Geopolitics and History of Russian Strategy in Africa

Moscow has been investing in Africa for decades. Since the first African independentist movements, Russia saw an opportunity to spread its influence among what could be the most populated continent in a few decades. Russia intends to continue its strategy even if this is done to the detriment of the former colonizing powers, in particular France. 

Africa is a continent of more than 30.4 million km2, with 1.35 billion inhabitants being the youngest and most dynamic population in the world, divided in 54 States which show a wide variety of political situations and resources. Even though, Africa has massive resources, its population is the least rich with about $6,000/year/inhabitant, 6 times less than Russian population. 

Russia is the largest country in the world with 17 million km2, immense hydrocarbon resources, a great nuclear power, an educated but aging population of only 146 million inhabitants in 2023, with a very authoritarian regime at its head, nostalgic for its lost empire, that some do not hesitate to describe as a dictatorship.

USSR and Africa during the Cold War: 

Between Russia and Africa, geopolitical alliances date back to the independence struggles against the colonial empires of the 1950s. The USSR then offered its help to African independence activists who wanted to break with the former European colonial powers.

In French West Africa, separatists benefited from military and financial aid from Moscow to the great displeasure of France. In 1960, the first president of the independent Mali, Modibo Keïta, chose the path of a socialist economy and a non-aligned, pan-Africanist diplomacy.

Like him, other African leaders were supported by the USSR: Patrice Lumumba in Congo, Sékou Touré in Guinea, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Nelson Mandela who fought against apartheid in South Africa. Africa thus became a Cold War terrain where the Western and Communist blocs clashed by proxy. The USSR militarily aided the communist regimes in Ethiopia, Angola and Mozambique and gained the favors of several socialist governments. A vast university program allowed a total of 25,000 students to study in the USSR, notably at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. This initiative was, of course, a way to reinforce the soft power of Russia in Africa. In 1991, following the collapse of the USSR, Russia abandons the African continent.

Putin’s era, Russian come back in Africa: 

The arrival of Vladimir Putin as Russian president in 2000 marked the start of a slow Russian reinvestment in the African continent. The first symbolic step towards this new strategy was probably Putin’s official visit to South Africa and Morocco in 2006. Today, the head of the Kremlin relies on old ties and the sympathy of these elites trained during the Soviet era to spread an anti-imperialist discourse and flatter their resentment towards the West. Nevertheless, African leaders are not fooled, but see this as a new geopolitical offer that can serve their interests. Moscow’s big return to Africa, however, comes after the annexation of Ukrainian Crimea in 2014 and during the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015.  Banned and sanctioned by a certain number of states, Putin’s Russia finds in Africa a ground to thwart what it calls “the collective West”. Its public and private strategy is multifaceted.

The Russian strategy in Africa:

Putin’s strategy is firstly military. A large majority of African states have signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia which includes the sale of weapons, military trainings and exercises. Russia has become the first nation in arms sales on the continent (44% of African arms imports between 2017 and 2021 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, far ahead from the United States (17%), China (10%) and France (6%)) and has also exported private military companies, which have been active in a dozen African countries.

Secondly, his strategy is also industrial. Moscow has signed numerous cooperation agreements in the nuclear field and Russian companies are investing in African mines and hydrocarbons. However, Russian investments and loans remain out of proportion with those of China and Europe. For most African governments, Russia remains just one trading partner among others. But Russia is a major grain power, and some African countries are very dependent on Russian wheat imports. This allows Moscow to threaten supply disruptions, while Africa is hit hard by food shortages following the war in Ukraine. It also allows Putin to promise free grain deliveries to African allies while blocking Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea.

To influence its African partners, Russia has another weapon: its weight on the hydrocarbon market. As a massive exporter of oil and gas, and as a member of OPEC+, Russia has put pressure on Algeria and Nigeria, the two main African producers of hydrocarbons, so that they do not increase their exports to Europe while Europeans are seeking new suppliers after the invasion of Ukraine in order to avoid Russian hydrocarbons. 

