Skip to main content

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a joint press conference with his Hungarian counterpart following their talks in Moscow on July 21.HANDOUT/AFP/Getty Images

In a sign of an intensifying battle for African influence at a time of global superpower tensions, Moscow and Washington are both seeking support for separate planned summits with African leaders in the coming months.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced on Wednesday that he will hold a summit with African leaders in December, with “democracy and human rights” among the agenda items. A day later, Russia announced that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will travel to four African countries next week to promote its own summit with the continent, expected early next year.

As the Ukraine war rages on, Russia and the West have jostled for influence in Africa, where 54 countries have United Nations votes and other assets that could prove useful in the global rivalry.

Mr. Lavrov’s five-day African visit, beginning on Sunday, will allow Russia to demonstrate that the West has been unable to isolate it diplomatically. It will also give Moscow another platform for its allegation that Western sanctions on Russia are the cause of the rising food prices and worsening hunger crisis around the world – an allegation that Canada and other Western countries have strongly rejected.

Mr. Lavrov announced that he will visit Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) in his Africa tour from July 24 to 28.

All four countries have good relations with Moscow and have been increasingly authoritarian in recent years. The rulers of Uganda and oil-rich Republic of Congo have been in power for decades. Ethiopia, headquarters of the African Union, has been ravaged by civil war for nearly two years, with the government imposing heavy restrictions on the media.

In the days after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the West lobbied strongly for African support. In a vote in early March at the UN General Assembly, 28 of the 54 African countries voted to condemn the Russian invasion, with only one African country openly opposing the resolution. But another 25 countries abstained or declined to vote, showing that Russia still retained considerable clout on the continent.

Since then, most African leaders have shown that they prefer to remain neutral. All have declined to join the Western sanctions against Russia. Many have continued to do business with Moscow: signing military co-operation deals, recruiting Russian mercenaries for internal conflicts, or negotiating mining deals or oil projects. Many have valued Russia’s role as the biggest source of weapons exports to Africa.

Ukrainian Association members protest outside a hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 20.Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been an example of the kind of unofficial supporter that Moscow has managed to retain. Even as Ukrainian officials pleaded for a meeting with him, Mr. Ramaphosa instead held a video conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in early March, while obliging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to wait a further six weeks for his own conversation.

Then, last month, Mr. Ramaphosa joined Mr. Putin for another meeting, this time a virtual summit of the BRICS group of countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

This week, South African officials participated in an investment meeting with Russian companies at a hotel in Johannesburg, organized by a Russian state agency, despite protests from local Ukrainians who picketed the event.

After the Russian invasion began, Mr. Zelensky asked repeatedly for a chance to speak to the African Union, which represents all African leaders. But the current African Union chair, Senegal President Macky Sall, signalled clearly that Mr. Putin is a higher priority.

Mr. Sall spoke to Mr. Putin in early March, more than a month before finally talking to Mr. Zelensky. Then he travelled to the Russian resort city of Sochi in early June for a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Putin, giving the Russian leader another chance to bid for African support.

Mr. Sall, in a further windfall for Mr. Putin, called on Western leaders to lift all sanctions on “food products, especially grain and fertilizer.” In fact, there are no Western sanctions on Russian grain or fertilizer, although the sanctions have hampered Russian shipping. The meeting helped Mr. Putin promote the narrative that the Western sanctions could lead to famine in Africa.

After months of requests, Mr. Zelensky was eventually allowed to give a speech by video link to the African Union on June 20. But it was a closed-door session, with few African leaders bothering to attend. According to several media reports, only four African heads of state watched the speech.

In his speech, Mr. Zelensky said Africa has been “taken hostage” by the Russian invasion and the rising food prices that have resulted from the war.

“This war may seem very distant to you and your countries,” he told the African Union session. “But the food prices that are catastrophically rising have already brought [the war] to the homes of millions of African families.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.