In the midst of the offensive in Ukraine, Russia and Cameroon signed a military agreement on April 12 for the exchange of information and training of troops, a type of pact that has become common currency in Africa and that exists in twenty countries. In the last decade, Moscow has extended its influence throughout the African continent based on three pillars: the sale of weapons, the presence of instructors and mercenaries, and trade agreements and investments in sectors such as cereals, hydrocarbons, energy, and minerals. . Nothing happens by chance. In return, a third of African countries abstained on March 2 in the vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine in the United Nations General Assembly. This occurs in a context of growing popular sympathy for Russia and detachment from the West, which is linked to the colonial past, with a scent of deja vu Soviet of the sixties and seventies.
Last week, two Russian combat helicopters and radars landed in Bamako. Since France decided to withdraw from Mali, the flow of weapons and military vehicles from Moscow to this country has intensified to levels never seen before. In parallel, hundreds of Russian military instructors belonging to the private Wagner group have landed in this African country, according to France and the US, and are already operating on the ground in the fight against jihadism. Since the end of 2021, coinciding with his arrival, reports from human rights organizations point to an increase in abuses, torture and extrajudicial executions, such as the Moura massacre in which some 300 civilians died according to Human Rights Watch and as has already happened in the Central African Republic. Al Qaeda announced last weekend the capture of a Wagner mercenary. And a Russian instructor died on April 19 after the vehicle he was traveling in hit a bomb.
While Europe and the United States intensify their sanctions against the Putin regime, African countries maintain a high level of collaboration with Russian companies. “It is not that Africa is going to save Russia, but the continent is becoming one of the priorities of the Kremlin’s foreign policy, which will become much more aggressive in conquering African markets and in its propaganda, positioning itself as a solution alternative to its Western competitors,” says Tatiana Smirnova, an expert on relations between the two territories at Center FrancoPaix, from the University of Québec.
Russia’s trade with Africa amounts to around 20,000 million euros per year, according to the Tass agency, the director of Afreximbank, Benedict Oramah. In any case, it is far behind powers such as China, the United States, France or even Turkey, with a clear upward trend since 2014, when that figure stood at about 10,000 million. So, African neutrality in the face of sanctions against Moscow for the occupation of the Crimean peninsula stimulated Russian interest in the continent. Investments are also on the rise.
In the mining sector, the presence of companies such as Rusal stands out, directed by the oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a personal friend of President Vladimir Putin and the target of Western sanctions, in the extraction of bauxite in Guinea, but also Norgold, Renova, Alrosa or Vi Holding in countries such as South Africa, Angola, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe or the Central African Republic, working in the exploitation of gold, diamonds, manganese or platinum.
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In the hydrocarbon, gas and oil sector, a handful of Russian companies have become strong in Africa, such as Rosneft, Gazprom and above all the giant Lukoil, directed until a week ago by the billionaire tycoon Vagit Alekperov, who opposed the war through a statement and resigned two months later, present in countries such as Ghana, Cameroon or Nigeria.
From private businesses to the interests of the State
The link between private businesses and the interests of the Russian state is close and is evident in examples such as that of Alexandre Brégadzé, head of the Rusal company in Guinea, but also an architect and former ambassador trained at the Moscow Diplomatic Academy. The security sector also shows these relationships. The activities of the opaque Wagner mercenary company, present in Libya, Mozambique, Sudan, the Central African Republic and now in Mali, are confused with those of the Russian Army itself and the company even uses its means of transport. According to Western intelligence services, Wagner is financed by Putin’s so-called chef, businessman Yevgheni Prighozin, also sanctioned by the US and the EU, who met the president when he frequented his restaurant in St. Petersburg.
More than a third of the weapons that Africa buys come from Russia, its main supplier, according to the Stockholm Peace Studies Institute, and the two main recipient countries of this weaponry are Egypt and Algeria, but also others such as Nigeria, Sudan , Angola or Mali. Fighter-type aircraft, helicopters, assault craft, tanks, ammunition or air defense systems. The contracts between the state company Rosoboronexport and twenty African countries cover everything today.
African countries with dictatorial or military regimes that suffer Western sanctions —such as Mali now, but also Libya or Zimbabwe during the Robert Mugabe regime— gain access to weapons that other countries veto them.
“Russia is leaning on the image created in Africa by the Soviet Union, a time when Moscow supported many liberation movements, trained students and built hospitals. She is perceived as a kind of older brother, defender of her sovereignty, embodying an alternative development model to the Western one. But this idealized vision does not correspond to the geopolitical and moral realities of today’s Russia that has unleashed the war in Ukraine”, adds Smirnova, from Center FrancoPaix.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a time in which tens of thousands of young African doctors, architects, engineers or soldiers were trained in the great power, relations plummeted, but a little over a decade ago, Putin himself inspired a triumphant comeback, reaching its apogee at the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019, attended by as many as 45 heads of state from the continent. A second meeting in Moscow is planned for this 2022.
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