The battle for African hearts and minds: Here's why the West is upset about Russia's growing influence on the continent
On Sunday, March 19, the 2nd International Parliamentary Conference 'Russia – Africa' will start in Moscow. Over 40 official delegations from all over the continent will participate in the event, with discussions ranging from Russian-African cooperation to Western neocolonialism.
The forum is just one link in a long chain of recent contacts between officials in Moscow and their African counterparts that will culminate in the second Russia-Africa Summit, scheduled for July of this year in St. Petersburg. Moscow hopes that the event will elevate its relations with the countries involved to “a new level of cooperation.” Based on recent meetings between Russian diplomats and their African counterparts, it is clear that the new relations will be marked not only by economic, but also military partnership.
The US and its allies have expressed concern over the issue and, as the Russian Foreign Ministry warns, have attempted to disrupt the upcoming summit. But is this something the West can achieve, considering its slackening grip on the developing world?
A bet on the Global South
Moscow demonstrated its serious interest in the world’s fastest-growing region, Africa, at the end of the last decade. The first Russia–Africa Summit, held in Sochi in 2019, gathered representatives from all 54 African countries, with 43 states being represented at the highest level. Eight major integration associations and organizations also participated.
The event cost the Russian authorities 4.5 billion rubles ($69 million) and was one of the most expensive of its kind. However, the investments paid off a hundredfold – by the end of the summit, the sides signed contracts worth at least 800 billion rubles ($12 billion).
Following the military offensive in Ukraine and the rupture of relations between Russia and the West, contacts with the Global South have become even more valuable for Russia. This is evidenced by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent activity.
In the first months of 2023, he has already toured Africa twice. At the end of January, he visited several sub-Saharan countries: South Africa, Eswatini (Swaziland), Angola, and Eritrea. In February, he traveled around North Africa to Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan. Lavrov’s previous large-scale tour of Africa was in July 2022 and included Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Republic of the Congo.
Moreover, in the first months of 2023, his deputies held meetings with the ambassadors of African states in Moscow, while Russian ambassadors to African countries met with local authorities.
In addition to discussions of the forthcoming Russia–Africa Summit, Lavrov’s recent encounters with African representatives focused on cooperation on food and energy security and military partnership.
In South Africa, the minister discussed joint trilateral naval exercises with China, which took place in the Indian Ocean from February 17 to 27. For these exercises, a Russian Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate crossed the Atlantic.
In Angola, Lavrov recalled the successful launch of the Angosat-2 satellite by Roscosmos in October 2022. He assured the authorities of further high-tech cooperation, expressed happiness at the growing interest in the Russian language, and spoke about creating common currencies within the framework of institutions like BRICS.
In Eritrea, Lavrov stated that Moscow is ready to meet the country’s needs in the matter of “maintaining defense capabilities” and developing military-technical cooperation.
In Mali, the Russian Minister discussed the joint fight against terrorism in the Sahel-Saharan zone, the education of Malian students through the Russian Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the ongoing supply of weapons and military equipment.
In Mauritania, the parties discussed Russian tech transfers and cooperation in healthcare, including training Mauritanian students at Russian medical universities and the work of Russian doctors in the country.
With Sudanese leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a preliminary agreement was made regarding the construction of a Russian naval base on the Red Sea coast in Port Sudan.
These events received broad coverage in Western media and apparently became a source of concern for the bloc's politicians. Soon afterwards, the West embarked on its own series of contacts with African countries.
The West strikes back
In December 2022, at a press conference on the eve of a US-Africa Summit forum, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin claimed that the growing influence of Russia and China in Africa could destabilize the region. Backing loud statements with action, the United States promised to allocate $55 billion to African countries.
Indeed, at the beginning of 2023, the United States conducted joint military exercises with 32 African countries in the Atlantic Ocean. There were also reports of US plans for a military base in Morocco, which would be used to limit the influence of Russia and China in Africa.
