’s non-aligned position insisting that they will work with both Russia and the western countries.

The Foreign Minister’s trip to Ethiopia, the host of the second Russia-Africa Summit scheduled to take place in October 2022 signifies Russia’s preparation for an even bigger diplomatic offensive.

For Africa, this situation is sort of a Cold War déjà vu when the continent was a prized sphere of influence for the world’s major powers. African leaders will lend an ear to the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken when he unveils the US-Africa strategy during his visit next week.

Ukraine will likely be a major topic during Blinken’s visit. However, African leaders do not have the appetite for self-serving lectures on human rights and respect for sovereignty. Rather, they will be looking to see what they can get from the United States, especially with the US-Africa Summit coming up in December.

The Russia-Ukraine war will certainly be the elephant in the room in the upcoming ‘Africa + 1 Summits’ involving the US and Russia. However, African leaders will firmly set their sights on the tangible outcomes they can secure for their countries from these summits.

Nkala is a A Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies