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Governments across Africa are reviewing ties with Moscow as the international crisis over its Ukraine invasion deepens
Africa is not directly concerned by the Russia-Ukraine war, yet the African Union and a few member states have made their views known loudly, in contrast with their sotto voce response to conflicts in Ethiopia, South Sudan or Congo-Kinshasa.
At the UN Security Council, Kenya's Ambassador Martin Kimani made a vibrant speech on the respect of territorial integrity and national sovereignty, reminiscent of statements of the Organisation of the African Union six decades ago. Gabon and Ghana, the two other African members of the Security Council, supported Kenya's stance (Dispatches 28/2/22, Moscow and Washington step up diplomatic fight over Ukraine war).
Russia took some further hits at the UN General Assembly when 25 African states voted for it to 'immediately withdraw all its forces' from Ukraine; 16 abstained; and six didn't register a vote, a less emphatic type of abstention; only Eritrea voted against the resolution. On 25 February, the African Union called for Russia to respect Uktraine's territorial integrity.
Among African citizens, these statements did not raise much enthusiasm, especially in those circles that see the old colonial powers interfering in the internal affairs of African states. Two other important African states stayed silent and abstained at the UN General Assembly: Ethiopia and Algeria, partly because of their important and historical links to Moscow.
Issues raised by the war go well beyond the diplomatic arena. There are at least three serious concerns that should be addressed, especially if the military dimension of the Ukrainian crisis escalates.
First, there are about 80,000 Africans (mostly students) in Ukraine who need a safe haven. Those figures are an educated guess as few African countries have an embassy in Kyiv. Most of them are declared as students, which often was the easiest way to get a residence permit.
Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana have the most students. Most of them were rushing to the Polish border, where they met obstruction and racism at times. There were several incidents in which African students were stopped from crossing into Poland but interventions from Brussels and African embassies in Warsaw seemed to have resolved many of the problems.
The costs for African states of the international sanctions on Russia, raises a trickier issue, especially after last month's AU-European Union summit in Brussels (AC Vol 63 No 4, Brussels tries to reset relations amid pandemic fall-out).
For instance, the price of a barrel of oil had risen to over US$110 by 1 March, a week after the invasion and multiple sanctions on Russia. Energy is going to be more expensive for many countries in Africa, except a few oil producers that are going to make a lot of money from the crisis.
More concerning still are food prices, already rising steeply in many countries. African countries (mainly Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya and South Africa) imported agricultural products worth $4 billion from Russia in 2020 (90% being wheat and 6% sunflower oil). Ukraine exported agricultural products worth $2.9bn to Africa in 2020: the two main items were wheat (48%) and maize (31%).
Prices in 2021 were already rocketing due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic and a long drought in parts of the continent. The EU will come under pressure to respond to the indirect effects of its sanctions on Russia; already, many European politicians are worried about the cost of the sanctions for their own country. For the EU to offer financial aid now would be a shrewd move to counter Moscow's continental ambitions.
Russia also has deeper and some troubled relations with several African states. Some will review their policy and assess the costs and benefits of standing alongside Moscow in the light of the Ukraine war (AC Vol 63 No 2, Moscow guns for African gold). The junta in Sudan has clearly tried to use this crisis to send a message to the West, with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti' and a ministerial delegation led by the minister of finance, Jibril Ibrahim, travelling to Moscow just before Russian troops entered Ukraine.
By not postponing their trip, their intention was twofold. They first showed Vladimir Putin that they deserved greater consideration and support for confirming their friendship when Moscow is increasingly isolated. Such a stance is not contradictory with their other diplomatic alignments. Egypt is an important trading partner for Russia (food products as well as weaponry) and the United Arab Emirates abstained alongside China at the UNSC on a resolution condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Sudan's junta also wants to make clear to Western diplomats that it has ended the civilian era, and that the country is moving on with this new regime led by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan. This is what Jibril Ibrahim has been saying from the very first day of the coup. Hemeti set off to Moscow just as the UN special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, publishes the results of his consultation on relaunching the transition to civil rule. It was an attempt by Hemeti, with Moscow as the backdrop, to show that Perthes and the UN were irrelevant. Others in the junta have been less vociferous about Khartoum's ties to Moscow.
