A new Great Game is underway, but this time it's not playing out in the steppes of Central Asia or the mountains of the Hindu Kush but in the savannahs and deserts of Africa. Russia is vying with the West for influence in what used to be Europe’s colonial backyard.
The factors that go into remaking Russia’s Soviet-era good ties with the various African states are many and complex. Resentment over the colonial era gives Russia a good head start, as Russia never had any colonial ambitions in Africa. The Soviet legacy helps a lot, as the USSR supported many of the anti-colonial independence movements as well as educating many of Africa’s elite.
But also going into the mix are more modern needs. Russia is a major exporter of wheat, oil, fertilisers, arms and more recently, nuclear power station technology. Several African countries are entirely dependent on Russia for food supplies and the other commodities are in high demand.
Russia’s military power is also an important factor. Almost all of Africa imports arms from Russia, while the Kalashnikov machine gun is de rigueur for any self-respecting African mercenary. The war on terror is in full swing in Africa where many countries are plagued by Salafi jihadist groups like Boko Haram – especially in the Sahel region in central Africa – which have a murderous agenda.
These are not just occasional terrorist acts, and many governments in the middle of Africa do not control large swathes of their own countries and are fighting major and well-armed insurrections. Where the West offers its partners in Africa peacekeeping troops, the appeal of Russia’s Wagner PMC (private military company) is as a fighting force that can go on the offensive against the jihadist rebel groups.
And the Kremlin has been working overtime to shore up its support in Africa. Western leaders have started taking trips to Africa after Western and Russian diplomats began globetrotting to shore up support. Africa has suddenly become relevant to geopolitics in a way that it has never been before. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa travelled to Kyiv in June to propose a peace plan for the Ukraine war; the first time that an African leader has got involved in a major Western geopolitical issue and actually had some relevance, even if his proposal was dismissed out of hand.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is the most active of all. Since the start of the war, he has visited Angola, Eritrea, Eswatini, Mali, Mauritania, South Africa and Sudan in 2023, after visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia and Uganda in 2022, and was well received everywhere he went.
Two political events highlight the complex nature of Africa’s relations with Russia. On the one hand many African states are willing Moscow allies thanks to their history with the West, but on the other they are just as interested in maintaining good relations with the rest of the world. African states need to solve their own development problems and will take aid from wherever they can get it. They are not interested in any ideological tussle over a “values-based order ruled by international law.” As a survey conducted by bne IntelliNews early in the war showed, most African nations see the war in Ukraine as a European problem that has nothing to do with them. They would much rather sit on the fence than choose sides.
That mixed motivation came out clearly in the five UN votes to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine, as bne IntelliNews reported in a Datacrunch feature on the UN voting patterns.
On this score Eretria emerges as Russia’s best friend in Africa, having been the only African nation to vote against the motion in all five of the votes, along with Russia’s other “close friends” such as North Korea and Belarus. Notably, Russia’s actual close friends of India and China both abstained.
Eritrea is ruled by a brutal military junta that is heavily dependent on Russia for food and arms. And the junta has no love for the US, which imposed sanctions on the already struggling economy in 2021 in connection with its war against neighbour Ethiopia.
The first vote garnered the most votes to condemn the invasion, which is impossible to justify in international law, but even in the first UN General Assembly vote on March 3 a total of 35 countries abstained from the vote, 18 of them from Africa and another 5 African countries not voting at all, with 143 out of 193 members condemning it.
The map shows all five of the votes in the UN (-1 vote against the motion to condemn Russia, 0 – abstain, +1 vote for the motion). It also shows who sent presidents (+2) to the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg in July and who only sent vice presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers (+1).
Notably, as the votes in the UN progressed, more African countries chose to abstain, although none of them joined Eretria in voting against the motion, avoiding crossing swords with the West.
The second event that highlighted Africa’s good relations with Russia, but also the pressure they are under, was the second Russia-Africa summit held in St Petersburg at the end of July. A total of 49 out of the total of 54 African countries attended the event, although only 17 countries sent heads of state after the governments of the continent came under heavy US State Department pressure to stay away. That’s six more countries participating than the 43 African heads of state that attended the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in 2019.
The map above also shows the 17 countries that sent their presidents and defied US State Department pressure (2 in the chart), as opposed to those that just sent vice presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers (1 in the chart), had an interesting mix of motivations.
