As relations with Russia do not come with added demands, it has made it an attractive partner for many African countries.
Written by Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher
During the recent anti-French protests, Nigeriens and Burkinabes waved Russian flags. This signals that Africans are moving away from their former colonial masters as they seek alternative partnerships to help them develop. There is a high level of Russophilia in Africa as Russia does not have a history of colonialism on the continent and has significantly helped counter-terrorism operations.
Nine years ago, France increased its military presence in the Sahel to fight terrorism and stop the advance of Tuareg rebels in Mali, even though it was NATO’s invasion of Libya and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 that led to a rise in regional violence. In August 2014, the French expanded their presence in the region by launching Operation Barkhane and deploying some 5,000 troops to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
However, after eight years of operations, France’s anti-terrorist initiative did not achieve its goals and is the reason why Mali asked Russia to help with equipment and training for Malian troops. Russia agreed to support Mali with militarization and it is likely that in the coming years there will be a significant improvement on the security situation.
A survey conducted in April 2022 by the German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung showed that 93.5% of Malians were aware of the presence of Russian military instructors in the country, and nine out of ten respondents (92%) believed that the Russians would help Mali restore its territorial integrity.
The independent position of Russia’s foreign policy attracts many African countries to cooperate with Moscow. Many Africans see Russia as a kind of counterweight to the continuous neo-colonial pressures from France, the United Kingdom and other European countries. Russia also offers extensive national security cooperation to strengthen Africa’s military and counterterrorism capabilities against jihadists and other threats.
Following the 2020 coup in Mali, led by Colonel Assimi Goita, relations with French President Emmanuel Macron began to crack, with the latter unilaterally announcing the withdrawal of French troops in June 2021. In late November 2021, Nigerien protesters clashed with a French military convoy after crossing the border from Burkina Faso. On September 18, 2022, Nigeriens again took to the streets of the capital, Niamey, carrying banners reading “Criminal French Army, Out” and “Barkhane’s Colonial Army must go.”
In July 2022, in the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou, a series of anti-French protests took place with slogans such as “no agreement with France” and “France is an imperialist, tyrant, parasite, get out.” Unrest continued throughout August, and in late September Army Captain Ibrahim Traore ousted Burkina Faso’s military leader, Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, in a second consecutive military coup. In early October, Burkinabe protesters staged rallies outside the French Embassy in Ouagadougou and set fire to the building’s fences.
African countries only need to look at Russia’s role in stabilising Syria when it was on the verge of collapse because of the multitude of Western-backed jihadist organisations operating in the country. Africans are not naïve to the fact that it was the West that instigated and funded jihadists in Syria, and for this reason they have much more trust in Russia for counterterrorism operations.
Africa, with fifty-four votes at the United Nations General Assembly, a colonial legacy and abundance of natural resources, allows Russia to foster new relations after being isolated from the West following its military operations in Ukraine. Moscow’s approach to expanding its influence in Africa is in stark contrast to the Biden Administration’s emphasis on imposing western liberalism, something that many Africans see as a form of neo-colonialism.
Russia’s $20 billion trade in Africa is heavily imbalanced toward Russian exports of arms and grain to Africa, however, Rosneft and Lukoil do negotiate for African minerals, diamonds, and oils. In addition, Russia is the leading exporter of arms to Africa, controlling forty-nine percent of the overall arms market in Africa.
Just as importantly, Russia is playing a leading role in making Africa completely energy independent. It is recalled that Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, Rosatom, provided a $25 billion loan in 2020 to construct Egypt’s first nuclear power plant, which has an anticipated total cost of $60 billion. Russia is also at varying stages of negotiation with seventeen African countries to construct nuclear power plants and has preliminary nuclear project deals with Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Zambia.
These initiatives and deals do not come with the attached demand to impose Western liberalism. As relations with Russia do not come with added demands, it has made it an attractive partner for many African countries who are avoiding their former colonial masters. Although Westerners were shocked to see Nigeriens and Burkinabes waving Russian flags while calling for the expulsion of French troops from their countries, those closely observing African events are not the least bit surprised.
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