Africa: Friend or Foe – Where Does Africa Stand On Russia?

BRICS countries will meet next week in Johannesburg as the bloc aims to widen its influence. But will Vladimir Putin’s absence be felt in light of Russia’s growing influence on the continent?

According to its organizers, the upcoming BRICS summit — held in South Africa from August 22 – 24 — aims to spearhead a fairer global governance system and push back against the economic dominance of Western nations.

But some observers say the absence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin from the talks may dent his growing influence in Africa.

Russia is one of five BRICS member states — also including Brazil, India, China and South Africa — which count themselves as fast-growing economies.

The Russian president is currently the target of an International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant against the backdrop of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, which has been widely met with international condemnation.

His potential visit had posed a diplomatic and legal dilemma for South Africa, until it was later confirmed that his foreign minister Sergey Lavrov would lead Russia’s delegation.

“The presence of Putin was going to be a huge distraction given all the controversies which arose from his indictment by the ICC,” Gideon Chitanga, a research associate at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, told DW.

“So his absence at least helps keep the focus on the key issues for now. In other words, there will be less noise concerning President Putin, his arrest, and probably the whole issue surrounding relations between Russia and African countries,” Chitanga added.

Does Putin’s absence matter?

Back in July, Putin downplayed skipping the trip to South Africa.

“I don’t think my presence at the BRICS summit is more important than being here in Russia now,” Putin said.

However, Gustavo de Carvalho, a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said Russia is economically weak at the moment, potentially leaving the door open for deeper negotiations had Putin made the trip.

“The war is taking its toll on Putin. And so maybe some high-level deals might have been done if President Putin came,” he told DW.

“But I don’t think his absence is going to have a major effect either way.”

But not everyone agrees. In the lead up to the BRICS summit, South Africa’s radical leftist opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), had urged the leaders of China, India, and Brazil to boycott the event in solidarity with Putin’s absence.

The party’s leader, Julius Malema, rallied his supporters to hold protests supporting the Russian leader.

“We call on the president of the People’s Republic of China, India, and Brazil not to come to BRICS Summit in solidarity with President Putin,” Malema said.

“It is [South African President] Ramaphosa — the coward Ramaphosa — who could not guarantee that we would not arrest Putin … We will never support imperialism against President Putin.”

Russia’s Sahel ambitions in the spotlight

The Russian leader isn’t just making waves in South Africa: The recent military takeover in Niger also highlighted Russia’s growing influence in the Sahel region following a wave of coups over the last three years.

In Mali and Burkina Faso — which experienced their own coups in 2021 and 2022, respectively — military leaders have expelled troops from former colonial power France and reinforced diplomatic relations with Moscow. Both countries have warned against any military intervention in Niger, with Putin echoing their wish for a “peaceful resolution.”

Under Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum, the country was considered a Western ally.

However, Frederick Golooba Mutebi, a researcher and commentator on socio-political affairs in the Great Lakes region, told DW that Russia is simply pursuing its own interests in the Sahel region, much like other Western powers have done in the past.

“Russia, like any other Western powers, will support governments in Africa aligned with its interests,” Golooba said.

“If Russia is doing the same today, the West should not turn around and get concerned about Russia’s growing influence in Africa.”

Africa pursuing its own interests

According to researcher Chitanga from Witwatersrand University, the notion that Russia contributes little to African economies compared to its military exploits remains the overarching narrative.

“However, some Africans consider Putin a vital ally,” he said, adding that African citizens are more interested in “how their countries will benefit from the BRICS summit and the emerging relations around the BRICS.”

Chitanga believes African countries won’t necessarily capitulate to Western pressure

“There is a loud concern among African policymakers, think tanks, and academics, who are very critical of what they see as Western hypocrisy in trying to influence or dictate policy in African countries.”

Golooba says African leaders are still keenly aware of where other nations stand on Russia, particularly as reported in Western media. At the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, only 17 African heads of state participated, compared to 43 at the first summit in 2019.

“It can’t be said that African leaders traveled or were represented in Moscow because they loved Putin. They had interests with Russia that they must preserve,” Golooba explained.

Edited by: Ineke Mules

Leave a Reply