Eritrea’s president, of course, was a guest of honour. Mali, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) also sent their presidents and are all battling Salafi jihadist groups. Mali, CAR and DRC have all also hired Wagner to help binding them even closer to Moscow, while Burkina Faso is toying with the idea. These countries are all heavily dependent on Russian military imports to fight wars with extremists and care little about what the West thinks of them. Algeria also sent its prime minister and is also dependent on Russian arms and Wagner.
Presidents arrived from Mozambique and South Africa, which have deep economic ties with Russia. South African President Ramaphosa also represents a BRICS country and has thrown his lot in with the Sino-Russian alliance. South Africa’s economy is in chaos thanks to a rolling power crisis that Russia is promising to solve with a new nuclear power reactor. Russian banks have also been instrumental in raising billions of dollars to develop Mozambique’s natural resources, which has not gone well.
Mozambique also has ties with Wagner. Initially employed by the government at a discounted rate to provide security for upcoming elections, following raids on villages that turned into a full-scale insurgency by the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP), Wagner’s brief was upgraded to regain control. It failed, suffering extensive casualties and was ultimately withdrawn from the region. A lack of understanding of the local culture and unfamiliarity with the dense jungle conditions were the main causes of its lack of success, say experts.
Senegal also has deep economic ties to Russia, after it invested heavily in oil refining capacity, and has become an important alternative destination for Russia crude exports to Asia. Much of its refined Russian oil is sold to Europe as a way of dodging the oil sanctions on Russia.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attended because his country depends on Russia for both grain and nuclear technology.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Grain Initiative on July 17 has sparked talk of a new food crisis, and indeed Africa is one of Russia’s main customers.
Over almost a year of operation, around 33mn tonnes of agricultural products have been exported from Ukraine through the grain corridor, 725,000 tonnes of which were sent free of charge to developing countries under the World Food Programme (WFP).
Research conducted by the Kyiv School of Economics (KSE) Center for Food and Land Use this year indicated that 32 out of 40 African countries for which data is available obtain more than 70% of their wheat through imports.
However, as the chart shows, the combined Russian and Ukrainian grain exports account for a smaller but not insignificant share of the imports in most countries, and about 35% in many.
For example, Algeria imports no grain from Russia, but is an ally, whereas Egypt relies on combined Russian and Ukrainian grain for 78% of its supplies. Some countries like Somalia and Benin rely 100% on Russian grain imports and both Benin and Somalia were included in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to send free grain to Africa if the Black Sea grain deal collapsed. Notably, Egypt was not included in the free quota, as the country can pay for its grain imports.
African countries' dependency on combined Ukraine and Russia grain imports: 0 means 0-10% dependency, and 5 means 80-100%, via UN World Food Programme.
"In the coming months, we will be able to ensure free supplies of 25,000 to 50,000 tonnes of grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea," Putin said in a speech opening the Russia-Africa summit in July.
The dependencies of those countries are: Burkina Faso (38%), Zimbabwe (15%), Mali (35%), Somalia (68%), Central African Republic (no data) and Eritrea (100%), according to data from World of Statistics.
Other even more dependent countries like Benin (100%), Egypt (78%), Tanzania (73%), Democratic Republic of Congo (62%), Gambia (60%) were not included in the handout.
Interestingly, Benin voted to condemn Russia in four out of the five UN votes and abstained once while Somalia voted to condemn Russia in all five votes, but Tanzania and the DCR abstained in all the votes.
Between them, Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of the grain trade, but for reasons of national security the traded part of the grain business accounts for less than 1% of the world’s total grain production. Countries typically make sure they can feed themselves without relying on imports, but that is not true in many African countries.
Still, Ukraine’s role in supplying Africa is actually much smaller than the rhetoric coming out of Brussels suggests, and ending Ukraine exports to Africa is unlikely to cause a famine there. Last year the bulk of Ukraine’s grain exports were corn not wheat, and the majority of it went to the EU to feed pigs or make biofuels, not to Africa, with China being the single biggest importer of Ukrainian grain.
Ukraine shipped 4mn tonnes of agricultural products to Africa, or 12.24% of all exports within the grain corridor, according to the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP). Wheat and sunflower oil, the goods which African countries struggling with food insecurity are most dependent on, were mainly shipped to the African continent.
Still, Russia and Ukraine play a key role in supplying Africa with food. The UN estimates that 15 countries on the African continent received over 50% of their food from these two countries in 2020.
Russia plays an equally key role in supplying fertiliser to Africa, with prices for these products rising 3-4 times compared to 2020 thanks to the war, adding to food price inflation, which does as much damage to African economies as the lack of physical supply, as it makes food unaffordable for the already impoverished citizens.
