Lavrov's four-nation charm offensive intensifies new scramble for Africa

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Last week, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Affairs Minister, paid a visit to Africa. As the west attempts to isolate Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine in February, African countries are not equally enthusiastic about western sanctions against Moscow.

French President Emmanuel Macron, on a visit to Benin last Wednesday, said that Russia was "one of the last imperial colonial powers.

"Russia launched an offensive against Ukraine. It's a territorial war, the likes of which we thought had disappeared from European soil.

"It's a war from the early 20th, even the 19th century," Macron said on the second leg of his own trip to Africa. "I speak on a continent that has suffered colonial imperialism," he admitted.

On that continent, Russia is increasingly anxious to establish a presence.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo last week, a trip that US media saw as a way to "counter western narratives" which paint Russia as "isolated".

Lavrov's trip is to show that Moscow still has friends in the world, specifically in Africa where grain shortages caused by the war in Ukraine risk increasing food insecurity. One of Lavrov's objectives is to reassure African leaders that grain supply will continue. Egypt especially is largely dependent on grain from Russia and Ukraine.

Apart from these diplomatic overtures, Russian entities have been establishing ties in several African countries. According to a report by the Brookings Institute, Russia is "intensifying its competition with the United States in Africa," pointing out that Moscow uses "nominally private, but in fact state-linked actors such as the private security company the Wagner Group and the infamous St. Petersburg 'troll farm' the Internet Research Agency (IRA.)"

Russian presence exaggerated

However, "Russia's presence in Africa is exaggerated" by Western media, Joseph Sany, Vice President of Africa Center of the US Institute of Peace (USIP) told RFI. "They are very good at using instability like in Central Africa, in Mali, to move forward some sort of anti-colonial sentiment on the continent," pointing out Russian mastery of playing the social media.

According to an article by the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS,) Russia's trade with Africa amounts to roughly $20 billion per year, one-tenth that of China.

Moscow does not offer much "compelling ideological, social, or cultural resonance in Africa." According to Brookings, Moscow signed 19 military collaboration agreements with African governments between 2015 and 2019, mainly focusing on Russian weapons sales.

Wakeup call

But when it comes to food, both Russia and Ukraine are major players on the continent. Countries like Egypt, Benin and Somalia are largely dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain imports.

The disruption of grain exports to Africa "came as a wakeup call," says Sany. "for a long overdue diversification strategy for African countries," and, more importantly, the disruptions shows the need "to develop their own agricultural system," and lessen dependency on third parties.

For Russia, African countries also function as a way of mitigating sanctions imposed by the West. Africa serves as a major market for Russian food products. Moreover, "strengthening partnerships" helps to undermine Western influence in Africa, according to Sany.

Sany calls Africa "arguably Russia’s most formidable potential economic competitor" given its vast natural resources. "What Russia sells, Africa has in the ground: oil, gas, nickel, cobalt, iron ore, and gold," he writes in the article entitled "To Counter Russia’s Aggression, Invest in Africa."

According to Sany, "investment in Africa’s development can strengthen the global economic basis for a rules-based order by reducing countries’ dependence on the most potent authoritarian governments — Russia’s and China’s."

New scramble for Africa?

Foreign Policy reported on 22 July that US embassies in Africa are "chronically understaffed" and these shortages "undercut US foreign-policy goals on the continent and sap the morale of the diplomatic corps."

Still, both the US and the EU have designated Africa Policies, with western companies hunting for gold, iron ore, uranium and diamonds and invloved in major oil producing countries such as Angola and Nigeria.

At the same time, China has developed an increasingly large presence through its Belt & Road Initiative that provides infrastructure and communications in almost every African country, while at the same time 50 percent of Africa's exports of raw materials are sucked up by China.

What is the fundamental difference between the powers of today -US, Russia and China - and those of yesteryear - the UK, France, Portugal - hunting for African resourses in what was called 'the scramble for Africa?'

"I think they don't differ," says Sany. "But Africa is different from the colonial and the pre-colonial period.

"African countries are more aware of their own interests now and African people are more demanding.

"Global powers advance their own interests. The EU has an Africa policy, the United States has an Africa policy.

"But does Africa or the African Union has a policy towards the United States, towards Russia, towards China?"

Pointing out that Africa is in "a unique position today where they can play their hand in this "scramble," Sany says that African countries should put their national interests first.

Africa is "the only region in the world that does not provide for itself fully," he says. The African Continental Free Trade Area (ACFTA, a treaty ratified by 22 states in 2019 that aimes at creating a single, liberalised market and lifting of tariffs) is a good start, but still needs a lot of work," he says.

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