At the same time, the Kremlin is waging a vast diplomatic charm offensive. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, visited many friendly countries on the continent: Mali, South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania. In 2019 in Sochi, and then in 2023 in Saint Petersburg, two major Russia-Africa summits brought together with great fanfare more than 40 African heads of state or ministers around Putin. The objective would be to circumvent Western economic sanctions and promote a new multipolar international order. But for this matter, Russia still must convince African states that have been divided on such matter since the start of the war. Only Eritrea voted against the March 2022 UN resolution demanding that Russia stop using force against Ukraine, 17 countries including Algeria and South Africa, African heavyweights and allies long-standing parties, prudently abstained, 9 African countries did not participate in the vote and 27 voted for the resolution. A rather mixed result for Moscow.

Wagner’s work for the Russian state:

At the same time, the information war is in full swing: pro-Russian influencers and media installed by Yevgeny Prigozhin have carried out disinformation operations on the continent, with great or sometimes little success. In May 2022, a video of bodies buried in Gossi, Mali, was relayed by pro-Russian influencers to accuse the French army of war crimes. The false accusation was debunked with the publication of the recording of Wagner’s men setting up the bodies. In Africa, Russia has long subcontracted its shameful operations to Yevgeny Prigojine’s private group, financed by the Russian state and by the monopolization of African resources. Wagner operated on the continent on behalf of the Kremlin and for his own interests. Since 2017, the Wagner company has been active in Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Mozambique and Madagascar. According to a proven business model, mercenaries and propaganda are put at the service of leaders in exchange for access to their country’s resources. 

In 2017, Wagner’s first steps on the African continent were taken in Libya where the militias fought with Marshal Haftar’s troops against the official government in Tripoli. In Sudan, Russian mercenaries were alongside then-President Omar al-Bashir, who coincidentally came to visit Moscow a few months earlier. In exchange, Prigozhin’s holding company won oil contracts in Libya and gold mines in Sudan. Finally, the Russian state gains allies against the West and an agreement to build a military base in Port Sudan, a strategic location on the Red Sea (at least until the fall of Omar al-Bashir in 2019). 

The same year, the rapprochement between the Central African Republic and Russia allowed Wagner to establish himself in Bangui, while the French army ended its peacekeeping operation in this country in chronic civil war. The Wagner company then established itself at the heart of the power of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Then, Wagner exploited diamonds, gold and forests but also financed several anti-French media. 

In 2021, it is in Mali that the Russians make their biggest take in the war for influence which pits them against France. After two military coups, the new power of Assimi Goïta chose Wagner to fight against the Sahelian jihadist groups and sent the French soldiers back home the following year by putting an end to Operation Barkhane. A snub for Paris in its former colony, especially since neighboring Burkina Faso wishes to take the same path. 

During the summer of 2023, it is the president of Niger who is overthrown by the military and who demand the departure of the French army. The last and fragile ally of the West in the Sahel has fallen. Russia and its anti-imperialist discourse still appeal to part of the African public, despite the murders of hundreds of civilians and the growing influence of Islamist networks in the Sahel. 

Conclusion:

Even though Moscow has invested a lot in Africa, many observers note an overvaluation of Russian influence which does not hold up for long against the reality of the figures. From a commercial point of view, Russia remains far behind Europe and China and its new Silk Roads. The influence of the former colonizing powers is still very strong due to the cultural cement that Africa shares with its European neighbors, whether it be the language or even sometimes the currency. Africa is still a continent coveted from all sides and benefits from the new multipolar world with assertive trends where the geopolitical influence of France is clearly in retreat.

Bibliography: 

Africa Center for strategic studies – https://africacenter.org/in-focus/russia-in-africa/ 

VOA Africa – https://www.voaafrica.com/a/russia-africa-summit-putin-promises-african-leaders-free-grain-/7200162.html

VOA News – https://www.voanews.com/a/russia-steadily-rebuilding-presence-in-africa/6452193.html

University of Ottawa – https://omeka.uottawa.ca/recipro/exhibits/show/world-of-ingos/cold-war-africa-ingos

DW Fact Check – https://www.dw.com/en/fact-check-russias-influence-on-africa/a-66310017 

CSIS – https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia-still-progressing-africa-whats-limit

Le Monde – https://www.lemonde.fr/en/le-monde-africa/article/2023/08/06/the-faces-of-russia-s-influence-across-the-african-continent_6082513_124.html

Time – https://time.com/6301177/niger-african-support-russia/

Atlantic Council – https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/event/russias-influence-in-africa-a-security-perspective/

The Kyiv Independent – https://kyivindependent.com/russias-influence-on-africa-exaggerated-experts-say/

Guillaume Abaz

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