The interaction of these two factors led to an average 23.9% increase in food prices in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020-2022. This is the largest increase since the global financial crisis in 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
What the reporting on Ukraine’s falling exports fails to mention is that Russian exports are at an all-time high and can go a long way to making up the Ukrainian shortfall. Ukraine is expected to export 33mn tonnes of grain this year (chart), down from the recent peak of 54mn tonnes in 2019-2020, Russia’s exports should rise to a record 60mn tonnes – double the average of recent years. (chart)
Following an all-time high record harvest of 153mn-155mn tonnes of grain in 2022 and another good harvest of some 133mn tonnes anticipated this year, Russia’s grain silos are full to bursting. As only 15% of Russia’s grain exports goes to Africa, it has plenty of surplus grain to meet the African demand if it can transport it there.
Grain supplies is another piece of kit in Russia’s diplomatic toolbox. Egypt nearly ran out of grain last spring after its wheat reserves fell to one month and it received no takers in a string of tenders. Then after a month of silence, miraculously Cairo announced that it had six months of wheat stocks in reserve; Russia stepped in and filled its silos.
Somalia and Benin are not particularly pro-Russian and voted with the majority of the West to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly votes following the invasion of Ukraine. But Putin cannot be seen to cause a genuine famine in an African country by Africans for the sake of his battle against Ukraine. Putin’s room for manoeuvre for limiting grain exports to Africa is thus constrained. Some analysts speculate that as a result the chances of the Black Sea grain deal being revived are actually quite good.
Wagner, arms deals and jihadist
If Russia’s foreign policy tool in Europe used to be gas, then in Africa it is guns and butter. Preventing people from starving to death is a major problem for many African countries but stopping them from being killed by jihadist groups is an even bigger one.
Several international extremist groups, including the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (a division of the Islamic State terrorist organisation outlawed in Russia) and Ansar al-Islam, are active in the whole region. As the map shows (on a scale of 0-5, where five is active military clashes) the Salafi jihadist movement – that has its roots in the mujahideen that fought the Soviets in Afghanistan – wants to set up a global caliphate by force.
Arms deals have always been a major tool of Russian foreign policy, coupled with energy deals. After taking office in 2000, the first thing Putin did was tour the world doing combined gas and guns deals to bring in billions of revenues as Russia’s best arms salesman, and little has changed over the last two decades.
Africa is suffering from a plague of Islamic extremism. In Burkina Faso, for example, which has caught the headlines after a military coup d'état there, the government only controls about 60% of the country, with the rest being in the hands of religious extremists. Burkina Faso has been a centre of terrorist activities in West Africa since 2015. In general there have been half a dozen coups d'état in the last three years in the region where Russia’s footprint has been growing, aided by the instability.
Jihadi countries of operation and the distribution of Wagner forces or Russian military contracts in Africa.
Nearly half of all global terrorism-related deaths occurred in parts of the Saleh region in 2021, that includes Niger, thanks to the coups; two each in Burkina Faso and Mali, one in Chad and another in neighbouring Guinea.
Four of the ten countries most affected were Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Somalia, where three quarters (77%) of terrorism-related deaths occurred, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
Russia is a major supplier of arms to almost all of Africa and more specifically its Wagner PMC has been employed by half a dozen countries suffering the most from terrorism to battle the insurrectionists.
Wagner has become a major plank of Russia’s foreign policy in Africa and will remain so despite the armed mutiny on June 24, when its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, threatened to attack Moscow. In a little noticed comment the following day, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the mutiny had not affected the Kremlin’s foreign policy, which intends to continue working with Wagner in Africa.
For example, after brokering an exemption to the UN Security Council’s embargo on supplying arms to the CAR in 2017, Moscow quickly sent weapons and military trainers from the Wagner Group to that country. Prior to the Russians’ arrival, CAR had been under France’s strong political and military influence for decades.
“Today Wagner is the Kremlin’s most important proxy in CAR; it provides security for the government, facilitates Russian political and diplomatic influence, and has gained access to lucrative mining assets,” Paul Stronski said in a note for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Moscow is now taking advantage of similar alignments of opportunities in the rest of the Sahel region.
Wagner moved into Mali after two coups there in the last three years and is also wooing Burkina Faso, which buys arms from Russia but has not yet hired Wagner.
Niger has also dumped France as its protector as the new military junta has turned to Moscow for military supplies in its fight with jihadist forces and is reportedly in talks with Wagner.
