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Malians demonstrate against France and in support of Russia on the 60th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Mali in 1960, in Bamako, Mali, Sept. 22, 2020.The Associated Press

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the chairman of the African Union early last month and asked if he could speak to African leaders to explain his country’s plight since the Russian invasion. The response was polite but noncommittal.

Five weeks later, even after repeating his request to another African Union official, Mr. Zelensky is still waiting for a chance to speak.

The unofficial snub is the latest sign of Russia’s continuing influence in many African countries. While the West sends a seemingly endless flow of weapons and politicians to Kyiv, there has been a distinct lack of African support for Ukraine and, significantly, a complete absence of African sanctions against Moscow.

This has been helpful to the Russian cause. Africa may be far from the war zone, but it has strategic value for President Vladimir Putin. It provides votes at the United Nations, arms sales for Russia’s military industry, business for its private military contractors, resources for its extractive sector and potential bases for its navy.

Mr. Zelensky has sought to weaken Mr. Putin’s support base in Africa, but has struggled to gain traction. While many African governments profess to be neutral on the war in Ukraine, they have often signalled tacitly that they favour the Russian side.

In the past few weeks alone, Cameroon has signed a military co-operation deal with the Kremlin, Mali has expanded its use of Russian mercenary forces, Eritrea and Sudan have sent high-level delegations to Moscow, soldiers in the Central African Republic have volunteered to fight for the Russian army in Ukraine and Russian flags have been waved enthusiastically in street rallies in Sudan, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Burkina Faso.

Despite pressure from Ukrainian diplomats and some Western powers, not a single African country has joined the West in imposing sanctions on the Russian government.

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Mr. Zelensky has been deluged with speaking invitations from Western leaders, but he has had much less success in Africa. His diplomats in Kenya, for example, reportedly lobbied to have him address parliament, but the government rejected the request.

He has managed to speak with two key African leaders – Senegalese President Macky Sall and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa – but only after they had signalled their geopolitical priorities by speaking with Mr. Putin first.

Mr. Sall, the chair of the African Union, spoke with Mr. Putin on March 9. He then waited more than a month before taking Mr. Zelensky’s call on April 11.

Mr. Ramaphosa spoke with the Russian President on March 10 and publicly thanked him for the call, referring to him as “His Excellency” and boasting that Mr. Putin was pleased with South Africa’s “balanced approach.” He then waited six weeks before speaking with the Ukrainian President, while the Ukrainian ambassador in Pretoria complained of being unable to obtain meetings with high-level South African officials.

South Africa, like many African countries, has abstained on key UN votes on the war in Ukraine, but the statements by its government and its ruling party seem to have endorsed the Russian view of the conflict. They have usually adopted the Kremlin’s preferred terminology – rarely using the terms “war” or “invasion” – as well as Moscow’s mantra of blaming NATO for provoking the crisis.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the government has been even more sympathetic to Mr. Putin’s viewpoint. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in a recent newspaper column, said the Russian invasion of Ukraine was merely a “robust response” to the “threat of encirclement by NATO.” He echoed the Kremlin’s rhetoric by criticizing the Western military alliance for its “provocative eastward expansion in Europe.”

While a parade of heavily guarded Western politicians has trooped to Kyiv to meet with Mr. Zelensky, very few African leaders have shown any interest in visiting Ukraine. When South African opposition leader John Steenhuisen became the first African politician to travel to Ukraine, he was ridiculed by South African media.

Mr. Steenhuisen has been an isolated voice on the political stage. Both the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and the country’s third-biggest party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, have used rhetoric that implies support for the Russian view of the war and its causes.

Some analysts argue that the reluctance to criticize Russia will ultimately be detrimental to African countries, since the war in Ukraine is triggering a sharp rise in food prices and distracting the West from the humanitarian needs of African crisis zones.

But these concerns are often outweighed by the self-interested factors that motivate much of the African response to the war. Some African leaders have a genuine preference for a neutral or non-aligned stand on the distant conflict, seeking to maintain relations with all sides. Some feel a historical loyalty to Moscow based on the anti-colonial struggles of the past. But many are also following their commercial and military interests.

In South Africa, investigative journalists have recently exposed the ANC’s business links to a Russian-controlled mining company through a joint venture that has paid tens of millions of dollars in dividends to an ANC-controlled firm.

A public inquiry into state corruption has also exposed how the government tried to rush into a multibillion-dollar nuclear-energy deal with Russia several years ago – a deal some ANC politicians would like to revive.

In other African countries, especially those with authoritarian regimes, there is a reluctance to antagonize Russia because it is their biggest supplier of weapons – and, increasingly, private military contractors as well.

The military agreement between Cameroon and Russia, unveiled last month, would reportedly allow Cameroon to obtain weapons and armoured vehicles while also helping it gain access to Russian intelligence and training.

“Cameroon needed a defence partner that could back its national military operational interest without conditions or interference,” said David Otto Endeley, an analyst at the Geneva Centre for Africa Security and Strategic Studies.

“Russia presents itself as a partner ready to do business with no strings attached.”

With a report from Ndi Eugene Ndi in Yaoundé, Cameroon

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