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Russia looms large over Macron's Africa trip

Benita van Eyssen
July 29, 2022

French President Emmanuel Macron's visits to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea Bissau were aimed at redefining relations, but simultaneous Russian overtures mean there's stiff competition for international influence.

French President Emmanuel Macron (l) and Cameroonian President Paul Biya (r) shake hands in the capital Yaounde as two uniformed men stand behind them 
Presidenta Emmanual Macron, of France, and Paul Biya, of Cameroon, during the former's Africa tripImage: Saabi Jeakespier/AA/picture alliance

According to French presidential officials, President Emmanuel Macron's three-country visit to Africa earlier this week was aimed at redefining relations with former French colonies. The trip, which lasted from July 25 to 28, took him to Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.

But Macron was not the only foreign politician making overtures on the African continent: By the time Macron touched down in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, late Monday, a Russian diplomatic charm offensive was in full swing. Over the course of the week, Moscow's top diplomat, Sergey Lavrov, jetted from Egypt to the Republic of Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia. 

The overlapping visits reflect tensions between the long-standing ties certain African nations have to France, due to the legacy of French colonialism, and the more recent investment and involvement by Russia that has made it an attractive international partner.

Sergey Lavrov and Yoweri Museveni hold up a red folder between them
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni met in Entebbe on TuesdayImage: AFP

Russia: 'One of the last colonial, imperial powers'

Macron focused many of his remarks on Africa's stance towards Russia. 

"I'm telling you here in Africa, a continent that has suffered from colonial imperialism: Russia is one of the last colonial, imperial powers," Macron said in Benin. He also accused Russia of using food as one of its "weapons of war."

Macron also criticized African leaders who have largely failed to strongly and openly condemn Moscow for invading Ukraine.

"The choice that has been made by the Europeans, first of all, it is not to participate in this war, but to recognize it and name it. But I see too often hypocrisy, especially on the African continent," he said. 

Presidents Paul Biya of Cameroon, Patrice Talon of Benin and Umaro Sissoco Embalo of Guinea-Bissau discussed the Ukraine conflict in private with their French counterpart.

Embalo, who has been in office since 2020, spoke out against Russia. "Effectively, Guinea-Bissau, despite being a non-aligned country, condemns this aggression against Ukraine. I think that, in the 21st century, we cannot accept war, especially between neighbors," he said.

President Emmanuel Macron walks next to Umaro Embalo down a red carpet as a band playa brass instruments in the background
Umaro Embalo, of Guinea-Bissau, spoke out against the war in Ukraine during Macron's visitImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

Russia 'not a common enemy'

According to Caroline Roussy, a senior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), Macron's visit was rather futile if he had intended to persuade African leaders to side with the West.

"President Macron thought he could read the situation well, that everyone would be behind him. African presidents have other preoccupations," Roussy told DW. "Right now, African countries don't want to engage a country like France. Russia is not a common enemy."

She thinks it would have been wiser for Macron to concentrate on mutual matters: "There is big French-bashing in Africa now."

Tighisti Amare, deputy director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, shared a similar perspective.

"Macron's comments are a reflection of this growing concern and an attempt to win Africa's support for France's position on the war in Ukraine," she said.

"While Macron efforts to reboot relations with the continent are commendable, unsurprisingly changes have been much harder to achieve. Building a long-term political partnership based on mutual interests will take time," she added.

The French president signaled to African countries France's intent to help increase food production in Cameroon and Guinea Bissau, as well as other countries on the continent. Macron also pledged military support to Cameroon and Benin to fight militant extremists.

Africans pivoting away from France

However, France's desire for a reset with Africa is not exclusively related to Russia, nor is it entirely a recent development. 

Macron's first trip outside the EU after initially becoming president, in 2017, was to Mali. 

"French presidential visits have traditionally been an important way of signaling that Africa remains a political priority for France," Amare explained. "Macron has made a number of efforts to revitalize France's relation with countries across Africa."

But much has changed in Africa since Macron's first term. The former French colonies are pivoting away from France. The recent coups in Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso are also seen to have hurt relations with France. For instance, this past spring, Mali withdrew from its military pacts with France.

Some countries where France once had strong influence now openly favor Russia and China. 

Experts agree that having Russia, and China, on the scene has made the political and diplomatic competition for influence more intense for Macron.


Patrice Talon's holds Emmanuel Macron's wrist and gestures as the two stand on stairs
Beninese President Patrice Talon freed 30 jailed opposition supporters during President Macron's visitImage: Ludovic Marin/AFP

No criticism of Biya over Anglophone crisis

One topic was noticeably absent from public remarks: While in Cameroon, Macron mostly avoided mentioning the drawn-out Anglophone crisis that threatens stability in the country. He also did not meet with Maurice Kamto, of the opposition.

Some Cameroonians had predicted that that would be the case. Emmanuel Simh, one of the vice presidents of Kamto's Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon (MRC), told DW that he had not had expectations for Macron's visit anyway. 

However, a representative of one separatist groups, told DW they had hoped Macron would urge President Biya to stop the use of force in the English-speaking regions. 

"Other movements will be watching this event with the hope that Emmanuel Macron will be pushing Paul Biya to choose the path of peaceful resolution of the war, " Capo Daniel, the deputy defense chief of the Ambazonia Defense Forces, said.

Biya, meanwhile, confirmed to journalists covering Macron's visit that his government renewed an existing military agreement with Russia in April. 

Anglophone crisis put kids' right to education at risk

Aid upon specific request

In Benin, Macron and Talon discussed security and the possibility of help from Paris in the form of advanced weaponry or military training. Jihadi extremists are active in the north of the country. 

The French leader was keen to emphasize that when it comes to matters such as fight terrorism, his government's approach in African countries was to intervene at the specific request of countries.

With Macron's trip now over, experts will be looking to see whether any groundwork for a relationship reset was successfully laid. Going forward, however, it will be important for western powers to recognize that their own interests and those of African countries, who are now are diversifying international partnerships, won't always align, said Chatham House's Amare. 

Moki Kindzeka, Iancuba Danso and Etienne Gatanazi contributed to this article.

Edited by: Kate Hairsine and Cristina Burack

Benita van Eyssen is a digital content planner, producer and editor@benita_v_eyssen
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