Scramble for Africa Comes Out of the Shadows

For months, when it came to Africa, Ukraine was the war that dared not speak its name. Russia and the West were jockeying for influence on the continent, peddling deals and diplomatic support, but rarely referencing their charm offensives in the context of the Ukraine war. Now, the covers have been thrown back.

Speaking last week after his second mini-tour of the continent, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov explicitly linked his travels to the war. “Despite the anti-Russian orgy orchestrated by Washington … we are strengthening relations with the international majority,” he declared.

Lavrov took two trips to countries on the continent in late January and early February, together taking in seven African nations. In between, the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited three countries. But those are only the most visible signs of cooperation. What once was political sideshow has become a real scramble for votes and support from the continent.

Africa has become a political battleground for Russia and the West since the Ukraine invasion started. The focus of this battle is two-fold: it takes place in the presidential palaces across the continent, where bilateral deals are hammered out. But it also takes place in the rarefied atmosphere of the United Nations, where the contest for African votes is combative.

In March last year, shortly after the invasion, the UN held a vote condemning Russia’s invasion, seen as a test of global political opinion. The largest group of abstentions came from the African continent. In fact, half of all African states abstained, something Moscow took great solace from.

In September, Russia held referendums in four occupied regions of eastern Ukraine, paving the way for their complete annexation. In the subsequent vote at the UN condemning the annexation, 19 African countries abstained – two more than in the March vote.

Such apparent success did not go unnoticed in the West. And the West, for all the talk of a decline in influence on the African continent, still has some powerful cards to play. In the autumn, having brought back the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit after an eight-year hiatus, Washington played two of them.

Joe Biden publicly backed two institutional changes that African countries have long called for: a seat for the continent at the G20 group of the richest economies, and two – that’s right, two – permanent seats for Africa on the UN Security Council.

While the first change has been in the works for some time – and may even happen this year, given the momentum towards better relations with Africa in the wake of the war – the second would be significant and seismic. At the moment, the Security Council only has five permanent members, all of whom wield a veto (as well as nuclear arsenals). The addition of two more veto-holders would radically alter the balance of the council. (It would also open up the council to further change: it would be hard to argue India shouldn’t also have a seat, for example.)

Regardless of how such changes would be managed, the mere fact that the US president backed them is significant. Just last month, the foreign ministers of France and Germany also backed that position.

It is also very clever politics, because it forces Russia into a position where it needs to clarify whether it, too, agrees with the change. So far, Moscow has declined to back the change, something that could become a bigger sticking point in Africa-Russia relations.

This scramble for support has, however, placed individual African countries in tricky positions, as they seek to maximize the political opportunities afforded, while also preparing for the day after the war ends and – presumably – the attention dissipates.

No country better illustrates this conundrum than South Africa. In both UN votes last year, South Africa abstained. In the recent round of visits, it was the only country visited by both Lavrov and Yellen – within a day of each other.

The dilemma for Pretoria is felt in a less acute form across the continent. Do they back the general, institutional changes the West is offering in return for distancing themselves from Russia, or do they take the concrete, bilateral benefits Moscow is offering now?

Pretoria appears to have made that choice, agreeing to host joint naval exercises with Russia and China, starting this week and extending to the anniversary of the start of the invasion. Yet it would be wrong to see anything definitive in that; South Africa, like other countries, may simply be hedging its bets, unwilling to commit too easily to a side in a far-away war.

The push into Africa is real. It may not quite be the “all in on Africa” message Biden gave African leaders in December, but there is no doubt the continent is being offered real and tangible political benefits in return for political support in the Ukraine war.

Ironically, the very existence of this tug-of-war proves the central argument that Moscow has been advancing: that it is far from alone in facing down the West. Despite the suggestion that many African countries are supporting Russia out of animus toward the West, what is much more likely is that, having been ignored for too long, African states are responding positively to outside powers who have, finally, begun to appreciate their worth.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai