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Where do Russia's ties with Africa stand?

July 25, 2023

Russia is doubling down on its efforts to strengthen ties with countries in Africa. But that engagement is still more political than economic.

Vladimir Putin and Cyril Ramaphosa sitting next to each other
African leaders are keen to strengthen their ties with RussiaImage: Evgeny Biatov/RIA Novosti/picture alliance

Russia's most recent attempts to strengthen ties with countries in Africa are purely political, some African analysts say.

In the past, Moscow's ties with the continent was largely based on ideology tied to Western colonization and imperialism.

In post-colonial Africa, Russia has pursued some economic partnerships but made little progress.

Abuja-based international relations expert Ovigwe Eguegu says Russia is no match for China when it comes to trade with Africa. Moscow's security partnerships in Africa are also only with specific countries. 

"So the question then becomes why does Russia really need strong African political ties, or at least to renew political ties?" Eguegu said. 

Africa 'needs to be a bit smarter'

Accra-based Africa expert Emmanuel Bensah says African countries must be strategic. "The continent needs to be a bit smarter about how it engages Russia," Bensah told DW.

Most African countries have not openly condemed Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Loyalty to Russia for its support during  independence struggles in Africa is a major factor, says Luanda-based political analyst Olivio N'kilumbu

"Some are of the opinion that the former liberation movement still owes the Russians a lot since the days of the Cold War," N'kilumbu told DW. "And now we Africans have to shut up about the Russian invasion." 

An image showing the destruction of the Transfiguration Cathedral as a result of a missile strike in Odesa
Russia launched missile attacks on Odesa a day after pulling out of the Black Sea grain dealImage: Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP

What's the extent of Russia's economic support?

In the decades since countries around Africa won independence, Russian economic support has been minimal, Eguegu told DW.

"Russia is playing to its strengths on the continent because it doesn't have the economic dynamics with African countries. Primarily the tools Russia is relying mostly on is diplomatic rhetoric. It speaks to Africa's opponent, the West," he said.

The second Russia-Africa summit is taking place in St. Petersburg this week. In the runup, President Vladimir Putin called relations with African countries a priority.

In March, he made similar overtures: "Our country is determined to continue building a full strategic partnership with our African friends, and we are ready to shape the global agenda together." At the time Russia was being hit with international sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Bensah says Moscow should be mindful in dealing with Africa. 

"I think Russia would be making a mistake if it were to think that this is the Africa of the old where Africa was coming with a begging bowl," the Accra-based expert said. 

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A big arms supplier 

The "full strategic partnership" Putin talked about was meant to kick in after the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019. It has largely involved arms deals and military support.  

Russia was ranked Africa's biggest arms supplier in 2020 .

An analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed that around 30% of all arms exported to sub-Saharan Africa came from Russia between 2016 and 2020.

It marked a 23% increase in the volume of Russian arms shipments over the previous five-year period, with China (20%), France (9.5%) and the US (5.4%) lagging behind.

A panel of political leaders
Russia first hosted African presidents for a summit in 2019 in SochiImage: Valery Sharifulin/Tass/dpa/picture alliance

Widening security operations 

Russian military support is deepening in Africa. Its Wagner Group  operates in Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Mali, Libya, Sudan and Burkina Faso.

Abuja-based political analyst Samson Itodo says that's a cause for concern. "I think we should be worried, as a continent about Russia's increasing influence in shaping domestic politics within the Africa region. And this interference needs to be resisted," Itodo told DW.

Sylvie Baïpo-Temon, the CAR foreign minister, dismisses criticism of Russian mercenaries in Africa.

"We [can] talk about Wagner in as many ways as you want, but it exists everywhere. The United States has their private military company, France has a private military company, the United Kingdom also has it," Baipo-Temon told DW.

Some African leaders have gone even further to defend the Russia's presence. 

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda has said that "Russia or any other big power should not be our problem. The issue is these big powers have their own issues to sort out and then they keep sucking in these small countries of ours."

Speaking in Benin in April, Kagame added: "So Russia has the right to be anywhere they need to be legally, as any other country has the right to be anywhere."

An opportunity for Africa

African experts agree that Africa is becoming attractive to Russia and other global powers.

"It is important for Africa to tread cautiously as it goes along, because right now Africa is yet again becoming the playground of a lot of the external actors" said Bensah.

President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana last year expressed concern over neighboring Burkina Faso's reported deal to let in the Wagner Group.

"Privately, a lot of African countries have a problem with the fact that Russia has not really supported them since the Cold War," Bensah told DW. 

He believes that Africa-Russia ties will continue to strengthen as anti-West sentiment rises, but he hopes that countries in Africa will seize the opportunity to take charge and control the relationship.

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Kate Hairsine, Edward Micah Jnr, Antonio Cascais and Eric Topona contributed to this article.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen