An uneven balance: Analysis of Internet Censorship in Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Swaziland
This report documents internet-based information control systems, policies and practices in three Southern African nations; Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Swaziland.The document explores implications for the free flow of information and proposals for policy alternatives based on best practices where appropriate.
In this study, information controls is utilized as a broad term to define actions that governments, the private sector, and other actors take through the internet and other information communications technologies to deny (e.g, internet filtering), disrupt (e.g., network shutdowns), monitor (e.g, network surveillance), or secure (e.g., encryption) information for political ends. Information controls can also be non-technical and implemented through legal and regulatory frameworks, including informal pressures placed on private companies.
The individual country reports can either be read separately as ‘stand-alone’ reports or conjunctively in order gain a deep regional comparative perspective. All the reports rely on research questions based on Citizen Lab’s ‘mixed methods’ research approach. In the case of Zimbabwe, we further relied on the framework by Deibert and Rohinski which classifies information controls into first, second and third generations ; while in Zambia’s case, we relied on the criteria set out in what is commonly known as the APC-LA RUE Framework for Assessing Freedom of Expression and Related Rights on the Internet (APC-LA RUE Framework). In respect to Swaziland, the report classifies content controls in accordance with the criteria set out in the 2011 report of the former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue.
Network measurements undertook did not seem to reveal any strong evidence of censorship happening on any content during the testing period. This does not mean that censorship is not happening at all inside of Zimbabwe, but only that from the specific vantage point from which we ran measurements on a set of specific URLs we could not find signs of internet censorship occurring. The internet remains accessible and relatively free. While connectivity may be poor and unreliable, and suffer from the usual rent-seeking distortions found in other developing country environments, the same basic content is available there as in the most open-country contexts.
However, the fact that Zimbabweans can access most of the internet is by no means an indication that there are no state-sponsored internet information controls. Rather they are different and largely assume other forms such as those in the second and third generation of internet information controls. Through reliance on public order laws such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook are monitored for content that is critical of the president, the police, and the army. Legitimate expression online is therefore criminalized, which leads to an environment of self-censorship.
Information controls in Zimbabwe present a mixed picture, influenced by a number of factors, mainly the government’s determination to entrench political domination. “Government is very conscious of security particularly where it relates to political power, political influence, undermining the state and state authorities” . Through a reliance on third-generation controls, the Zimbabwean government relies on a highly sophisticated, multidimensional approach to enhancing state control over national cyberspace. It concentrates on building capabilities for competing in informational space with potential adversaries and competitors. The focus is less on denying access than successfully competing with potential threats through effective counter-information campaigns that overwhelm, discredit, or demoralize opponents. It is also actively using surveillance and data-mining as means to confuse and entrap opponents. The state is enhancing jurisdiction over national cyberspace and expanding the powers of state surveillance. These include warrantless monitoring of internet users and usage.
In recent years, Zambia witnessed an increased reliance on both second and third generation internet controls, driven by diverse motives. Under the second-generation controls, both administrations of Presidents Sata and Lungu legalized content controls through the enforcement of the existent public order, secrecy, and morality laws. This includes, for example, anti-pornography, slander, and defamation across the online environment in an uneven and partial manner. The country also faced connectivity problems due to poor internet resources infrastructure. Although the country continued to block and filter “offensive” websites during the period under review, the picture changed in the period leading up to and including the 2016 elections. Out of a total of 1,303 websites tested for censorship in Zambia during and following its 2016 general election period, only 10 of those sites presented signs of DNS, TCP/IP and HTTP interference. Previously blocked news outlets appeared to be accessible throughout the duration of the testing period. However no blocked pages detected as part of this study could confirm cases of censorship. The findings illustrate that connections to the websites of the World Economic Forum, the Organization of American States (OAS), and an online-dating site (pof.com) failed consistently from Zambia’s MTN network across the testing period, while failure rates from control vantage points were below 1%, indicating these sites might have been blocked.
Pornography and sites supporting LGBT dating also appeared to be inaccessible throughout the testing period and such blocking can potentially be legally justified under Zambia’s Penal Code and Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2009. However, it remains unclear why connections to other websites, such as Pinterest, may have been tampered with during Zambia’s 2016 general elections. The network tests run in Zambia aimed at identifying “middle boxes” capable of performing internet censorship did not reveal the presence of censorship equipment. However, this does not mean that censorship equipment is not present in the country, just that these particular tests were not able to highlight its presence.
The results from the technical measurements appear to confirm views from some of our interviewees that the government had realised the futility of mass blockades, but instead chose to resort to a number of third generation controls in the run up tothe 2016 presidential elections: first, it created an environment that promoted mass blogging- the intent of such information revolution or campaigns is to effect cognitive change rather than to completely deny access to online information or services. Government also delayed the passage of an access to information law, thus creating an environment where it can either allow or deny access to information at whim. On a positive note, the current and previous governments supported Internet Government Forums and actively take part in them.
Nevertheless, government is not consistently taking steps to protect human rights online. For example, there are specific restrictions on online content, which include the criminalization of legitimate expression, including that of defamation. Such criminalization contributes to an environment of self-censorship. Second, although the law does not impose intermediary liability on ISPs, Zambia does not have a framework that provides detailed guidance on the issue, thereby leaving the door open for future governments to impose such liability. Third, Zambia, like most African countries, lacks laws that adequately protect the right to privacy, treatment of private data, and facilitation of access to information.
Despite being a small, predominantly rural country with a proportionately small population, Swaziland severely lacks proper communication facilities, including the internet. The internet facilities are very poor and the population doesn’t enjoy much internet coverage. Since the internet is not firmly established in Swaziland, there isn’t a well-developed internet governance framework in the country. Despite the fact that internet in Swaziland dates back to early 1995, cyber security awareness is a new phenomenon and there is little discourse on it so far, save for such basics as digital security training. The Swaziland government, mostly through ISPs, disrupts and disconnects network infrastructure for political and partisan reasons. There are recorded cases of “just on time” denial of service, especially to disrupt trade union activities that may expose the monarch to international censure. There have also been incidents of internet blocking and filtering, especially those of the political opposition and trade unions.
Further, the Swazi government criminalises and attributes political meaning to online speech. Government officials announced plans to censor any information shared on the internet via social media platforms. If passed, the law will ban Facebook and Twitter users from criticising its autocratic ruler, King Mswati III. Also, the Swaziland Constitution does not grant absolute rights for freedom of expression. The freedoms are limited by broad interpretations of statutes that restrict expression in the interest of public order and safety, national security, morality, and health. For instance, the Sedition and Subversive Activities Act and the Suppression of Terrorism Act (STA) 2008 are used by officials to suppress freedom of expression on the internet and induce an environment of self-censorship. The political environment in Swaziland, presided over by an absolute monarch and characterised by culture of deference and fear, contributes to a culture of self-censorship. It is because of this environment that not much is known or written on Swaziland.
Overall, while there are unconfirmed reports that numerous African countries are increasing their first-generation technical capabilities, it appears second- and third-generation controls are increasing. These cannot be detected through technical network measurements, but require detailed local political economy knowledge. Future information controls research should increasingly combine technical data and in-country political economy context. Technical partners such as OONI would contribute technical capacity while local partners in repressive environments assist in deploying probes and country context analysis. This first step should be just that: a first step with many more to come. Otherwise, Africa will remain unknown in terms of true internet freedom and the danger of virtual censorship.
International Conference Strengthens Multifaceted Relations between Russia and Africa
The International Parliamentary conference ‘Russia-Africa’ held on 19-20 March has, at least, focused on complexities and contradictions of the emerging new global order, the role of Russia-African alliance against growing Western imperialism, and set the limits of Africa’s expectations from Russia. The conference was to build further on previous comprehensive political dialogues between parliaments of Africa and Russia.
President Vladimir Putin said at the plenary session of the international parliamentary conference ‘Russia-Africa in a Multipolar World’ on March 20, reminded that the first Russian-African summit, held in October 2019 in Sochi, was very productive and made it possible to noticeably revive our ties with African states, intensify business interaction, exchanges in the cultural and humanitarian spheres. That the partnership between Russia and African countries has gained additional momentum and is already reaching a qualitatively new level.
He emphatically pointed out that the states of Africa are constantly increasing their weight and role in world affairs, and are asserting themselves more and more confidently in politics and the economy. We are convinced that Africa will become one of the leaders in the emerging new multipolar world order – there are all objective prerequisites for this. And there is about 1.5 billion people live in Africa, a huge resource base is concentrated – almost a third of the world’s mineral reserves.
