Russia’s charm offensive in Africa: blame game on grain and anticolonial rhetoric
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to four African capitals was intended to show that Moscow still had friends on the world stage. Did it work?
By Grigor Atanesian
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to four African capitals was intended to show that Moscow still had friends on the world stage.
The charm offensive was however overshadowed by a looming threat of food insecurity for millions of people on the continent, one reason for which is Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian ports.
During his tour, Lavrov blamed the food crisis on the West and its sanctions, and some leaders sided with him.
But the warm welcome he received did not mean the continent is choosing Russia over the West; African nations just cannot afford to lose partners, experts say.
Blame game on grain
There were expectations that Lavrov would offer solutions to the fuel and grain shortages affecting African nations, says Patience Atuhaire, a BBC Africa correspondent in Uganda.
“But Mr. Lavrov said that he does not have any quick solutions because Russia is not responsible for this global crisis.”
Instead, he accused ‘the United States and its satellites’ of causing shortages by imposing sanctions on Russia and hoarding food stocks.
“During the time of "coronacrisis" the collective West <...> "absorbed" commodity and food flows, worsening the situation in the developing countries dependent on food imports”, - wrote Lavrov in an op-ed published in the newspapers in Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, the four nations he visited.
Over 50 million people in Africa will face food insecurity this year, according to the World Food Programme.
But in each African capital he visited, Lavrov dismissed accusations of ‘exporting hunger’.
It only helped him that many Africans did not blame Russia in the first place, says Patience Atuhaire of BBC Africa: “I think many ordinary people In Uganda for instance would not directly link the global food crisis with the ongoing war.”
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni all but endorsed Lavrov’s stance, saying that banning Russian ships from calling into international ports only exacerbates the crisis.
Experts say that Lavrov’s trip was to show the West that Moscow still had friends on the world stage, despite the revelations of atrocities its army is committing in Ukraine.
African nations have so far refused to join Western sanctions on Russia, and many took a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, with the African Union head and Senegal President Macky Sall calling to lift the sanctions.
Countries in Eastern Europe see Ukraine as a victim of the same colonial violence they had been subjugated to, having been incorporated in the past into the Russian or Soviet empire.
But in Africa, Moscow has a different reputation. Across the continent, there are memories of Soviet support for anti-colonial liberation movements, and among the African elites there are still many graduates of Soviet universities.
"Whenever issues come up and some people want us to take positions against Russia, we say 'but you people, these people have been with us for the last 100 years, how can we be automatically against them?" said Uganda’s President Museveni at a joint press-conference with Lavrov.
And Russia is only eager to exploit the Soviet legacy, while rewriting its own history.
“Our country, which has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism, has always sincerely supported Africans in their struggle for liberation from colonial oppression,” - wrote Lavrov in an op-ed.
His claims will not stand historical scrutiny. From Siberia to the Caucasus to Ukraine, Russia’s internal and external colonisation was marked by violence, including ethnic cleansing, famine and forced deportations, scholars say.
But in parts of Africa, his message is welcome, as it is the West that the continent blames for its misfortunes, and not only of the distant past.
Many on the continent accuse the West of hypocrisy and remind of the war in Libya, as well as the recent stockpiling of the Covid-19 vaccines, says David McNair, executive director at ONE Campaign, a global anti-poverty campaign movement.
They are also comparing the treatment African migrants received in Europe with the warm welcome for the Ukrainian refugees, adds McNair, who is also a non-resident scholar of the Africa Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
While Russia and China are investing in infrastructure, defence, nuclear energy and agriculture, the Western projects in Africa tend to fall more into the social sphere, healthcare and education, says Patience Atuhaire of BBC Africa.
Russia and China also claim their investments come with no political strings attached, whereas “the West seems to have opinions on the politics and democracy of the countries it supports.”
But the Russian presence is perhaps most significant in the security sphere. Moscow has provided 44% of all African arms imports in 2017-2021, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Several African governments requested Russia’s assistance in combating terror groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
And in recent years, hundreds of Russian mercenaries have been dispatched to Africa, often to help its most oppressive regimes.
While the Kremlin denies their presence, investigative reporters have uncovered the presence of the infamous ‘Wagner’ private military company in Libya, Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique and Sudan.
“Wagner is a Russian mercenary group working at the behest of the Kremlin,” Gen Stephen J. Townsend, outgoing commander of the U.S. Africa Command, said on Tuesday. “The only thing I see Wagner doing is propping up dictators and exploiting natural resources on the continent,” the general claimed.
Trade deals or a PR stunt?
The geography of Lavrov’s visit can be understood from the economic standpoint, says Zawadi Mudibo, BBC Africa’s business editor.
Egypt is Moscow’s largest trade partner on the continent. Bilateral cooperation includes a nuclear power plant currently under construction, and there are plans for a Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal.
The Russian minister also visited Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. Of the three, Uganda could be the most significant market, says Mudibo, as it opens access to the whole of the East African community, with a population of 180 million people. Kenya, the region's largest economy, is a member.
During his trip, Lavrov has discussed a wide range of projects with his African counterparts and heads of states, from access to natural resources and oil refinement to infrastructure, cybersecurity and energy. In Uganda, President Museveni mentioned his country’s desire to launch a satellite.
But behind ambitious rhetoric there was very little substance, and no contracts were signed, says Zawadi Mudibo of BBC Africa.
“I do not think Russia intends to do what it promises. They have not made any commitments. It’s more about PR and showing the West that they have other friends.”
If that’s the case, Lavrov’s trip can be deemed a success for Moscow. The African leaders who hosted him stressed their desire to trade with Russia and further develop cooperation.
“African countries cannot afford to lose any economic, technical support or diplomatic relations with any country, so that is why they are sitting on the fence,” says BBC’s Patience Atuhaire.
There are signs that the Russian charm offensive is causing concern in the West. France’s President Emmanuel Macron has visited Cameroon and Benin this week, and Ambassador Mike Hammer, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, is travelling to Egypt, Ethiopia and the UAE.
Last week, the USAID Administrator Samantha Power visited East Africa, pledging $1.2 billion in American assistance to prevent hunger in the region.
“In the past decades, Russia and China have been treating Africa as a strategic partner, and the West hasn’t done that,” says David McNair of the ONE Campaign.
“The West is now waking up to that.”
But the war in Ukraine can prevent the West from focussing more on Africa, says McNair. The cost of assistance to Ukraine, hosting Ukrainian refugees and postwar reconstruction can cut into money that is given to Africa, and the West could lose even more influence in the continent.