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Ask hard questions as Russia expands in Africa

 Russian President Vladimir Putin. [Reuters]

Russia’s footprint in Africa has grown exponentially following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit where President Vladmir Putin committed to doubling its trade investments here by $40 billion in five years.

While questions continue to be raised over what Africa has to gain in the context of this imbalanced trade relation, efforts to strategically position Russia geopolitically in Africa have intensified especially after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

In July last year, President Putin promised ‘free supply of 25,000-50,000 tonnes of grain to six African countries’ just days after withdrawing from a Ukraine grain export deal that would have alleviated food prices in those countries.

Before the Ukraine invasion, Africa was neither treated as an important ally of Russia nor was it given much significance by Moscow. However, in the wake of the war, which has resulted in the global isolation of Russia and impositions of sanctions, Russia appears to have turned its head to Africa under the pretext of sending assistance to “vulnerable African countries”.

The paradox, however, is the war against Ukraine has made it more difficult for Africa to access cheap grain, further deepening the food and economic crisis across the continent and globally.

Russia’s sudden shift to Africa has sparked mixed feelings of enthusiasm as well as outright suspicion about their real intentions and potential implications of their presence in Africa.

Russia’s intention is to not only compel African countries to take a political stance in support of its invasion of Ukraine but also for its own economic interests.

This is evident through some of the illegal tactics and sometimes “soft tactics” Russia and its allies have used in various African countries to influence their positions intentionally including multiple disinformation campaigns via social media hashtags and fake accounts, doctored photographs, harassment and intimidation of journalists.

In the context of the “free grain” deal for instance, all African countries identified as “vulnerable” (Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central Africa Republic and Eritrea) have experienced civil and political unrest and their ideologies seem to align with President Putin’s ideologies. Interestingly, these countries have been target of disinformation campaigns often pro-Russia.

Other seemingly “soft tactics” Russia has used to strengthen its ties in the continent include establishing diplomatic missions across the region, education partnerships and foreign direct investments.

Currently, Russia has approximately 39 diplomatic missions across Africa. Following the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Africa Department, Vsevolod Tkachenko, announced intentions to open diplomatic missions in more African countries with recent ones being established in Burkina Faso and Equitorial Guinea. 

The “Distant Russian in Africa” online programme aims to introduce Russian language to Africans with the ambition of reaching 50 countries and ultimately paving the way for the admission of African students to Russian universities.  So far, 150 students and teachers from Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia have completed a 12-day intensive Russian language course.

It can be argued that Russia’s efforts have started bearing fruit in certain Africa countries. This is demonstrated through the way in which different African countries vote in the United Nations in relation to resolutions touching on the Ukraine invasion.

As Russia continues solidifying its presence in the continent, we must keep asking the hard questions to avoid signing deals that would later come to bite us and the future generations.

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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