/ 14 August 2023

Russia’s war in Ukraine a dampener on the Russia-Africa Summit

Russia Politics Putin
Russian president Vladimir Putin. File photo by Alexey NIKOLSKY / SPUTNIK / AFP

The first Russia-Africa summit, which took place in Solochi in 2019 long before Russia’s war in Ukraine, was seen as the beginning of a great success story. In total about 43 African heads of states and governments were there, pleased by the prospects for new cooperation and partnerships between the continent and the Russian Federation.  

This initiative by Russia was to bring Africa on board as an “equal partner”, using such a platform for the exchange of ideas in fostering peace, security and development between the two entities. 

But, after the proceedings of the second summit, held in St. Petersburg in July this year, the future of this partnership hangs in the balance. It is now more uncertain as to how Russia and Africa will relate to each other.

The anti-Western sentiments and street demonstrations in some parts of Francophone Africa, which have come under the military junta, shows how the geopolitical dynamics of the continent has changed rapidly in the past few years. Most former French colonies feel cheated and mistreated by the West, because they are relegated to producing raw materials for exports while enriching the Western world. Africa is a dumping site for the processed or finished goods out of the very raw materials the continent exports. Trade is unequal between Africa and the so-called superpowers of this world. 

When the Russia-Africa summit came about it presented this opportunity for most African leaders to change the balance of power on the global scale and leverage the continent’s position and influence. 

The second Russia-Africa summit was scheduled to take place in October 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the headquarters of the African Union. This summit did not take place because Russia’s war in Ukraine began eight months prior. Hence, St Petersburg took up the task the following year. The number of African heads of states that attended on 27 and 28 July was lower than expected; fewer than half would travel to Russia. Of the 49 delegates, only 17 heads of states physically attended the summit.

This low turnout should be a cause for concern for the Russian Federation. The newly elected Kenyan president, William Ruto, spoke of the African Union being in attendance to represent his county. The Nigerian delegation was nowhere in sight. To make matters worse, some of the African leaders in St Petersburg seemed to be more worried about ending the war than discussing the mission and motto of the summit. Their message to President Vladimir Putin was the “de-escalation” of the conflict period. AU Commission chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat summed it up: “This war must end, and it can only end on the basis of justice and reason.”

Nonetheless, we should note that among those in St Petersburg were the leaders of the military governments of West African countries that have in one way or the other received support, protection and resources from the Russian mercenary Wagner Group. These military leaders had nothing to say, except to shower praise on Putin and spoke in favour of his position in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

Interestingly, Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, showed up at the summit, his first ever appearance in Russia since his failed military rebellion. The man had to be there given Wagner is by and large sustaining and aiding recent coups in the region. 

Ironically, just the day before the summit started, Niger’s presidential guards detained and subsequently overthrew the democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum. The leader of the Wagner Group has spoken in favour of the coup and offered support. 

On the other hand, the Economic Community of West African States has imposed sanctions on the Niger military junta. It gave a deadline of 7 August for the return to civilian rule or expect a military intervention. In response, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea made it clear that an attack on Niger’s military rulers will be a declaration of war on their countries. 

Even though there is no evidence that Russia or Wagner had anything to do with the Niger coup, it is clear that the mercenary group will use this opportunity to put its foothold on this uranium-rich country. 

Another topic at the talks in St Petersburg was the issue of grain. The summit occurred 10 days after the Black Sea Grain Deal expired, which Russia refused to renew. Some African leaders, who enjoy favourable relations with the West and Russia, took this opportunity to appeal to Putin to reinstate the deal. President Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt made it clear that  the withdrawal of Russia from the deal will increase the risk of a global food crisis and may agitate neutral countries in the global south. His remarks echoed the reaction of the Kenyan government, which called Putin’s decision to walk away from the grain deal as “a stab in the back.” 

It was during the summit that Putin announced that Russia would provide 50 000 tonnes of grain to six African countries, Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and the Central African Republic three to four months after the summit. 

In the final analysis, the poor attendance of African leaders in St Petersburg is telling of the attitudes of Africa towards Russia’s war in Ukraine. Putin will do well to seek a negotiated settlement. 

Aaron Ng’ambi is a geopolitical analyst and newspaper columnist, leadership instructor, and a social entrepreneur.The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.