African countries are striving to pursue an independent and sovereign foreign and domestic policy, sometimes difficult, problems on their own. Russia and African countries uphold the norms of morality and social principles that are traditional for our peoples and oppose the neo-colonial ideology imposed from outside. By the way, many states of Asia, the Middle East and Latin America adhere to similar positions, and together make up the world majority.
“We are ready to jointly shape the global agenda, work together to strengthen fair and equal interstate relations, and improve mechanisms for mutually beneficial economic cooperation. We are preparing in the most serious way for the second Russian-African summit and, of course, a rich and meaningful agenda for the summit is being developed. It is planned to hold more than a hundred of the most diverse events,” he said about the forthcoming grand summit planned for July.
Africa has made a “huge leap in its development” in recent decades but its potential is yet to be unlocked, noted Valentina Matviyenko, Speaker of the Federation Council. “Africa is a continent with great potential, which is yet to be fully unlocked. A continent with a population approaching 1.5 billion. A continent which has made a huge leap in its development, not only economic, but also social and scientific, in recent decades,” she said at the Russia-Africa international parliamentary delegation.
According to Matviyenko, Africa’s international prestige is also increasing. “I think that this is an absolutely objective and logical trend which the collective West, led by the United States, does not want to acknowledge. They want to preserve their superiority and role as global hegemon, things that are becoming a thing of the past. They are reluctant to change their mentality of neocolonialism and are using well-known means of deterrence, such as sanctions, threats, blackmail, double standards, and blatant hypocrisy,” she noted.
She stressed that Russia has always been committed to the principles of “equality, mutual respect, the inherent right of each state to choose its own path of development, its own future without interference from the outside. Russia’s cooperation, mutually respectful and equal, with African countries has been built on these principles for decades.”
Russia’s friendship and cooperation with African countries is “time-tested.” That countries of the African continent have always been Russia’s reliable partners and true allies. I am convinced that it will continue like this. Our shared goal is to change the world for the better, to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the peoples of Russia and Africa, to spare no effort to ensure that hunger, dangerous diseases, and regional conflicts are extinguished,” Matviyenko added.
Russian State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, speaking at the plenary session, highlighted relations between Russia and Africa. “It is necessary to emphasize: Russia and African countries are equal allies and partners. Our relations have always been built on an unselfish basis, on the principles of mutual respect and non-interference in domestic affairs,” Volodin said, stressing that for Russia “the African continent has never been a subject of mercantile interest, use of labor and raw material resources.”
However, according to the speaker, the United States and Europe have a different approach. “Washington and Brussels seek to take control of Russian and African natural resources. In fact, they continue their colonial policy. They go to any measures, including force and terrorist nature, for their own benefit,” the politician pointed out. “It is not for Washington to teach us how to build relationships, be friends and make plans for the future,” Volodin pointed out.
He, however, describes Africa as a continent of freedom-loving people, and that friendship is a two-way street, and that Russia and African countries are at a new stage. Understandably therefore, “Russia and African countries are united by shared goals: We stand together for building a multipolar, just world based on respect for the traditions, culture, and history of the countries with which we are building mutually beneficial cooperation,” Volodin said.
“Today the African continent plays an important role in solving global and regional problems. And it will only grow,” he said, recalled that “despite illegal sanctions from Washington, Russia and African states are developing trade and economic cooperation.” In particular, according to the politician, the trade turnover is growing, which at the end of last year amounted to $17.9 billion.
While Russian and African parliamentarians continue forging solidarity against growing neo-colonial tendencies in Africa, Russia has also expressed readiness to push for Africa’s economic development by offering their legislative support. Legislators were convinced that the parliaments could do a lot for the development of relations on the principles of respect, non-interference in internal affairs of other states and mutually beneficial cooperation.
For comparison, 36 delegations from African countries took part in the first Forum which was held in 2019, this year there were delegations from about 40 countries. Russia, contrary to Western assertions, does not isolate itself from the rest of the world. “The increase in the number of participants confirms the special nature of friendly ties between Russia and Africa. Attempts by Washington and Brussels to isolate Africa and Russia have failed,” earlier during the first day, emphasized Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin.
That however, undeterred by the pressure from the United States ‘to cancel Russia’ in their relationship, Africa parliamentarians have arrived in Moscow for two-day working gathering to methodically develop Russian-African relations in various fields. In addition, to the political dialogue, they are also focusing on economic, cultural, humanitarian and scientific cooperation.
