Russia has made worrying inroads into Africa

Russia has made worrying inroads into Africa
Russia has made worrying inroads into Africa

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That China has made huge diplomatic, commercial and strategic inroads in Africa is news to no one. That Russia has done so barely without spending a rouble is less known. Yet over the past decade, and at an accelerating pace, Moscow has built a formidable presence in many of the continent’s 54 countries. Its influence is overwhelmingly malign. Russia’s stealth campaign began more than a decade ago when it used ties, forged during the Soviet era, to reactivate relations. The Soviet Union is fondly remembered in countries such as Angola, Mozambique and South Africa for being on the right side of history when politicians in the west were condemning liberation leaders, including Nelson Mandela, as terrorists. Russia’s new offering is crude. Its diplomacy is cut-price and asymmetric, yielding quick wins at little cost or political capital. It provides weapons and surveillance to savoury and unsavoury regimes alike and access to companies that know how to extract gold or gems without too much scrutiny. Between 2017 and 2021, 44 per cent of the arms sold to African states were Russian. More recently, Russia’s activities have grown murkier still. In the impoverished Central African Republic, mercenaries from the Wagner Group, closely tied to the Russian GRU intelligence agency, struck a 2018 deal to protect the president against militias threatening the capital. Human rights groups have accused Wagner of beating civilians, summary executions and torture. Moscow denies any links to Wagner. Still, Russian companies have gained control of gold and diamond mines. If CAR is a captured state, Mali is heading that way too. In August 2020, when generals overthrew an ineffective civilian administration, demonstrators appeared waving Russian flags and portraits of Vladimir Putin. Last month the unloved French, who had in 2013 sent troops at Bamako’s request to fight a jihadist insurgency, were drummed out of the country. Wagner has been contracted to protect the junta and to keep order. Reports of human rights abuses are already rife. This picture, with variations, is repeated in countries such as Libya and Sudan. Even nominal western allies find a useful counterweight in Moscow. Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, the president who has held power for 36 years, has cosied up to Russia. During a recent visit by Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, Museveni cooed that Russia had been “with us for the last 100 years”. African countries that embrace Moscow are playing with fire. Autocrats may be happy for help in keeping tabs on civil society and suppressing demonstrations, but Moscow offers nothing approaching a plausible development model. China’s influence, for all its detractors, has been more positive. Yet there is a danger that Beijing will see its own interests aligned with Moscow’s, particularly when it comes to anti-western propaganda. Europe and the US must offer something better. That means supporting open societies. It also means encouraging the continent’s transformation by promoting industrialisation and an escape from the reliance on unprocessed commodities that is an impoverishing legacy of colonialism. Too often the west falls short. Its military involvement in Libya helped unseat a dictator but unleashed a maelstrom in the Sahel. Labour-starved Europe lacks a coherent migration policy. And western companies, particularly in the extractive industries, too often dole out bribes or despoil the environment. The west must up its game. It must desperately pay more attention to a continent that by 2050 will be home to one in four of humankind. If it does not, Russia and others will not be so reticent.

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