Sudan's economy has gone into a nosedive, following the October coup and end of Western support and debt relief. Exports have crashed, as has the Sudanese pound. Given the sanctions hit on Russia's, Moscow's capacity to help its military allies in Sudan looks very limited in the short term. But further on, Russia wants to set up its planned naval logistics hub at Port Sudan, a plan which Hemeti hailed as a great success on his trip.
Mali has been extremely cautious on the Ukraine war despite a few fake pro-Russian statements. Bamako's foreign ministry published a statement promising to help rescue Malian residents in Ukraine. A meeting requested by the European Union and national ambassadors represented in Bamako has been postponed. Malian officials keep repeating that Bamako should not be held prisoner of conflicts between great powers which have no roots and consequences on Mali (AC Vol 62 No 23, Bamako and Moscow defy Paris).
Guinea's new junta declared its neutrality on the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Some tweets suggested that the Central African Republic (CAR) had recognised the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk but presidenntial spokesman Albert Mokpeme Yaloké denied that any decision had been taken.
A key question is the future of the Wagner Group's security operations in Africa. Some reports claim that Wagner had sent hundreds of its operatives currently in CAR to Kyiv to kill the Ukrainian President and decapitate his government. Accurate or imaginary, such allegations show the growing importance Wagner wields in Africa.
The two locations Russia could use as a military hub for its Africa policy are Libya and Sudan. Although the UN arms embargo is not really respected by different international actors, any leniency towards Russia is over. Libya is too contested to be used as a Russian base for now.
Instead Moscow officials have been focusing on the Port Sudan naval logistics project. It is likely that Burhan, under pressure from Hemeti, finally endorses a deal that also will help him solve some tensions within the Sudan Armed Forces – should the deal unlock some major contracts and resources. Under it, Sudan could take a greater role in Russia's new security architecture in Africa.
It is going to strengthen dynamics that were already in play. For instance, Hemeti froze his relations with those CAR armed groups leaders who were settled in Khartoum and very recently moved troops to the border to stop rebels crossing into CAR with new equipment and fresh recruits. The connection with Chadian rebels is going to grow, even at the cost of Hemeti's business interests in Niger.
United States President Barack Obama used to describe Russia as a regional power, a characterisation that infuriated President Putin. By starting a European war and attracted the coordinated opprobrium of the West, Putin may have re-established Russia as a power of global concern because of its land mass and nuclear weapons. Its economy was just marginally bigger than Italy's before Moscow invaded Ukraine, but could shrink rapidly due to sanctions and the cost of the invasion. If Putin survives the current turmoil, he will also have firmly re-established Russia's ties with China, this time as the junior partner. For Africa's older leaders, this new world order could start to look deceptively similar to the one that held sway until 1989. But the priority of most governments will be to mitigate the economic fall-out from Europe's biggest war for over 70 years.
MOSCOW'S SPECIAL RELATIONSHIPS IN WEST AFRICA
After breaking with France in 1958 independence, Guinea under President Sékou Touré cultivated a strong relationship with Moscow, then capital of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But the close ties today are between Conakry and Russia's metals giant Rusal, one of Guinea's biggest and most loyal investors. It has benefited Colonel Mamady Doumbouya's immediate post-coup decision to reassure investors and allow the mining industry to continue uninterrupted.
The next questions is whether the Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the European Union and United States will cut their investments in Africa. Benin was a close Cold War ally of the Soviet Union and communist China. Cotonou still boasts a 'Red Star' traffic roundabout. But then it spectacularly broke with the single-party regime after a national conference legitmised multi-party politics: the first of many such moves in the 1990s. Then Benin aligned itself closely with the Economic Community Of West African States (Ecowas), with its close ties to Europe. That stance has been maintained despite the erosion of civil liberties and return of grand corruption under President Patrice Talon. The growing jihadist threat to northern Benin prompted the government to strengthen military ties with France. Talon's government has little interest in strengthening ties with Moscow, even if it comes under EU pressure over its worsening rights record.
Mali's ties with Moscow date back to the authoritarian Moussa Traoré presidency and have been continued by the current prime minister Choguel Maïga, a vocal critic of France and defender of security ties with Russia.
Recent days have seen some journalists close to the military regime in Bamako voice support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Given Maïga's worldview, he may share this analysis but he and transition president Col Assimi Goïta have so far refrained from direct comment.
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