According to the plan, Russian parliamentarians and African colleagues fixed topical issues of the international parliamentary agenda for discussions: parliamentary support of scientific and educational cooperation, legislative response to economic challenges, indivisible security: capabilities and contributions of parliaments, and neocolonialism of the West: how to prevent the repetition of history.
The objectives of the conference are to strengthen parliamentary cooperation with African countries in the conditions of formation of a multipolar world, to develop relations and develop common approaches to legal regulation in the economy, science and education and security. The following round tables held organized:
— Legislative Response to Economic Challenges: The modern economic challenges are crises caused by Western countries guided by the United States, numerous economic sanctions aimed at destroying the Russian economy, introduced in violation of all international trade rules and foreign economic relations. At the same time, most African countries supported friendly relations with Russia. Russia and Africa’s positions coincided on many issues.
Unlike many Western countries, Russia does not have colonial experience, and the contribution of the Soviet Union to the liberation of African countries from colonial dependence is also well known. Africa stands for an equal partnership: mutual economic interests include investments, cooperation within production chains, cooperation in strategic infrastructure projects, energy, medicine and financial technologies. It is necessary to support the transformation processes of multipolar world.
— Indivisible Security: Capabilities and Contributions of Parliaments. Participants of the round table discussion on the topic “Indivisible Security: Capabilities and Contributions of Parliaments” thoroughly examined importance of sovereignty protection, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, fight against poverty, countering terrorism and military biological threats. Both Russia and Africa have similar challenges, are similar in many ways.
Both Russian and African parliamentarians have join their efforts, contribute to the development of effective proposals, which would help resolve conflicts. “The challenges that our friends from African countries and the challenges that the Russian Federation are facing today, are similar in many ways. The world is developing rapidly, and in this new world we want justice, equal rights and multi-polarity,” said the Deputy Chairman of the State Duma Petr Tolstoy, opening the discussion.
The Speaker of the National Assembly of the Parliament of South Africa Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula noted the importance of maintaining the values of humanity and tolerance towards each other. She recalled that during the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries preferred to care only about their own safety, and as a result African states did not receive enough vaccines and lost human lives.
“There are still issues of climate change, poverty, human rights violations and become a threat to peace and security, economy and the peaceful existence of people around the world. We should support all humanity. And there still be humanness in us and only, in the case, when we treat others as tolerantly as possible,” stressed Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
The President of the National Council of the Transition of the Republic of Guinea, Dansa Kourouma, noted the problem of imbalance in diplomatic relations in the context of neo-colonialism. “The unilateral approach has become the rule. It is important take into account and respect the sovereignty of states,” he explained and called for a more active fight against poverty, since such situations when people do not have access to a minimum set of services lead to insecurity in such countries.
— Neocolonialism of the West: How to Prevent the Repetition of History. Here Russia and African countries want equal world without imposition of Western paradigm of consciousness. Leonid Slutsky, leader of the LDPR faction, Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, opening the meeting thanked African countries, that despite the difficult times, gathered around Russia as a forward in the movement towards a multipolar world.
The First Deputy Chairman of the Committee on International Affairs, Vyacheslav Nikonov, emphasized that there is an overwhelming majority of people supporting those values of sovereignty, respect for each other, democracy, non-interference in the affairs of others. According to the African parliamentarians who spoke at the roundtable believes that by granting independence to African countries, colonialism still exists on the continent, including transnational companies and non-governmental organizations that have become its main instruments.
According to most of them, it necessary now to promote economic independence and diversify the economies. It is definitely an important factor in countering sanctions is the consolidation of society, pursue concrete development. But unfortunately, after political liberation many African colonies retained the old economic structures and dependence on imports from the metropolises.
President of the non-profit organization Foundation for the Study of Historical Perspective, Nataliya Narotchnitskaya, tried to answer the basic question: Why Russia is countering neocolonialism? In the process, she explained the colossal fluctuations in economy, faith, standards of living, and climate in Africa. The moment of truth for Africa, she continued, is that there must be a change in the economy, that officials should work to ensure that, at least, infrastructure projects are being implemented in Africa.
Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin held bilateral meetings with several heads of delegations, speakers of parliaments and chambers of parliaments of African countries. On March 19, a bilateral meeting of the Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin and the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Republic of Zimbabwe Jacob Mudenda was held at the State Duma. The State Duma and the National Assembly of Zimbabwe signed agreement in 2022.
