Russia Looks to Africa in a Desperate Bid for Allies

How should Africa respond to overtures from Russia? Dr Edgar Githua gives his views.


This article is sponsored by Dr. Edgar Githua

Having made an enemy of what was once a brother nation through its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has tried to reinvigorate its relationships in Africa, searching for friends as it finds itself increasingly isolated on the global stage.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it has faced severe sanctions and isolation from the West. In response, Russia has shifted its focus towards Africa, seeking to revive old ties and to establish new economic and strategic partnerships. This resurgence of Russian interest in Africa, reminiscent of the Soviet era, has accelerated in recent years, marked by high-level summits and strategic agreements aimed at bolstering Russia’s influence on the continent.

The first Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi in October 2019 exemplified Russia’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Africa. However, despite these efforts, the bilateral trade between Africa and Russia remains small, standing at only $18bn. This pales in comparison to the trade volumes between Africa and other major partners such as India ($98bn) and Turkey ($34.5bn) as of 2022-2023.

It is important to point out that the Russian-Africa Summit promises very little for what the federation is demanding from African countries. This, coupled with Russia’s withdrawal from the United Nations’ Black Sea Grain initiative agreement, pales in comparison to the Ukraine’s potential grain exports, which are now becoming clear following the country’s reopening of the Black Sea for exports. 

The second Russia-Africa summit, held in St Petersburg in July 2023, saw reduced participation compared to the first summit. The lack of concrete commitments and failed resolutions from the first summit contributed to this decline in participation. Additionally, the pledges made by Russia during the second summit, such as exporting grain to African countries, were minimal compared to initiatives such as the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

Maximising interests

Russia’s approach to Africa has always been focused on maximising its own economic and strategic interests. This was evident during the Soviet era, when Russia exploited African countries for resources and geopolitical influence. Today, Russia continues to prioritise its economic gains in Africa, leveraging security agreements and partnerships to extract mineral resources from African nations at the sacrifice of African sovereignty and the freedom of populations of these countries. 

The Wagner Group, a private military company, recently changed its name to Africa Corps – a name reminiscent of the Nazi military force the Afrika Corps that was active in the continent during World War II. It is closely linked to the Kremlin, and epitomises Russia’s exploitative tactics in Africa, operating in countries such as the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Sudan, Libya and Mozambique.

The Africa Corps offers security assistance to authoritarian regimes in exchange for access to valuable mineral resources. This arrangement not only undermines democracy and exacerbates instability, but also perpetuates economic exploitation and oppression of local populations. 

For example, in Sudan in 2018 the Wagner Group deployed with the aim of supporting former president Omar al-Bashir and, in return, secured gold-mining concessions. Similarly, in the CAR, at the invitation of President Faustin Archange Touadera, it provided security assistance in exchange for access to gold and diamond mines. In Mali, where a prolonged insurgency by fundamentalist Islamist groups has persisted, Russia stepped in to fill the security void left by French withdrawal, leading to the acceptance of Wagner Group contractors. That these contractors reportedly receive $10m monthly highlights the significant financial gains the Wagner Group reaps from its exploitative operations in Africa.

Caution advised

African countries need to be cautious of their relationship with Putin and Russia. The imbalanced trade and relationship with Russia, is clearly characterised by exploitation and unequal benefits. While Africa needs foreign investment and solid trade relationships, Russia is simply not the answer. 

As Putin seeks to revive his and Russia’s influence in Africa through military agreements, strategic partnerships and economic deals, it does so primarily to serve its own interests, often at the expense of African nations. The small trade volumes, lack of meaningful commitments from Russia, and the exploitative nature of agreements such as those involving the Wagner Group and other private military companies underscores the need for Africa to reassess its engagement with Russia.

Instead of relying on foreign alliances that prioritise their own gains, African leaders should focus on fostering regional integration and economic self-sufficiency. Initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offer a promising avenue for intra-African trade and cooperation, providing an opportunity for African nations to reduce dependency on external partners like Russia. Additionally, investing in sectors such as agriculture, renewable energy, and manufacturing can enhance Africa’s self-reliance and mitigate vulnerabilities to external shocks, such as those caused by Russia’s actions.

As Africa navigates its relationship with Russia and other external actors, it must prioritise its long-term interests and collective development. By promoting regional integration, fostering economic diversification, and advocating for fair and equitable partnerships, Africa can chart a path towards sustainable growth and prosperity, free from exploitation and undue foreign influence.