For the meantime Wagner Group probably lacks the capacity to deploy to Niger, say experts, unless they redeploy forces already in Africa. Russia’s ambassador to Nigeria said just after the Nigerien coup that Russia has no plans to use its forces in Niger, although Wagner has 1,000 men in Mali, according to reports.
But Wagner plays second fiddle to Russia’s weapons supplies to Africa, where almost all of the 54 countries are customers, although there is also a clear link between Russian arms sales in Africa and the presence of the Wagner Group mercenary force.
Russia overtook China as the top weapons supplier to sub-Saharan Africa between 2018 and 2022, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Russia grabbed 26% of the region’s market share, up from 21% over the previous five years, the report showed. China’s market share in the region fell from 29% to 18% between 2013 to 2022. The leading importers of Russian weapons on the continent are Algeria, Angola, Egypt and Sudan, says SIPRI.
Fighting insurgence is one of the drivers of the Niger coup. France provided peacekeepers to Niger to protect the civilian population and a force of 2,000 soldiers remains in the country. But the leaders of many African countries want something more aggressive: soldiers that will go on the offensive and crush the jihadists, not just peacekeepers, to prevent civilians from being shot. Increasingly the desperate government has turned to Moscow for weapons and Wagner for men and training.
In the latest incident that highlights just how unstable the region is, Agence France-Presse reported a terrorist attack in Niger’s eastern border town of Nohao, where jihadist militants killed at least 20 people on August 7. This kind of attack happens on almost a weekly basis.
“The events in Niamey are, I think, a culmination of an increasingly polarised geopolitical environment combined with the arrival of new security partners for African governments,” says John Lechner, journalist and researcher at the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service who covers central Africa. “You do a coup, or you're starting a political movement to oust that government. Who can you turn to for support? China invests significant money (mostly) with incumbent national governments. They won't provide security. Turkey sends military equipment, not troops, unless it's Libya. India? No interest. Other African governments like Rwanda? That's just starting. Really Russia is one of the few other countries out there that can provide some sort of political backing/security in the form of contractors.”
And Wagner has its eye on many other countries. It has a hub in Douala, Cameroon, that is on its radar for exploitation. In 2022, Cameroonian President Paul Biya, who is facing a rebellion in Anglophone regions of his country, signed a training and information-sharing deal with the Russian government during a visit to Moscow.
Mali’s Russian weapons imports increased by 210% between 2013 and 2022. After Malian coups in 2020 and 2021, France and the US have become reluctant to become entangled in African wars, sending little in the way of weapons, money or men. Russia, on the other hand, increased its arms exports and contractors to Mali well before the war in Ukraine began, according to the SIPRI report.
In Sudan, Wagner maintains close ties with members of the ruling junta while smuggling gold out of the country and conducting disinformation campaigns to benefit the junta. In Libya, Wagner forces occupy a military base and support military forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar, a rebel military commander who rules the eastern half of the country after the botched Nato campaign there to oust Gaddafi.
As Niger is a major supplier to Europe of uranium, the West is getting more involved now.
US Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was in Niger in the wake of the coup and held “difficult” talks with the new junta. She told the new leadership about “Wagner and its threat to those countries where it is present, reminding them that security gets worse, that human rights get worse when Wagner enters.”
Tensions are still rising in the region, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) activating its strategic military reserve on August 12.
Nigeria, to the south of Niger, will play a key role in the development of events, as the coup has blocked plans to develop a 30bn cubic metre gas pipeline via Niger and Algeria to Europe that would be worth billions of dollars to Niamey if it goes ahead. Obviously, the EU is also keen to see the pipeline appear, which would go some way to replacing the missing Russian gas exports that have disappeared as a result of the war in Ukraine.
For much of the last 100 years, Africa has been the colonial playground for the leading European powers – and that still rankles in Africa. Russia is well placed to capitalise on the strong anti-colonial feelings throughout much of the continent, and in the Saleh region in particular. Resentment of the colonial era still runs strong in many African countries, which feel they are still being exploited by the developed world.
“Countries across the continent, including in the Sahel, want greater agency in managing their foreign, political and economic affairs. They do not want the United States and Europe to impose partners upon them,” says Stronski.
At the same time, economic development and the appearance of a middle class in some of the more advanced countries has only fuelled these sentiments. French President Emmanuel Macron’s tour of Francophone Africa in March showed this, where he was met with demonstrations and got roasted by the president of Congo (ROC) on live television.
“You must change the way that Europe and France treat us. You must begin to respect us and see Africa in a different way,” President of the Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi told a flustered Macron during a live broadcast. “You have to stop treating us and talking to us in a paternalistic tone. As if you were always absolutely right and we were not.”