“It is very important to do everything to implement this agreement. We propose to create an inter-parliamentary commission which will enable us to work more substantively on issues that are important for both our states,” Jacob Mudenda emphasized at the meeting.
According to him, relations between countries should be built on the principles of mutual respect, mutually beneficial cooperation and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states. Russia and Zimbabwe now shared common political interest: both are under sanctions. Frequent interactions, such as conferences, demonstrate the importance of relations at the parliamentary level between Africa and the Russian Federation.
“This will significantly advance understanding and strengthen relations between Russia and the countries of Africa. Such meetings will help share experience between the African states and the Russian Federation and develop solutions. There is also an exchange of views and development of positions on international security. You know, these issues are the most relevant now,” concluded Mudenda.
South Africa’s National Assembly Speaker, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula supported his suggestion that great capabilities on parliamentary dimension of Russia and South Africa could be used to enhance our cooperation in various areas in South Africa and in Africa. Mapisa-Nqakula thanked Vyacheslav Volodin for sending the invitation to take part in the Parliamentary Conference, before adding “It is very important for us that Russia gives priority to the African continent. Many countries consider Africa as a great possibility to get African resources. But taking into account the history of our cooperation, we, like many other African countries, believe that Russia has other, more genuine interests in Africa.”
“Our cooperation started decades ago. And we felt your support in the worst times for us, during apartheid. We understand that now it is a difficult time for Russia as a country. But I would like to assure you that South Africa will continue cooperation, discuss areas of cooperation that are important for us. We look forward to its start,” said Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
Both also discussed issues of cooperation within the framework of the BRICS, as it is South Africa’s chairmanship. “For us, the cooperation between the parliaments within the BRICS framework is very important, as we can discuss issues of common interest,” emphasized the Speaker of the National Assembly of the Parliament of South Africa.
From West Africa, there were Burkina Faso and Mali. And then Central African Republic. Historically French-speaking which implies that France has had them as colonies, but the changing political situation these countries are seeking support and consequently taking directions from Russian officialdom. President of the Transitional Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Burkina Faso Ousmane Bougouma, President of the National Transitional Council of the Republic of Mali Malick Diaw and President of the National Assembly of the Central African Republic Simplice Mathieu Sarandji.
Central African Republic, Burkina Faso and Mali – these have common expectations. They are suffering a lot from terrorism, so Russia’s support, including logistical support and other different support, is extremely important for them. France is longer needed. “Russia helps developing cooperation, especially on the issues of security. We also want to address together other challenges we face in the field of education and healthcare development. Our people have made a completely clear and obvious choice: we want not only to diversify our international partnership, but also to strengthen cooperation with Russia,” said Malick Diaw.
The President of the Senate of the Parliament of the Republic of Congo Pierre Ngolo noted that the task is to establish a strong and solid partnership between countries based on friendship and fraternal relations, the cooperation at the level of parliaments “involves people in the process” and that both Russia and Africa are involved in some kind of battle for the well-being of the nations and the whole world.
Russia and African countries should establish an exchange of legislative experience in order to create conditions for building mutually beneficial partnerships. Within the context of strengthening relations in this emerging new world, it is necessary to address challenges and find new forms of cooperation. It always reiterated that Russia remains an important political player, despite the sanctions and pressure from the West.
The International Parliamentary event serves as a precursor for the second Russia-Africa summit, with African countries amid the emerging multipolar world. More than 40 parliamentary delegations from African countries arrived the conference, which also attended by members of the State Duma, senators of the Federation Council, representatives of the educational and business community. The conference held just few months before the second Russia-Africa summit, which is planned for July 2023 in Saint Petersburg.
How Russia’s Sputnik Disappears from Africa’s Radar
Until recently, Africa has not been high on Russia’s policy agenda. African leaders have to understand that Russia, for the past three decades, Africa was at the bottom of its policy agenda. After the end of Soviet era, Russia has focused broadly on the United States and Europe, dreaming of becoming part of Europe, part of the configuration of Global North. The low economic presence of Russia from 1991 until 2019 was a testament to the fact that Africa was at the bottom of its priority list. Of course the October 2019 summit was symbolic, but after that Russia has left most of bilateral agreements undelivered across Africa.
