As the crisis in Sudan deepens, one of the many uncertainties it has raised is the role Russia will play. Already, reports have noted that Wagner Group, the Russian private military contractor, has ties to both sides to the conflict, most recently with General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemeti,” leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
But Sudan isn’t the only African country in which Russia’s interests have recently drawn comment. From the forays of Wagner into the vacuum left by France’s withdrawal in the Sahel, to the relentless flurry of trips around Africa by Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, to the triennial spectacle of the Russia-Africa Summit, Russia is clearly in contention for African mindshare.
Though mostly passive until recently, Russia’s ties to the continent date back centuries. When, in 1704, Peter the Great adopted an African slave boy he had received as a gift, few would have foreseen the stellar career of Abram Petrovich Gannibal (as the boy came to be known). Even fewer could have predicted that his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, would become the father of modern Russian literature.
In 1884, Russia sent a representative to the Berlin Conference, at which European powers formalised their colonial operations in Africa. Russia, however, did not press any African interests. It already had a vast Eurasian empire. When, a few years later, private citizens tried to force its hand by setting up a colony on the coast of present-day Djibouti, the empire disavowed them.
The lack of Russian colonies in Africa was an asset during the Cold War when, for the first time, as the Soviet Union, it became active on the continent. Unlike Western colonial powers, it was free to align itself with the independence movement. And after trying, and largely failing, to sway African states towards Communism, it took up a more pragmatic approach, cooperating with African nationalists against Western neo-colonialism.
For this reason, the Soviet Union’s impact in Africa wasn’t nearly as deleterious as its record at home and elsewhere might have predicted. The country took up thousands of African students into its universities and doled out development aid. Famously, it also supported the campaign against apartheid in South Africa, getting ahead of a vacillating West on a grievous human rights matter.
The collapse of the Soviet Union almost entirely extinguished the influence of Russia, its successor, in Africa. In its place, a whole new power altogether, China, was to emerge from the shadows to give the West a run for its money. And, until recently, Western leaders took it for granted that China was to be their primary rival in the quest for influence in Africa into the near future.
The recent re-emergence of Russia as an important player on the continent has therefore been something of a surprise. Western commentary, if confused, is nevertheless already taking a hard-line stance, with many contending that a new cold war is in the offing. In this worldview, Russia’s influence in Africa is necessarily malign, and must be counteracted.
No doubt this stance is coloured by the fissures that have lately sprung up between the West and Russia, as well as the tightening alliance between China and Russia. It is also a function of the fact that Russia is much less wary of getting directly involved in African nations than China. In the Central African Republic, for example, Wagner mercenaries are part of the president’s security detail; in Mali, they have fought with the military against Islamists. China is yet to do anything nearly so brazen.
Giving credence to the narrative of a new cold war, America has also mounted increasingly frantic attempts to court Africa. In the first four months of this year alone, it sent its Secretary of State, Vice President, Treasury Secretary, UN ambassador, and First Lady on African tours. Their message, that they seek equal partners in Africa, is an attempt to get away from their Cold War record.
Unfortunately, the effect of this approach is that America is starting from the back foot. Both Russia and China have been sending the same message for much longer. And, unlike America, they have the receipts. What’s more, by adopting this strategy, America has found itself again cooperating with dictators and equivocating on its stand for freedom and human rights on the continent.
Commentary from Africa, meanwhile, has largely focused on how the continent can avoid getting sucked into the conflict. For instance, in an article published on The Conversation recently, John J. Stremlau, an honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa, contends that not only is Africa unlikely to be a pawn in the coming contest, but it also has a clear path to being productively non-aligned. Like most commentators, he focuses on the rivalry between the US and China, but these arguments can easily be extended to include Russia.
It may very well be true that African countries can chart a middle path. In fact, to the extent that this is possible, this would be the right formula. Nevertheless, it will entail a delicate balancing act, as illustrated by the quagmire in which South Africa now finds itself, regarding what to do about its obligation under international law to arrest Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, should he attend the BRICS summit to be hosted by the country later this year.
Ultimately, it is quite unfortunate that it had to come to this — great foreign powers battling for influence in Africa. More than any other region, Africa has the most to gain from a peaceful international order and stands to lose the most from instability. Additionally, a poor and unstable Africa is a liability for the entire world.
And as the rhetoric and confrontation heats up, nobody has bothered to point out that there are many areas in which both Russia and the Western alliance could gain a lot more by cooperating in and for Africa. A defeat of the jihadists in the Sahel would redound to the security of both; a developed Africa would be an essential and sustainable trading partner to both; and a non-aligned Africa would be one less problem for both to worry about as they hash out their differences.
As things stand, however, the conflict only seems likely to escalate. And that’s everyone’s loss.