In March, the United States openly called on African countries to limit partnership with Russia, tying this to the conflict in Ukraine. “Our goal, frankly, is to make very clear to these countries, from an economic standpoint, that your economic interests are aligned with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ending as soon as possible,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said. In March, Adeyemo is scheduled to pay an official visit to Ghana, Nigeria, and one other African country. In her turn, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen already traveled to Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa in January.
Washington's contacts with Africa are not limited to officials from the Department of Treasury. In February, First Lady Jill Biden herself paid a diplomatic visit to Namibia and Kenya. The series of US visits is scheduled to continue with the trip of Vice President Kamala Harris, who will visit Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia from March 25 to April 2.
According to the Special Representative of the President of Russia for the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, “the United States and its allies are waging an unprecedented campaign to politically and economically isolate Russia, and also disrupt the second Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg this July.”
Incidentally, Bogdanov mentioned not just the US, but also its partners since another country has been very active (even if less successfully) in Africa lately – France.
In early March, French President Emmanuel Macron visited four Central African states during a week-long tour: Gabon, Angola, the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). During the trip, he stated that the “Françafrique” era, during which Paris exercised an informal guardianship over its former colonies, is now over and has given way to a new harmonious partnership.
According to Macron, this new partnership implies a “noticeable reduction” of French military personnel in Africa, the reorganization of military bases, and a new model of military cooperation. However, these statements look a lot more like the inevitable acceptance of reality than a gesture of free will.
In recent years, Paris has decided to withdraw troops from the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, and Burkina Faso. The decision was preceded not only by mass anti-French demonstrations by the local population, but also by Russia’s growing ties with these states.
Paris backs off
The most striking example of French failure is the Central African Republic. France took home its troops only in December last year. For many years, Paris used various means, including military, to intervene in the country’s national politics by supporting or removing its presidents. When in 2012, civil war broke out between the government and insurgents, peacekeepers from France and other EU countries unsuccessfully tried to end the conflict. In 2018, CAR authorities turned to Russia for help and signed an agreement on military cooperation.
Moscow supplied the republic with ammunition, trained the local military, and gradually increased the number of military instructors in the country. Less than a year after Russia intervened, the authorities managed to negotiate a truce with several local groups. CAR authorities later expressed gratitude to Russia for its role in the peacemaking process.
The success of Russian weapons and diplomacy was converted into economic benefits. In 2020, Russian companies were given permission to mine gold and diamonds in the Central African Republic. Not long ago, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Central African Republic, Sylvie Baipo-Temon, openly stated that the “mistakes of France” had cleared the path for Russia.
Events in Mali played out in a similar manner. At the request of the local authorities, French troops had been fighting Muslim insurgents since 2013. But the situation only got worse over time. Finally, the leaders of the military junta requested Russian assistance in fighting the insurgents associated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. As a result, Russian military instructors trained the local army and helped fight the militants.
In general, France is losing its military and diplomatic presence in Africa. Mali expelled the French ambassador in early 2022, and by August, French troops were withdrawn to neighboring Niger.
In September 2022, a military coup occurred in Burkina Faso, and in January the new government demanded French troops leave the country.
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, to support the new government just several days after Paris confirmed the withdrawal of its troops from the country. The protesters reportedly carried the flags of Burkina Faso and Russia.
The newspaper Vzglyad reports that the coup in Burkina Faso resulted in Niger’s first officially authorized protest in fifty years. The demonstrators shouted the slogans, "France – out!" and "Long live Putin and Russia!"
Tug of war
The French publication Le Point put a telling headline on its article summarizing the events in Africa: “France shown out the door, a red carpet spread before Russia.” The article notes that the situation was caused by public skepticism regarding the ability and willingness of the French troops to protect the people in Mali and Burkina Faso. According to French media sources, only 2,000 French military remained in Niger, 500 in Senegal, and another 900 on the Côte d'Ivoire.
During his speech in Benin immediately after Lavrov's summer tour of Africa, Macron attempted to throw shade at Moscow by labeling it “one of the last imperial colonial powers.” The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, echoed him and voiced concerns about the demonstrations in Mali. “I saw on TV these young African people walking the streets of Bamako with posters saying ‘Putin, thank you! You saved Donbass and now you will save us!’. It’s shocking,” he said.
