Leaked by others, Russia finds friends in Africa
NAIROBI, Kenya — Since the days of Nelson Mandela, South African leaders have dismissed American criticism of their friendships with autocrats like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, whose countries have stood by them during their most difficult times. desperate for the anti-apartheid fight.
Today, South Africans are defending their loyalty to another autocrat – Vladimir V. Putin – and staying away from the global outcry over his invasion of Ukraine.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, South Africa was among 24 African countries that refused to join the resounding vote denouncing Russian aggression: 16 African countries abstained, seven did not vote at all and one – l Eritrea – voted against, keeping company only with Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.
The stark tally reflects the ambiguous attitude across much of the continent where, with few exceptions, the war in Ukraine has been met with remarkable silence – a stark contrast to Western countries extending sanctions, seizing yachts from oligarchs, lobby for war crimes investigations, and even openly threatens to collapse the Russian economy.
“Russia is our friend through and through,” Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa’s minister for social development, who studied in Moscow during the apartheid years, said in an interview. “We are not going to denounce this relationship that we have always had.”
Many African countries have a long-standing affinity with Russia dating back to the Cold War: some political and military leaders studied there and trade ties have grown. And in recent years, an increasing number of countries have entered into contracts with Russian mercenaries and purchased ever larger quantities of Russian weapons.
Some African countries have condemned the Russian aggression as an attack on the international order, in particular Kenya and Ghana. Some 25 African nations voted for the UN resolution that denounced Mr Putin’s actions on Wednesday. But deep divisions in the continent’s response were apparent from the start.
Sudan’s deputy leader visited Moscow on the first day of the conflict, exchanging warm handshakes with Russia’s foreign minister as warplanes bombarded Ukrainian towns. Morocco, a longtime American ally, offered a watery statementboring of the American officials who are nevertheless silent.
In Ethiopia, Russian flags flew at a ceremony on Wednesday to commemorate a famous 19th-century battle against Italian invaders, recalling the involvement of Russian volunteers who sided with Ethiopian fighters.
African sympathies for Ukraine have also been diluted by reports of Ukrainian border guards forcing African students to the back of lines as they attempt to leave the country, sparking fury over racism and discrimination . President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, which has 4,000 students in Ukraine, denounced the reports.
Mr Putin has partly sidestepped stigma in Africa by using vouchers that date back to the Cold War, when Moscow supported African liberation movements and presented itself as a bulwark against Western neo-colonialism. On Sunday, the Russian Foreign Ministry interrupted its focus on Ukraine to remind South Africa, in a Tweet, of its support for the fight against apartheid.
But Mr Putin has also divided African opinion through his own efforts to expand Russian influence across the continent through an unusual combination of diplomacy, weapons and mercenaries.
In an effort to regain some of the influence Moscow lost in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Mr Putin hosted a glitzy summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi in 2019 , attended by 43 African Heads of State. A second Russia-Africa summit is planned for this fall.
But as the Russian economy was strained by Western sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it could not afford the costly incentives offered by other powers in Africa, such as the cheap loans from China or Western development aid.
So he offered no-questions-asked arms sales and the services of Russian mercenaries, many of whom are employed by the Wagner Group, a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Mr. Putin, known as ” Putin’s cook”.
In recent years, Wagner mercenaries have fought in civil wars in Libya and Mozambique, and currently guard the president of the Central African Republic, where they helped repel a rebel assault on the capital last year.
In January, Wagner fighters appeared in Mali, part of a deal to fight Islamist insurgents that infuriated France, the former colonial power, which said last month it was withdrawing its own troops of Mali.
Mali’s ruling military junta denies inviting Wagner to the country, but US military officials say up to 1,000 Russian mercenaries are already operating there.
Russia’s influence also comes from arms sales. Russia accounts for nearly half of all arms imports into Africaaccording to the Russian Arms Export Agency and organizations that monitor arms transfers.
One of Mr Putin’s staunchest defenders over the past week has been a powerful figure in Uganda, a major customer for Russian arms. Lieutenant General Muhoozi Kainerugabason of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said in a tweet:
“The majority of humanity (which is not white) supports Russia’s position in Ukraine.”
He added: “When the USSR stationed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, the West was ready to blow the world up on them. Now, when NATO does the same thing, they expect Russia to do it differently.
The reference highlighted a shocking contradiction in Mr Putin’s new embrace of Africa, said Maxim Matusevich, a history professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who studies Russia relations. in Africa.
“During the Cold War, the Soviets tried to sell socialism to African nations while criticizing Western colonialism and imperialism,” he said. Today, Russia is engaged in a new attempt at influence in Africa, but guided by right-wing nationalism.
A similar divide has emerged in Asia, where nations with authoritarian rulers or weak ties to the West have embraced Mr. Putin’s war or shunned criticism of Russian military aggression.
For Africans, war could hit hard in the pocket. Last week, the Automobile Association of South Africa predicted that rising fuel prices would hit a record high in the coming weeks. Food is also becoming more expensive – Russia and Ukraine are Africa’s main sources of wheat and fertilizer – at a time when many African countries are still reeling from the pandemic.
But the war could also have an economic benefit for Africa, even if it could take years to show itself. As Europe moves away from Russian gas imports, it could turn to African countries looking to exploit newly discovered energy reserves.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania, who is seeking a $30 billion investment to exploit a huge gas discovery in the Indian Ocean, noted the invasion of Ukraine could provide an opportunity.
“Whether it is in Africa, Europe or America, we are looking for markets,” she told The Africa Report, an online media outlet.
Elsewhere, however, Mr. Putin still benefits from his image as a thorn in the side of the West. Many South Africans remember that the United States supported the apartheid regime until the 1980s. South Africans also have a bitter view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Sithembile Mbete, senior lecturer in Political Science and International Relations from the University of Pretoria.
However, in addition to historical ties with Russia, South Africa is motivated to call for diplomacy rather than combat, as this approach aligns with the country’s stance on international conflicts over the past 30 years. she said.
“That’s the lesson they learned from South Africa’s own struggle – that in fact apartheid ended when both sides sat down at the table,” Ms Mebete said. “In the end, the conflict ended only through negotiation and compromise.”
The report was provided by Abdi Latif Dahir in Nairobi, Kenya, Ruth Maclean in Dakar, Senegal, Lynsey Chutel in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Aida Alami in Casablanca, Morocco.