Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Business Day: 27 September 2021.
The recent announcement that putschists in Mali who seized power in May are close to a deal with the notorious Russian Wagner group to bring in 1,000 mercenaries, has ruffled feathers in Paris. Amidst much coverage of the American and French military presence and Chinese economic activism in Africa, Moscow’s military presence has not enjoyed as much attention in public debates. But, what does autocratic Russian president, Vladimir Putin, want in Africa?
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union supported local despots and waged ideological proxy wars in Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Congo. Having lost key Socialist allies like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, and Ben Bella, Moscow adopted a more cautious policy. Cultural institutes were established, and African students trained at Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University. Russia also provided crucial military support and training to liberation movements in Algeria, Namibia, Angola, and South Africa. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rump Russian state focused on events closer to home.
Vladimir Putin became Russia’s president in 2000, and sought to restore the country’s great power status after what Moscow regarded as a decade of humiliation by a US-led NATO expanding eastwards. Russia had supported Tshwane’s entry into the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) grouping in April 2011, and Putin attended its summits in South Africa in 2013 and 2018, establishing close ties with president Jacob Zuma. Moscow also cancelled $12 billion of Soviet-era African debts, and forged closer ties with Algiers, Cairo, and Harare.
Russian companies have invested in Algerian oil, Zimbabwean platinum, Angolan diamonds, Namibian uranium, Guinean bauxite, and Malian gold. The first Russia-Africa summit was hosted in Sochi in October 2019, attended by 43 African leaders. Moscow has also sought to gain African diplomatic support for its policies in both the 15-member United Nations Security Council and the 193-strong UN General Assembly.
As with its intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Putin has often adopted the role of a pragmatic poker player, seeking to take advantage of opportunities to gain an advantage over Western interests. Pax Russica has thus dramatically challenged Pax Gallica in Paris’s self-declared chasse gardée (private hunting-ground). Moscow has used a military-mines complex to entrench its influence in the Central African Republic (CAR). Military accords have been signed with Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, and Niger: all members of a French-led G5 Sahel force. The shadowy Wagner Group, led by Kremlin-aligned oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, sent 175 mercenaries into the CAR in 2018 to protect key politicians and to guard gold and diamond mines, in a country in which former Russian intelligence officer, Valery Zakharov, is the national security adviser.
After a military coup in Guinea three weeks ago, Moscow vociferously condemned the putsch, insisting that its stake in three bauxite mines and an alumina refinery be protected. About 500 Russian mercenaries were reported to be operating in northern Sudan in 2018, while 200 mercenaries were dispatched to northern Mozambique by 2019. Putin has backed Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, with arms and mercenaries. Fighter jets have been sold to Uganda, military helicopters to Mozambique, and tanks, jets, helicopters, artillery, and ammunition to Angola.
Russia can, however, not compete with China, the US, and the European Union in terms of investment, trade, and aid in Africa. Moscow has come nowhere near establishing military assets like America’s $100 billion drone base in Niger. Its $20 billion annual trade with Africa is a mere 10% of China’s own commerce with the continent. Like France, Russia suffers from delusions of grandeur in trying to compete with the US for global influence. Both Moscow and Paris are clearly now second-rank powers, compared to America and a rising China. Neither has the economic clout to sustain a major military role in Africa.
The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.