Why African leaders dismissed Vladimir Putin’s summit
VPutin’s woman he has never been so diplomatically isolated. Few heads of state have visited him since he invaded Ukraine last year. So when African leaders arrived in St. Petersburg on July 27 for the second summit between Russia and Africa, it was something of a coup – so to speak – for the Russian president. But the turnout shows the limits of Russia’s influence on the continent. Reports suggest that just 17 African leaders did not travel, less than half of the 43 who went to the first bash in 2019.
The exhibition confirms how uncertain Africa is for Russia. Of the 54 countries in Africa, 19 supported Ukraine in the majority of the five votes on the war at the one General Assembly in the first year of the conflict, compared to only two that did the same with Russia. But overall, African states abstained or did not show up 52% of the time.
There is no single reason for the situation of African countries. Several are autocracies run by elites with close ties to Russia; a few Russian mercenaries entertain the Wagner Group. Some states selectively remember their historical ties to the Soviet Union, or are completely skeptical of Western foreign policy. Most people feel, pulled here and there by geopolitical trends, that it is better to avoid sides – and instead find a balance.
The African response to Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea hate campaign should be viewed in this pragmatic context in particular. On July 17, Russia said it would no longer honor an agreement it signed a year earlier that blocked an export channel for Ukrainian grain and helped push grain prices down 14%, according to the Food Group. and Agriculture, a one group. ngos working in the Horn of Africa, in particular, say Russia’s move will worsen inflation and hunger. Although no leader has publicly criticized Mr. Putin, they will raise the agreement at the summit.
Russia will hope it can silence African leaders with the kind of cynical, elite-led approach to the continent it enjoys. Ukrainian officials say Russia has blocked their efforts to bring grain to Africa, under a program launched in November. At the same time Russia is exporting its wheat to friendly states; Mali, with which Wagner is in the crosshairs, received 50,000 tonnes at reduced prices last month. The Kremlin has used a scheme to donate Russian fertilizers lost in Europe, through the World Food Programme, to lobby African states to end sanctions on Russia.
Russia must exert its influence where it can because Africa is an economic microorganism, compared to America, China or European powers. In 2018, the last year analyzed by researchers, Russia gave $28m in bilateral aid to African countries, less than one-hundredth of Britain’s total – and one-third of what Russia gave over to Cuba. Russia accounts for a small fraction of foreign direct investment in Africa. In 2020 Russia-Africa trade hit $14bn, 2% of the continent’s total and about one-twentieth of them– African trade. At the first summit between Russia and Africa, officials bragged about signing contracts worth $12.5bn. Very few are realized. No wonder leaders from Kenya, Nigeria and other major economies skipped this year’s event.
However, Russia is a strong partner for authoritarian regimes that cling to power. It has been Africa’s largest arms supplier for over a decade. Although more than half of these exports were to Algeria and Egypt, it also sells arms to sub-Saharan African regimes such as Uganda more cheaply and with fewer strings attached than the West.
The Wagner Group – another part of the Kremlin’s security offering to autocrats – appears to be living in Africa after its short-lived rebellion against Mr Putin. “There was – and will be – no reduction in our programs in Africa,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, its director, last week. In the Central African Republic Wagner is helping to run a referendum on July 30 that will see Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the president, abolish term limits.
Guns and mercenaries are just part of Russia’s low-cost strategy to target African elites. Many of the countries where the ruling class has the closest ties to Russia – such as Algeria, Madagascar, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe – often avoided the one. And the targeting of elites extends to more democratic places. Jacob Zuma, who came close to signing a gargantuan nuclear power deal with Russia, is among several figures in the South African ruling African National Congress that Russia has sought to protect and protect. The former president is currently in Russia for “health reasons”; as it happens, he faces jail time at home.
Propaganda supports all of Russia’s efforts. Their disinformation campaigns target influential African voices on social media. They are effective in part because the messages fall on fertile ground against the West, especially in French-speaking West Africa. In a poll of 23 African countries in 2022 Gallup found that Mali (84%) and Ivory Coast (71%) are the states with the highest levels of approval of Russia. The top seven were Francophone.
But there is an end to Russia’s claim. In 2021 Afrobarometer, a research group, published the results of polls across 34 African countries. On average, only 35% of the respondents said that Russia was having a positive impact. That proportion was behind those for former colonial powers, regional hegemons, America and China (see chart).
Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, has joined the battle for these hearts and minds. Last week in Kyiv he hosted a group of African journalists. He compared the war in Ukraine to the anti-colonial wars in Africa: “Many of your ancestors went through this.” Mr. Zelensky said that Russia’s approach to grain and Africa was similar to earlier use of oil and gas in Europe. In both cases, he said, Russia tried to eliminate competitors and use resources to create political dependence.
To judge by the low turnout for this week’s summit, African leaders are rebalancing their views on Russia. Mr Putin’s officials blame Western pressure. In truth, it represents just the kind of African self-determination they so foolishly claim to champion. ■