Former US Special Envoy J. Peter Pham told the FT that the collective West has lost its influence in certain African countries due to its unwillingness to cooperate in the military-technical field. In particular, he noted that the US State Department vetoed the sale of an Airbus transport aircraft equipped with an American-made transponder to Mali. The Malian Ministry of Foreign Affairs thus agreed to receive both equipment and military aid from Moscow.
According to The Times, the US and the former powers Britain and France have been losing their grip on Africa, while Moscow and Beijing are expanding their presence in the region.
"Russia's growing influence highlights the evolving relationships on the world's fastest-growing continent [Africa],” the newspaper reports. The authors claim that Moscow can count on Africa, which “has long been the playground of the great world powers,” to support it at the global level and particularly at the UN.
The Times added that the goal of the US–Africa Summit was to “lure African leaders” into joining the Western side. But the renewed fight for Africa “may already be lost considering the expanding presence of Russia and China in the region.”
Incidentally, compared to the West, Russia is a lot more restrained in assessing its prospects in Africa. A number of experts believe that Moscow’s increasing military presence there is not a solid enough foundation for successful Russian-African relations.
Anthropologist and host of the Telegram channel African Behemoth Artyom Rykov notes that in order to secure its influence and gain new allies on the continent, Russia needs more than just a military presence. It needs to establish large-scale joint cultural and economic projects with African countries, which, as of now, do not exist.
“It’s about informal ties. For example, understanding where local elites spend their free time and where they educate their children. It’s also about trade – finding a market for our goods in an African country. It’s also important to understand what kind of goods we’re talking about,” Rykov said.
Grigory Lukyanov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), is also confident about establishing cooperation between Russia and Africa in various fields in order to build partnerships. He believes that bilateral relations are currently in need of specific economic projects and a more systematic approach.
According to Lukyanov, Africa's current sympathy for Russia is mainly rooted in anti-Western sentiments.
“The anti-French, anti-British, anti-colonial agenda is once again dominant in Africa. It has gained supporters who are ready, able, and willing to loudly discuss it and receive major political benefits from it. But does this really mean that the region has become more pro-Russian?” Lukyanov wonders.
The researcher believes that pro-Russian views based on anti-American, anti-European, anti-French, and anti-British sentiments cannot be considered a stable model.
“The absence of a constructive agenda will soon become apparent. If France or the United States leave a particular country, the pro-Russian views will lose their foundation. If you can't hate someone together, why should you be friends? Why should you love or at least tolerate and understand each other?” he says.
Artyom Rykov believes that Western media and politicians are aware of this and discuss the threat posed by Russia in a preventive sort of manner. In reality, he notes, we cannot say that Russia has come to “replace” the West in Africa.
Representatives of the African elite aren’t quick to express such views either. In an interview with RT France, in response to the question “Does Burkina Faso want Russia to replace France?” the Prime Minister said, “Our goal is to have more opportunities. It’s not to have someone replace somebody else.”
It’s also worth noting that most African countries refrain from publicly taking sides in the conflict between Russia and the West. This is the true reason (and not Africa’s alleged sympathy toward Russia) why the region does not support anti-Russian sanctions, as noted by the Washington Post back in December.
However, Lukyanov says, “Russia does not need to win the favor of African countries. Russia needs partnerships with African countries.” He believes that Russia and Africa need mutually beneficial relations – not in order to extract resources or win votes in the UN, but to establish partnerships within a new and just world order – one that would replace the current crisis. Lukyanov is confident that the course of events in Russia, Africa, and the world – both in the coming decade and in the 21st century in general – will depend on effectively achieving this task.
According to many experts, we currently stand at the beginning of a long journey and may only anticipate the results of Russia's activities in Africa. As Lukyanov emphasizes, a lot of work is still necessary – especially in the quad aspects of “church, society, state, and business” – before we are able to discuss major results in the long term.