Where do Russia’s ties with Africa stand?

Russia is doubling down on its efforts to strengthen ties with countries in Africa. But because its engagement is still more political than economic, the continent’s leaders should tread cautiously, analysts warn

Russia’s President Vladimir Putn and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa pictured in St. Petersburg in JuneDeutsche Welle

Russia’s most recent attempts to strengthen ties with countries in Africa are purely political, some African analysts say.

In the past, Moscow’s ties with the continent was largely based on ideology tied to Western colonisation and imperialism.

In post-colonial Africa, Russia has pursued some economic partnerships but made little progress.

Abuja-based international relations expert Ovigwe Eguegu says Russia is no match for China when it comes to trade with Africa. Moscow’s security partnerships in Africa are also only with specific countries. “So the question then becomes why does Russia really need strong African political ties, or at least to renew political ties?” Eguegu said. Africa “needs to be a bit smarter.”

Accra-based Africa expert Emmanuel Bensah says African countries must be strategic. “The continent needs to be a bit smarter about how it engages Russia,” Bensah told DW.

Most African countries have not openly condemned Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Loyalty to Russia for its support during independence struggles in Africa is a major factor, says Luanda-based political analyst Olivio N’kilumbu

“Some are of the opinion that the former liberation movement still owes the Russians a lot since the days of the Cold War,” N’kilumbu told DW. “And now we Africans have to shut up about the Russian invasion.”

What economic support?

In the decades since countries around Africa won independence, Russian economic support has been minimal, Eguegu told DW.

“Russia is playing to its strengths on the continent because it doesn’t have the economic dynamics with African countries. Primarily the tools Russia is relying mostly on is diplomatic rhetoric. It speaks to Africa’s opponent, the West,” he said.

The second Russia-Africa summit is taking place in St. Petersburg this week. In the runup, President Vladimir Putin called relations with African countries a priority.

A photo taken on 23 July, in the aftermath of a Russian missile strike in Ukraine’s port city of Odesa
Deutsche Welle

In March, he made similar overtures: “Our country is determined to continue building a full strategic partnership with our African friends, and we are ready to shape the global agenda together.”

At the time Putin was being hit with international sanctions for the war in Ukraine.

Bensah says Moscow should be mindful in dealing with Africa. “I think Russia would be making a mistake if it were to think that this is the Africa of the old where Africa was coming with a begging bowl,” the Accra-based expert told DW.

A big arms supplier

The “full strategic partnership” Putin talked about was meant to kick in after the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019. It has largely involved arms deals and military support. Russia was ranked Africa’s biggest arms supplier in 2020.

An analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed that around 30 per cent of all arms exported to sub-Saharan Africa came from Russia between 2016 and 2020.

It marked a 23 per cent increase in the volume of Russian arms shipments over the previous five-year period, with China (20 per cent), France (9.5 per cent) and the US (5.4 per cent) lagging behind.

Widening security operations Russian military support is deepening in Africa. Its Wagner Group operates in Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Mali, Libya, Sudan and Burkina Faso.

Abuja-based political analyst Samson Itodo says that’s a cause for concern. “I think we should be worried, as a continent about Russia’s increasing influence in shaping domestic politics within the Africa region. And this interference needs to be resisted,” Itodo told DW.

Sylvie Baïpo-Temon, the CAR foreign minister, dismisses criticism of Russian mercenaries in Africa.

“We [can] talk about Wagner in as many ways as you want, but it exists everywhere. The United States has their private military company, France has a private military company, the United Kingdom also has it,” Baipo-Temon told DW.

Some African leaders have gone even further to defend the Russia’s presence. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has said: “Russia or any other big power should not be our problem. The issue is these big powers have their own issues to sort out and then they keep sucking in these small countries of ours.”

Russia first hosted African presidents for a summit in 2019
Deutsche Welle

Speaking in Benin in April, Kagame added: “So Russia has the right to be anywhere they need to be legally, as any other country has the right to be anywhere.”

An opportunity for Africa

African experts agree that Africa is becoming attractive to Russia and other global powers.

“It is important for Africa to tread cautiously as it goes along, because right now Africa is yet again becoming the playground of a lot of the external actors” said Bensah, the Accra-based Africa expert.

President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana last year expressed concern over neighboring Burkina Faso’s reported deal to let in the Wagner Group.

“Privately, a lot of African countries have a problem with the fact that Russia has not really supported them since the Cold War,” Bensah told DW. He believes that Africa-Russia ties will continue to strengthen as anti-West sentiment rises. But hopes that countries in Africa will seize the opportunity to take charge and control the relationship.

Kate Hairsine, Edward Micah Jnr, Antonio Cascais and Eric Topona contributed to this article.