Three global powers are in a race to win over Africa, the continent’s market of more than a billion people and tap its natural resources.
Russia, China and the US are engaged in spirited charm offensives centred around political, military, economic and cultural initiatives.
The US, for instance, recently co-hosted the second Democracy Summit with Zambia amid a week-long tour of the continent by Vice President Kamala Harris to “counter the growing influence of China and Russia”.
Harris visited and spent days in Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia and delivered bags of goodies — including offering military, financial and technical assistance to restructure Accra’s and Lusaka’s near-impossible debts, partly blamed on Beijing.
Russia, on the other hand, has undertaken several diplomatic missions to Africa, and in February conducted a 10-day naval exercise with South Africa and China off South Africa’s Indian Ocean coast.
China’s drive, primarily infrastructural through its strategic ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, laced with cultural and political influence dimensions, is controversial in some circles, and has even been labelled ‘neo-colonial’.
Beijing has not only acquired friends in governments but also development rights and major infrastructure deals, across swathes of the continent.
Yet it is Russia’s approach that appears much more akin to that of the colonial era, when ruthless individuals and private companies use official licence from their government to pursue extractive policies for self-enrichment and that of the ‘home’ country involved – inevitably, at the cost of indigenous people.
In part to counter that growing perception, especially in African capitals, Moscow has recently been on a ‘diplomatic charm offensive’ across Africa.
Last year saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s first African tour, with another having taken place recently and a third planned.
These outreach efforts are taking place in overlap with both the US’s and China’s wooing of Africa, the latter’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang having recently visited Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, Benin and Egypt.
Competing with both China and Russia is Washington’s ‘African reset’ initiative, in which the US sent Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on a tour to Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, along with similar outings to Africa by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Blinken has been to South Africa, Ethiopia and Niger as the Biden administration looks to bolster relations with African ‘partners’ and counter both China and Russia from expanding their ties on the continent.
The Biden administration has been working intensively to revive relations with numerous African states, in the wake of the Trump era when disdain for Africa permeated Washington from the Oval Office in the White House.
Biden wants to change that, as both Russia and China make their separate drives to push their profiles, influence, and agendas across the continent in what in some quarters is being described as the ‘new race for Africa’.
The Americans are determined to demonstrate that they are not on another ‘neo-colonial’ push, but are working hard on the diplomatic front to help isolate Russia, over its Ukrainian war, and China, over its alleged ‘neo-colonialism’ on the continent and increasing geo-political reach.
In pursuit of a ‘new understanding’ with Africa, a string of Biden administration officials has recently visited the continent, are currently in Africa, or are planning on making trips to the continent.
Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya visited The Gambia and Senegal from March 12 to 14, while Lee Satterfield, Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, was also in South Africa in March.
Countering Washington’s diplomatic efforts, Lavrov has made two visits to South Africa, as well as going, in July last year, to Egypt, Congo-Brazzaville, Uganda and Ethiopia, also meeting the African Union (AU) leadership in Addis Ababa, with Eswatini, Botswana and Angola included on his recent itinerary.
In addition, Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco were visited by the Russian foreign minister last month, bringing to 12 the number of African states, plus the AU, he has visited in just over six months, with almost all his efforts designed to bolster Russia’s international position after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“The Qin and Lavrov trips could be seen as responses to US President Joe Biden’s Africa summit in December, which appeared to have been successful and certainly pulled a big crowd of leaders,” said the Institute for Security Studies in a published report on the efforts of all three powers to push their profiles and agendas in numerous African capitals.
Despite all this apparently high-level official attention from Washington, Beijing and the Kremlin, it has been pointed out by long-standing ‘African watchers’ that in a marathon three-hour press conference in Moscow in mid-January, covering mostly Ukraine, Lavrov only briefly mentioned Africa, near its end and in answer to a media question.
Lavrov was asked to comment on relations between Moscow and Pretoria, after South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor had repeated a demand for the withdrawal of the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa bill, as adopted by the US House of Representatives in 2022.
The proposed law imposes sanctions on Russian entities – like the Wagner Group – which are deemed to be conducting ‘malign’ activities on the continent, and possibly leading to US sanctions on African governments and businesses dealing with such Russian entities.
That South Africa has been one of the few African states prepared to ‘stand up’ for Moscow after the invasion of Ukraine is proof that Lavrov’s mission to counter Washington’s efforts have not been in vain.
Nevertheless, and while ostensibly ‘friends forever’, according to a recent treaty of mutual support between Beijing and Moscow, with both countries being members of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and S. Africa) multi-lateral community, Russia and China are, in practical terms, also in direct political and economic competition with each other in Africa.
Included in that competitive approach to the continent are its billion-strong consumer market, key resources and extending their respective realms of influence.
But they are using very different strategies to achieve their similar ends.
China has been relentless with its ‘soft loans’, extensive provision of technical knowhow and indirectly addressing the many developmental needs of Africans, as well as pursuing ‘soft diplomacy’ through its artistic, sporting and cultural exchanges, especially higher educational opportunities for many aspiring young Africans.
Russia’s approach appears more “opportunistic”, as described by one African specialist, independent Institute for Security Studies’ senior researcher on Russia’s activities in Africa, Priyal Singh.
The balance of political, military and economic evidence ‘on the ground’ also directly supports this view.
Russia’s approach to Africa is not, says Singh, a concerted, strategic plan, such as China’s, or even Washington’s, but rather an ad hoc policy taking advantage of opportunities, as they arise, and, when not in the form of fleeting visits by Lavrov, largely employed through proxies — mainly the Wagner Group.
Moscow seeks diplomatic backing, while its on-the-ground proxy, the Wagner Group, seeks financial advantage, in the form of mining and extractive rights, including for diamonds, rubies and other gems, gold, rare metals and rare earth minerals, such as lithium, as used in digital technologies.
Founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s one-time caterer, now right-hand military man Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group PMC (Paramilitary Company) is overtly active in several African countries, and perhaps covertly so in some others. It is or has been present as a military force in Mozambique, the CAR, Mali and Sudan.
The mercenary outfit was registered in St Petersburg in 2014 and is now leading Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in the Donbas region, specifically in the months-long brutal battle for the town of Bakhmut, where Wagner contractors, many fresh from Russian prisons where they were ‘recruited’, have been dying by the hundreds, daily, in what has become Europe’s bloodiest battle of attrition since World War II.
The US and other peacekeepers having lost troops in West African countries and then pulling out ‘observers’, trainers and operatives, Wagner operatives have moved in to replace them under non-democratic governments.
Wagner in Africa has undertaken what the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think-tank, describes as “a targeted effort against countries with weak governance, ongoing security challenges, oftentimes authoritarian or military government and rich natural resources that they can exploit as part of that deal, often through mining concessions”.
Sean McFate, author of The Modern Mercenary, says Wagner in Africa are into “diamond mines, gold mines, stuff like that”.
“That’s the business model: in exchange for extractive industry, they (Wagner) will provide muscle, protection,” adds McFate. Overlaying that process is the domestic political dimension within Russia.
Washington is apparently determined to counter this growing role for Moscow’s military ‘cut-out’, along with the Kremlin’s growing influence on the continent, by playing a low-key but crucial role in resolving a number of ongoing conflicts, including that in northern Mozambique, as well as eastern DRC.
“Russia is self-sufficient with gas, and therefore does not need any from Mozambique, so it doesn’t feature high up on the (Putin) agenda,” explained Singh.
That is not the case in Mali or some other African states where Wagner is to be found and where mineral riches are being “plundered”, on an industrial scale, as payment for their “services”, mostly by non-elected regimes.
“This allows Moscow to maintain political ties across Africa,” said Singh.
“So, in Sudan Wagner/Russia are involved in gold extraction, and similarly with rare earth minerals in the CAR.”
In both instances, Wagner operatives act as their own security at mining sites, with locals kept at armed bay and well away from Wagner mining and extraction operations, say security sources with on-the-ground knowledge.
But Singh also points out that among problems for Russia in Africa are its supposed allies, China and India, parties to the five-nations Brics grouping of states that also includes South Africa and Brazil.
Both India and China have their own interests in Africa, especially the Indian Ocean African states, with a background low-grade conflict still going on between the two states.
This means Brics cannot act as a ‘non-aligned’ grouping with a single agenda.
With complex undercurrents running between China and India, due also to the former’s strong alliance to Pakistan, which is seen in New Delhi “as an existential threat”, and India’s emergence as a competitive global player, Brics is as fraught with tensions as most other international fora.
“India and China are positioned as strategic rivals, whatever others like the US or the EU say or do,” says the ISS senior researcher and African specialist, leaving Russia a part-player on the continent, but without a strong international effort to force Moscow, or its military surrogates, ‘out of Africa’.
Rather, he adds, “China is seen in Africa as a balance to dominance by Western states”, when it comes to strategic partnerships for African states looking for prospective local development, placing China as the pre-eminent non-African power on the continent.
But there are exceptions: “Russia is the leading exporter of arms to Africa, with Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt” being the prime recipients, said Singh.
“When it comes to trade in general, the only country which stands out in Sub-Saharan Africa, as far as Russia is concerned, is South Africa,” he concluded.
Which is why, along with sentimental reasons around Moscow’s historic support for anti-apartheid and anti-colonial movements, some African countries have been inclined so far to ignore Russia’s excesses, not only in Ukraine, Georgia, Chechnya and Syria, but also in Africa, where the Wagner Group continues to spread its resource-grabbing tentacles, seemingly without restraint.
Putting Wagner’s role and that of the Russian state into perspective are assessments by think-tanks and similar independent groupings to the effect that Putin is not following in Chinese leader Xi’s footsteps by attempting a series of strategic developmental partnerships which, whatever their failings or benefits, are meant also to establish a Chinese cultural and economic presence across Africa.
Rather, Putin is politically playing a “spoiler” role for the US and other Western countries with historical colonial baggage — these once-colonialists attempting to reset their relations with their former colonies and other African states which bore the brunt of over 300 years of foreign ‘wealth-gathering’.
The ISS’s Singh essentially agrees with that assessment. “One of the characterisations of Russia’s policies in Africa under Putin could be summed up as a new colonialism drive,” Singh told Nation.Africa
“But there are other dimensions too. Russians, or their surrogates, being in Africa is largely symbolic, as well as (to a lesser extent) diplomatic and economic.
“Symbolically, this is an effort to show the West that attempts to isolate Russia (diplomatically and economically) are not working as it still has support from a significant proportion of (African) states.”
“Russia is also trying to circumvent economic sanctions by aligning with the global South,” added Singh.
“In East Africa, Ethiopia has been seen (by the Kremlin) in a similar light to South Africa, especially in their disinclination to criticise Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“But the only country in that region that stands out in its support of Russia is Eritrea.”
This nuanced take is, says Singh, a “more accurate version of Russia’s relationships with Ethiopia and South Africa” than might be understood from a partisan perspective.
But whatever Russia is up to in Africa, says this expert on the continent’s geo-politics, “it is not a ‘Belt and Road Initiative’,” such as China has undertaken on the continent, and beyond.
“China looks to Africa as a very important strategic arena. Africa isn’t a strategic priority for Putin. China was seen by the US up to 2022 as being a long-term strategic threat to US interests, whereas Russia is now being seen as a much more acute threat,” said Singh.