Skip to main content
opinion

Malians demonstrate in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, in Bamako, Mali on Sept. 22, 2020. Banner in French reads "Putin, the road to the future".The Associated Press

John Rapley is a professor at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study. His most recent book is Twilight of the Money Gods.

During the Cold War, Africa stood on the frontline of the East-West struggle. Both the U.S. and Soviet blocs propped up client-regimes with generous patronage and military assistance, and each of them maintained proxy armies that fought rebellions against states in the other camp. In this way, the two superpowers became adept at harassing one another without ever coming to blows themselves.

Africa generally came off the worse for it. Some leaders of what were then newly independent countries became very adept at exploiting the superpower rivalry, playing one side off against the other and thereby extracting maximum benefit. Sadly, though, most of it ended up in Swiss bank accounts or European real estate. Keen to keep their allies on board, Western governments and the Soviet Union turned a blind eye to the spectacular corruption and maladministration that blighted and bankrupted countries like Zaire, Ethiopia and perhaps most spectacularly of all the Central African Republic, whose megalomaniacal leader renamed his country an Empire and blew the country’s annual budget on a lavish coronation ceremony, replete with a golden throne. Meanwhile the proxy armies that took the Cold War to African battlefields bogged countries like Angola and Mozambique down in endless and destructive civil wars.

This period of Africa’s history came to an unlamented end with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia inherited its missions abroad. With its economy imploding and society fragmenting, the Russian government turned inward, pulling up most of its foreign stakes. I can recall once telephoning what had been a vast and thick-walled Soviet embassy with a journalistic query, and hearing the secretary’s footsteps echo through what was now an empty and cavernous building as she strolled down the hall to relay the question to the ambassador.

With no need to match the Russians for influence, Western powers also withdrew. The proxy armies packed up, peace broke out in several countries, democratic movements spread across the continent, and former allies that had relied on superpower patronage to stave off change suddenly grew co-operative. Within months of the collapse of Eastern Europe’s communist regimes, the South African government released Nelson Mandela from Robben Island and began talks to end apartheid. Africa began evolving more to its own rhythms, and less those of global politics.

However, when Vladimir Putin rose to power at the turn of the millennium, he did so with a mission - restoring Russia’s greatness. Part of this involved rebuilding the country’s presence abroad. In Africa, he found a receptive environment. Building upon ties forged during the Cold War, Russia signed security agreements with several African states, and today it sells weapons to many of them. More recently, Russia’s security footprint, largely via mercenary forces like the Wagner Group, began steadily widening in Africa. Today there are Russian soldiers on the ground in Libya, the Sahel and the Central African Republic.

In part because of Russia’s renewed presence in Africa, Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has thrust Africa back to the centre of global politics. Shortly after the invasion, anti-West protesters took to the streets of Bamako, the capital of Mali. There are allegations that Russian agents organized the demonstration. But even if they did, they’d have likely found Mali, a former French colony, to be fertile soil for the seeds of anger they want to sow. Malians bristle at what they feel is the arrogance of their former ruler, now notional ally, France. Russia, in contrast, though the worst sort of imperialist bully in its own backyard, carries none of that baggage into Africa. Instead, many Africans sympathize with Mr. Putin’s narrative of Russia as a victim of Western humiliation. In the breakup of the Soviet Union and its economic collapse in the 1990s, they, like many Russians, spy the hand of the Americans – not difficult to do when Harvard economists were in the 1990s advising the government to sell its assets while quietly buying them up, all while ordinary Russians sank into poverty and early graves.

Not surprisingly, therefore, of the 35 countries which abstained from the recent United Nations vote condemning Russia, roughly half were in Africa. It’s not that many African countries openly support Russia’s war on Ukraine. It’s rather that few see much to gain from taking sides in a conflict on a distant continent. All told, Russia has the boots on the ground to open up new fronts with which to challenge the West, with the country’s presence in Libya, right on Europe’s southern flank, being an obvious concern to NATO. Equally, its adept use of disinformation campaigns to destabilize rivals can be expected to only step up on the continent, where it will likely find wide circulation on social media.

In recent years, anxious at the growing Russian presence, and even more with China’s growing involvement across the continent, Western countries have begun to reassert themselves. Last month, the European Union hosted a summit with the African Union in Brussels. The challenges the West will face re-engaging in Africa were there on open display. Many observers to the conference couldn’t help but detect some of the usual paternalism Africa gets from Western countries. Largely ignorant of some of the dramatic changes that have taken place in Africa in recent years – some of the world’s most dynamic economies are now there, and the continent broadly outperformed the West in its skilled management of the pandemic – many Westerners still succumb to racist stereotypes and clichés when thinking of Africa.

But Western leaders will have to up their game, and fast. The war in Ukraine is already having ripple effects on the continent. Claude Baissac of Eunomix, a South African risk consultancy, has detected a redeployment of mercenaries from Africa to Russia. Many of them will probably afterwards return to the African front. There, they will be put to use securing access to minerals and energy. That will raise tensions, because Western countries, cut off from the supplies of gas, oil and minerals that Russia sells to the world, will be rushing to find new sources. And Africa holds rich seams of all of them.

In particular, the continent can provide many of the metals that are needed to develop the green technologies that Western countries will need to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. And much of the natural gas that Europe imports from Russia could be replaced with supplies from new fields, like the vast reserves Mozambique recently discovered off its shores. But to again access to these supplies, foreign players will be drawn into the often-complicated security and political environment of the continent. For instance, before it can exploit its gas fields, Mozambique needs to suppress an Islamist rebellion that has broken out in the region.

All of this will necessitate a much deeper involvement in the continent, and a much greater attention to the nuances of local societies. Because with both Russia and China active across Africa, Western countries will find they are no longer the only suitors in town. Which means we’ll probably all be paying more attention to Africa.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.