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PoliticsSouth Africa

Africa-Russia: A tricky relationship

August 20, 2023

BRICS countries are set to meet August 22-24 in Johannesburg, as the bloc aims to widen its influence. But the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin is already causing a stir.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and a number of African leaders and delegates participate in the plenary session of the 2nd Russia-Africa Summit
A smaller-than-usual cohort of African leaders attended the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit in JulyImage: Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

According to organizers, the upcoming BRICS summit — held in South Africa from August 22 to 24 — aims to spearhead a fairer global governance system and push back against the economic dominance of Western nations.

But some observers have said the absence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin from the talks may dent his growing influence in Africa.

Russia is one of five BRICS member states — also including Brazil, India, China and South Africa — which count themselves as fast-growing economies.

The Russian president is currently the target of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant against the backdrop of Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has been widely met with international condemnation.

His potential visit had posed a diplomatic and legal dilemma for South Africa, until it was later confirmed that his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, would lead Russia's delegation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stand in front of the flags of two BRICS nations (Brazil and Russia)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) — pictured here with South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa (left) — will only participate via videoImage: Mikhail Metzel/ITAR-TASS/IMAGO

Gideon Chitanga, a research associate at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, told DW that Putin's presence "was going to be a huge distraction," due to the "all the controversies which arose from his indictment" by the International Criminal Court.

"His absence at least helps, for now, in keeping focus on the key issues," Chitanga added. "In other words, there will be less noise concerning President Putin, his arrest and probably the whole issue surrounding relations between Russia and African countries."

Does Putin's absence matter?

Back in July, Putin downplayed skipping the trip to South Africa.

"I don't think my presence at the BRICS summit is more important than being here in Russia now," he told reporters.

However, Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher at the Institute for Global African Affairs at the University of Johannesburg, said Russia is economically weak at the moment, potentially leaving the door open for deeper negotiations had Putin made the trip. 

"The war is taking its toll. And so maybe some high-level deals might have been done, if President Putin had come," he told DW. 

"But I don't think [his absence] is going to have a major effect either way."

But not everyone agrees. In the lead-up to the BRICS summit, South Africa's radical leftist opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, had urged the leaders of China, India, and Brazil to boycott the event in solidarity with Putin's absence. 

The party's leader, Julius Malema, rallied his supporters to hold protests in support of the Russian leader.

"We call on the presidents of the People's Republic of China, India and Brazil not to come to BRICS summit in solidarity with President Putin," he said.

"It is [South African President] Ramaphosa — the coward Ramaphosa — who could not guarantee that we would not arrest Putin," he added. "We will never support imperialism against President Putin."

Russia's Sahel ambitions in the spotlight

The Russian leader isn't just making waves in South Africa. The recent military takeover in Niger has also highlighted Russia's growing influence in the Sahel region following a wave of coups in the area over the last three years.

What is Russia doing in the Sahel?

In Mali and Burkina Faso — which saw their own coups in 2021 and 2022, respectively — military leaders have expelled troops from former colonial power France and reinforced diplomatic relations with Moscow. Both countries have warned against any military intervention in Niger, with Putin echoing their wish for a "peaceful resolution." 

Under Niger's democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, the country was considered a Western ally.

However, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a researcher and commentator on sociopolitical affairs in East Africa's Great Lakes region, told DW that Russia is simply pursuing its own interests in the Sahel, much like other Western powers have done in the past.

"Russia, like any other Western powers, will support governments in Africa aligned with its interests," he said. 

"If Russia is doing the same today, the West should not turn around and get concerned about Russia's growing influence in Africa."

Africa pursuing its own interests

According to researcher Chitanga, the notion that Russia contributes little to African economies compared to its military exploits remains the overarching narrative.

"However, some Africans consider Putin a vital ally," he said, adding that African citizens are more interested in "how their countries will benefit from the BRICS summit and the emerging relations around the BRICS."

Chitanga believes African countries won't necessarily capitulate to Western pressure.

"There is a loud concern among African policymakers, think tanks and academics, who are very critical of what they see as Western hypocrisy in trying to influence or dictate policy in African countries," he said.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi said African leaders are still keenly aware of where other nations stand on Russia, particularly as reported in Western media. At the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit in July, only 17 African heads of state participated compared with 43 at the first summit in 2019.

"It can't be said that African leaders traveled or were represented in Moscow because they loved Putin. They had interests with Russia that they must preserve," he explained.

Edited by: Ineke Mules

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