Russia has inherited a lot of political goodwill from the Soviets’ unrelenting support of African independence movements during the Cold War era and has not been shy of hyping the colonial past at every opportunity.
“During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided crucial diplomatic and military assistance to the political forces fighting against Western colonialism and for national independence,” Maxim Matusevich wrote for the Italian Institute for International Political Studies on Russo-African relations. “As Africa emerged as an important Cold War battleground, Moscow forged close ties with African nationalists and pan-Africanists... While the United States and their Western allies hedged their bets or sided with European colonial powers and white minority regimes fighting against the forces of liberation, the Kremlin provided much-needed military training to the cadres of militant anti-racist and anti-colonial political movements such as the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa or the Marxist-Leninist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).”
For the African elite, many of them educated in Russia, Moscow has always provided an important counterbalance to the West. And Putin has constantly harped on with the anti-colonial theme during his various meetings with the African leadership to great effect.
“We don’t believe in being enemies of somebody else’s enemy,” Uganda’s long-time President Yoweri Museveni said at a joint press conference with Lavrov last year.
The map shows the main colonisers from the pre-WWII era (UK – 1, France – 2, Spain – 3, Portugal – 4, Italy – 5, Germany – 6, Belgium – 7) although the map is incomplete and intended as a guide, as several colonies changed hands and were ruled by multiple European countries.
France has come in for special ire, as the map below shows that much of the Islamic jihadist problem today is found in the former French and Belgium colonies in the middle of Africa, which also count amongst the poorest in Africa. The departure of the British seems to have gone much more smoothly, as many of their former colonial states like South Africa and Egypt are by far the richest countries in Africa.
Russia’s job of winning over African countries has been made easier by Europe’s failure to make much progress in helping them deal with the problem of jihadi terrorism on the continent.
In March, Russian Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya told the assembly: "It is the failures of Western states that force African countries to turn to those who can make a real contribution to the fight against terrorism on the continent… Terrorism in the Sahel assumed an avalanche character after the brazen military intervention in Libya by Western states that destabilised the entire region. This had implications even for coastal states of West Africa."
At Gazprom’s tenth birthday party in 2001 Putin openly called gas exports “a major plank of Russia’s foreign policy” and personally travelled the world doing combined energy and arms deals. Energy remains a foreign policy tool, but gas has given way to nuclear technology.
In the 1990s gas earned Russia most of its export foreign exchange, but over the next two decades it has given way to oil. Since the destruction of the twin Nord Stream pipeline last September gas has become a minor contributor to hydrocarbon exports, but exports of nuclear power technology are growing fast. Moreover, Russian nuclear power plant (NPP) exports come with 60-year service and fuel contracts, binding clients into a long-term energy dependency as good as any gas pipeline.
Russia has world-class nuclear technology and half a dozen African countries are in talks or have done deals to buy NPPs. Currently South Africa is the only nuclear operator in Africa. South Africa has two reactors at its Koeberg NPP totalling almost 2,000 MWe, but it is considering extending the life of the plants and expanding its nuclear power programme.
As bna IntelliNews, our African sister news service, has reported, South Africa has been plagued by power shortages and the state-owned power company Eskom has a regime of “load shedding” that plunges the country into darkness on a periodic, sometimes daily, basis. The lack of power is causing chaos and, desperate for a large-scale solution, South African President Ramaphosa has turned to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the state-owned Rosatom to expand the existing capacity with Russian-financed reactors. Ramaphosa has emerged as one of Putin’s staunches allies in Africa.
Egypt is about to join South Africa as a nuclear power, after Russia began constructing two reactors in 2022 and poured the first concrete into the foundation of the El Dabaa NPP’s third unit in Egypt this May.
The legacy of Chernobyl led Rosatom to totally revise its technology and today Russia boasts some of the safest nuclear power technology in the world. Russia's nuclear exports are booming and Rosatom has signed tens of billions of dollars of deals around the world to build reactors.
Rosatom has at least 40 clients overseas that have bought or are in the process of buying an NPP, but the business in Africa remains nascent.
In addition to South Africa and Egypt, Rosatom has already signed co-operation agreements with Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Zambia, which all have nuclear ambitions. A really attractive part of the deal is that Russia usually finances about 80% of the typically $10bn price tag, making it affordable to cash-strapped African nations.
There are over half a dozen countries producing uranium for fuel, including Kazakhstan and Niger, but only Russia processes uranium in large quantities into the burnable U235 needed to power an NPP as part of the standard 60-year service and fuel deal.