The recent military coup in Burkina Faso came accompanied by Russian flags. But will Africans benefit from the country's attempt to supplant western influence on the continent?
In the aftermath of last week's Burkina Faso coup d'etat, there is a lot of speculation about who may benefit from it beyond the country's new leader, Ibrahim Traoré. Welcomed by supporters waving Russian flags, who also attacked the French embassy, his seizure of power could herald another step in the entrenchment of Russian influence that is taking place across Africa.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the paramilitary force the Wagner Group and an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, congratulated Traoré as a "brave and courageous son of his motherland". "The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed the people as well as played their vile games, trained, supported gangs of bandits and caused much grief to the local population," he said.
But Russia has been conspicuously active in supporting autocratic regimes and propping up dictators across Africa. From Mali to Sudan, Uganda to Ethiopia, Putin appears to be establishing the go-to partner for repressive regimes. What are his motives?
Lost Soviet prestige
One theory is that Putin is trying to restore the prestige of the Soviet Union. The Communists had a long history of supporting post-colonial governments, and Putin's Russia seeks to reclaim that legacy: Africa is a vital part of that equation.
Prigozhin's rhetoric about colonialism plays into this history of Soviet-African relations. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security advisor, argues that the Soviets had four advantages in Africa: (1) Africans agreed with the Soviets about the connection between capitalism and imperialism. They believed that the two were linked and both were worthy of elimination; (2) Africans and Soviets had a common enemy. The former colonial powers were also anti-communist; (3) No communist nation had ever been a colonial power in Africa; and (4) Africans admired the rapid development in the Soviet Union and saw it as a model for their own development.
Today, however, Russia's activities in Africa are not driven by ideology as much as they are by geopolitics. Putin seeks to destabilise the western-centric order and create a more multipolar world. In doing so, he has aligned himself with some of the most autocratic regimes on the continent. From Sudan's former leader, Omar al-Bashir, to Uganda's current president Yoweri Museveni, Putin has found allies who are happy to undermine democracy and human rights. Even in Ethiopia, Africa's second most populous country, Russia has been courting Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is currently raising concerns in the west about his treatment of the Tigray region as he tightens his grip on power.
Last year's military coup in Mali also presented Russia with another opportunity in Africa. In February, Europeans announced the withdrawal of their troops from the country, leaving a political vacuum that Russia is all too happy to fill, experts say. "One can now discern a pattern in Russia's many engagements in Africa's arc of instability since 2017," wrote Theodore Murphy in a recent article for the European Council on Foreign Relations. "Where Europe undertakes stabilisation and peacekeeping operations in Africa, Russia exploits the friction between Europe and host governments over differences in approach. Where Europe emphasises values, a rules-based approach, and cautious measures to safeguard its own forces, Russia picks one side and offers support with no strings attached," he added.
A challenge to western hegemony
There are several implications, both for Africa and the wider world. As Russia increasingly inserts itself into African affairs, it is doing so at the expense of democracy and human rights. In Sudan, for example, Russia supported Omar al-Bashir even as he presided over one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent memory: the Darfur genocide in which at least 300,000 people were killed. And today, Russia continues to back the military-led government that replaced him, despite its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. In October 2021, when General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a coup against the civilian-led government, Russia, unlike the western countries, didn't condemn the takeover.
"Russia's refusal to condemn the coup plotters underscored its potential to benefit geopolitically from shifting political winds in Sudan," wrote Samuel Ramani in a recent article for the Washington, DC-based Middle East Institute. "Russia views potential frictions between Sudan and Western countries, which emanated from the coup, as a boost to its prospects of constructing a naval base in Port Sudan and to its defence partnership with Khartoum. Russia's interests in Sudan would likely be maximised by a partial transition to civilian rule which is illiberal in character and affords considerable influence to the Sudanese military."
Not only is Russia's support for dictatorships and repressive regimes in Africa a cause for concern, but its wider geopolitical ambitions could have dangerous consequences for the continent. In an article for the Washington, DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vita Spivak cautioned that Russia's involvement in Africa may not be as large-scale as China or the US, but it still shouldn't go ignored due to its focus on weapon sales.
"Russia's main export to Africa is arms," she wrote. "Since 2009, Russian arms have officially been sent to eighteen countries there, primarily Angola, Nigeria, and Sudan. In addition to arms deliveries, Moscow exerts influence in Africa via military specialists and advisers. Recently, for example, Russia signed an agreement on military cooperation with the Central African Republic (CAR), which has long been ravaged by civil war."
While few official Russian troops are stationed in Africa, Moscow has increasingly relied on a paramilitary presence to protect its interests. In recent years, Russia has used the Wagner Group, to carry out military operations in Africa and beyond. In April, Al Jazeera published a detailed investigation into the group's activities in Africa, which included training soldiers and carrying out military operations in at least a dozen countries. In Mali alone, Wagner is estimated to have 800-1,000 mercenaries deployed, according to the Washington Post. Amping up its military presence on the continent, Putin is driven by a desire to restore Russia to its former glory as a great world power, effectively turning Africa into a new battleground in the fight for global supremacy between Russia and the west.
But not everybody is convinced that Russia can pose a serious challenge to western influence in Africa. In a more recent Carnegie Endowment article, Paul Stronski argued that Moscow's sway remains questionable: "Hard information is difficult to come by, but any honest accounting of Russian successes will invariably point to a mere handful of client states with limited strategic significance that are isolated from the west and garner little attention from the international community. It remains unclear whether Russia's investments in Africa over the past decade are paying off in terms of creating a real power base in Africa, let alone putting it on a footing that will expand its influence in the years to come."
America and Africa
But Russia's great rival is taking African developments seriously. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has already visited the continent three times, a clear indication of the importance that the Biden administration places on the continent. The countries Blinken has visited – Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Morocco, Algeria, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda – are all key US partners in Africa. Some experts view Blinken's trips as an effort to reassure African leaders that the US is committed to its partnerships on the continent, even as Russia and China seek to increase their own influence.
The statistics bear this out. Economically, the United States is still the second largest investor in Africa after China, with American companies pumping $27 billion into the continent every year. In contrast, Russia's investment in Africa is just $3 billion annually, not even in the top 10 of foreign investors. The United States also provides more development assistance to Africa than any other country in the world, with a total of $8.5 billion going towards health, education, security and democracy programmes in 47 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Militarily, the United States has a significant presence in Africa, with over 6,000 troops and 29 military bases across the continent.
In December, President Biden will host the US-Africa Leaders Summit, which will bring together heads of state and government from across Africa to discuss a range of issues, including democracy, human rights and governance. "The Summit will demonstrate the United States' enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of US-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities," said Biden in a statement.
Clearly, the United States views Africa as a critical strategic region and is not content to cede ground to Russia or China. But with so many challenges facing the continent, it remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will match rhetoric with further concrete action. Either way, the upcoming summit will be an essential indicator of America's commitment to Africa in the years to come.
Written by: Olivium staff
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Late to the party: Russia's return to Africa
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Russia and China in Africa: allies or rivals?
Middle East Institute: Sudan-Russia relations after the October coup: The view from Moscow
The Washington Post: Civilian killings soar as Russian mercenaries join fight in West Africa