/ 12 June 2019

Russia is the clumsy latecomer at Africa’s superpower party

Russia's president Vladimir Putin.
Russia's president Vladimir Putin. (Gianluigi Guercia/Pool/Reuters)

News analysis

Some time towards the middle of last year, an unmarked vehicle began to pay weekly visits to the Grand Cafe in central Bangui. The upscale patisserie is one of the few places in town serving half-decent cappuccinos and croissants, but the occupants of the vehicle did not linger. Instead, they picked up their order — hundreds of freshly-baked baguettes — and headed back into the countryside.

Although few knew it at the time, these baguettes were perhaps the first sign that the Russian state was making a concerted push to renew its influence on the African continent. The bread was intended to feed the 175 Russian private security contractors — otherwise known as mercenaries — who had been deployed to Berengo Palace, the old residence of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa, to train more than a thousand Central African soldiers.

The Russian presence in the Central African Republic flew largely under the radar until the end of July 2018, when news broke that three Russian journalists had been killed on the road to Sibut, about 180 kilometres outside the capital. They were on assignment, investigating the activities of the shadowy Wagner Group — a Russian private security allegedly funded and run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. It was the Wagner Group that was supposedly running the base in Berengo.

After that, both Russia and Wagner began popping up in unexpected places all over the African continent. In Madagascar, Russian political strategists were said to be funding several different candidates ahead of presidential elections in 2018. In Sudan, Wagner was supposedly advising President Omar al-Bashir on how to shore up his power. In the Central African Republic, Russia was allegedly donating arms and receiving cut-price minerals contracts in return. In Djibouti, a Russian request to build a military base was rebuffed only after vociferous complaints from the United States.

And in South Africa, ahead of the general elections in May, the Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee reported that Russian operatives linked to Prigozhin had hatched a plan “to create a disinformation campaign that favoured the ANC and put out propaganda against the opposition DA and EFF for the 2019 election”. This attempted intervention in South Africa followed Russia’s secretive courting of former President Jacob Zuma, and their ultimately unsuccessful joint efforts to force through a trillion-rand nuclear deal.

This sudden surge of Russia-related controversy on the African continent was no coincidence, according to documents leaked to the Guardian. In a report published on Tuesday, journalists Luke Harding and Jason Burke say that the documents show that “Russia is seeking to bolster its presence in at least 13 countries across Africa by building relations with existing rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of ‘leaders’ and undercover ‘agents’”.

One of the leaked documents is a map that shows how successful Russia has been at creating these relationships. The CAR, Madagascar and Sudan are rated as ‘level 5’ — the highest level of cooperation. Libya, South Africa and Zimbabwe are listed as four.

The documents were sourced from the Dossier Centre, an investigative unit based in London that is run by a prominent critic of the Kremlin: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian businessmen. Haffajee’s story ahead of the South African election relied on the same source.

Russia’s pivot to Africa comes as no surprise — in fact, it is a little late to the game. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed close ties with governments across the African continent, but these lapsed as Communism fell. Since then, old powers like Britain, France, and the United States have sought to retain their dominant position, while new powers like China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are all jostling for position, with varying degrees of success. All are attracted both by Africa’s untapped markets, and by the need to cultivate new allies as the global order becomes increasingly polarised.

Russia wants in on this action. As the Guardian’s Luke Harding, a former Moscow correspondent, explains: “Vladimir Putin’s recent interest in Africa is in large part pragmatic. Western sanctions on Russia’s economy mean that Moscow is keen to find new markets and to strike new partnerships…There is an ideological dimension too. Putin sees Russia as a great power — with interests across the globe, stretching from the former Soviet ‘near abroad’, to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. It is — or should be — an indispensable player in world affairs.”

In doing so — in Africa at least — Russia has a lot of lost ground to make up. The United States already has its vast network of secret military bases that span the continent; France, despite its protestations to the contrary, fiercely maintains ‘La Francafrique’, the French sphere of influence that stretches over much of Francophone Africa; and China is building bridges and Confucius Institutes at a furious rate as it seeks to showcase both its economic and soft power.

Perhaps this intense competition explains why, so far, Russia has had so little success with its African exploits. Its track record makes for grim reading — at least from the Kremlin’s perspective.

The government in the Central African Republic is perhaps the weakest and least effective on the continent, no matter who it is captured by. Russia’s preferred presidential candidates in Madagascar all lost. In South Africa, Jacob Zuma failed to force the nuclear deal through, embarrassing both himself and Moscow in the process. And efforts to keep Omar al-Bashir in power in Sudan have backfired spectacularly, with Bashir now languishing in a jail cell somewhere in Khartoum, overthrown by the same popular protest that those Russian operatives were supposed to help him defuse.

There is no doubt that Russia is attempting to expand its influence in Africa, but so far its efforts have been ham-fisted and largely ineffectual. If Putin and his friends really want to make an impact here, they will have to think again.