Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, much has been made of the equivocal stance of some African countries towards Russia’s war.
In a vote at the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion, 28 African countries (51%) voted in favour, 17 abstained (31%), one voted against and eight were not in the room.
Much of the attention has focused on South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa has refused to criticise Russia while partly blaming the war on NATO expansionism.
In some cases this stance stems from lasting gratitude for the Soviet Union’s support for African liberation struggles during the Cold War era. In addition, African countries that suffered under the yoke of European imperialism are reluctant to take lectures from the West on democracy and human rights.
Others value trade ties – trade between Russia and Africa has doubled since 2015 to almost $20bn a year, the African Export-Import Bank reported last year, with Russia exporting $14bn worth of goods and services and importing roughly $5bn of African products in a year.
But looking closely, what does the Russia of today offer Africa?
As recently as 2017, just 1% of Africa’s total FDI stock originated in Russia. Prior to the pandemic, Russia tried to increase that: 19 greenfield projects were commenced in 2019, and the first official Russia-Africa summit was held in Sochi that year. But investment remains heavily based around resources – metals, coal, oil and gas collectively account for 90% of the total Russian greenfield investment in Africa announced since 2003, according to research by fDi Markets.
Since 2015, Russia has also signed military cooperation agreements with more than 17 African countries, according to a Swedish Defence Research Agency report. Moscow’s support for military governments, such as those in Mali and Sudan – is often characterised by arms deals, security assistance and the shady role of Russian-linked mercenary groups such as Wagner. Relations are largely conducted between unaccountable elites with limited transparency.
The war is not likely to improve ties. An isolated Moscow cut off from the global financial system, lacking domestic economic dynamism and facing a crippling recession, won’t have the funds to invest in the long-term infrastructure and development projects that Africa requires.
Unlike the Soviet Union, deeply conservative and oligarchic modern Russia does not pay lip service to the idea of an egalitarian economic model or global equity. Putin’s dream of a post-liberal international order based on imperial revanchism is at odds with Africa’s yearning for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, as Kenyan ambassador Martin Kimani pointed out at the United Nations.
Impact of war
Russia’s war in Ukraine is also destabilising for Africa. The war has disrupted supplies of staple crops from Ukraine and Russia.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organisation, told the UK’s Guardian newspaper that 35 African countries were dependent on food imported from the Black Sea region.
“I think we should be very worried. The impact on food prices and hunger this year and next could be substantial. It is poor countries and poor people within poor countries that will suffer the most.”
IMF chief Kristina Georgieva says Africa is vulnerable through increased food prices, higher fuel prices, lower tourism revenues, and difficulty accessing capital markets.
None of which is to argue that African countries must enthusiastically back a sanctions regime which many can ill-afford, or jettison their independent foreign policy to blindly follow the West. But African governments should realise that post-war relations with an economically isolated Vladimir Putin are not likely to yield much.