With its “special military operation” on Ukraine that necessitated imposition of stringent sanctions from the United States, European Union and their allies, the United Nations Security Council mounting pressure on Russia since February 2022, pushes Russia to begin soliciting aggressively for support in Africa. Last July, an article posted to its official website, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wrote: “The development of a comprehensive partnership with African countries remains among top priorities of Russia’s foreign policy, Moscow is open to its further build-up multifaceted relations with Africa.”
In his Op-Ed article, Lavrov further argues: “We have been rebuilding our positions for many years now. The Africans are reciprocating. They are interested in having us. It is good to see that our African friends have a similar understanding with Russia.” Lavrov, however, informed about broadening African issues “in the new version of Russia’s Foreign Policy Concept against the background of the waning of the Western direction” and this will objectively increase the share of the African direction in the work of the Foreign Ministry.
Lavrov consistently displays his passion for historical references. Soviet’s support for struggles for political independence and against colonialism should be laid to rest in the archives. The best way to fight neo-colonialism is to demonstrate by investing in those competitive sectors, make a departure away from hyperbolic rhetoric on endless list of economic sectors. In practical terms, it is important rather to face today’s development challenges and what are in store for the future generation. Africa today does not need anti-Western slogans which have become the key content in Russia’s foreign policy, Africa simply needs external players who would passionately and genuinely invest in the critical economic sectors. The fundamental fact is that Africa is making efforts to transform its economy to create employment, modern agriculture and industrialize the continent, especially with the introduction of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
Despite criticisms, China has built an exemplary distinctive economic power in Africa. Besides China, Africa is largely benefiting from the European Union and Western aid flows, economic and trade ties. That compared, Russia plays very little role in Africa’s infrastructure, agriculture and industry, and making little efforts in leveraging unto the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Our monitoring shows that the Russian business community hardly pays attention to the significance of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which provides a unique and valuable platform for businesses to access an integrated African market of over 1.3 billion people.
Lavrov’s efforts toward building ‘non-Western’ ties this crucial times is highly commendable especially with Africa. But, the highly respected Minister easily and, most often, forget the fundamental fact that during these three years of global pandemic, the coronavirus that has engulfed the planet, in every corner of the world, Africa was desperate looking for vaccines. Health authorities are still warning that Covid-19 has not completely faced out throughout the world.
Quartz, a global reputable media, reported early this year that “as of the end of 2022, about a quarter of the population of African countries has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to the latest figures shared by Africa CDC. The coverage varies drastically depending on the country. In Liberia, for instance, nearly 80% of the population is fully vaccinated, while only 34% is in neighboring Sierra Leone. Congo, Sudan, Senegal, and Madagascar all have vaccination rates below 10%.
Africa CDC acting director Ahmed Ogwell Ouma announced in a video briefing on December 22 that it will modify the way it reports vaccination rates. Rather than reporting coverage of the overall population, it will only report vaccinations of eligible population aged 12 or more. In his briefing, Ouma said the target for Africa remains to vaccinate 70% of the population. That goal, however, was set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for the overall population. These numbers are about to change – and not because of an increase in vaccinations.
Due of delays in international vaccine deliveries, Africa lags behind the rest of the world in Covid vaccination rates, and is the only continent where less than 50% of the population is fully vaccinated. Currently, just more than 800 million doses of vaccines have been administered in Africa, or 80% of the total received. About a third of the vaccinations have been made with Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine, followed by Pfizer (22%), AstraZeneca (17%), China’s Sinopharm (15%) and Sinovac (7%).
Several reports monitored by this authored show that Russia has played a minimal role in the entire health sector in Africa. With the Covid-19 vaccination, Russia randomly sprinkled few thousands as humanitarian assistance among its “Soviet friends” including Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Nevertheless, the worse was Russia’s sudden failure to supply the 300 million vaccines through the African Union (AU) especially during the times of health crisis.
In an official media release mid-February 2021 said that the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team – set up by the African Union (AU) to acquire additional vaccine doses so that Africa could attain a target immunization of 60% – received an offer of 300 million Sputnik V vaccines from the Russian Federation. It was described as a ‘special offer’ from Russia. In the end, Russia never delivered the 300 million vaccines as contracted.
In an authoritative policy report presented November 2021 titled ‘Situation Analytical Report’ and prepared by 25 Russian policy experts headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, noted explicitly the failure to supply Sputnik vaccines to the African Union. The report criticized Russia’s current policy and lukewarm approach towards Africa.
“In several ways, Russia’s possibilities are overestimated both publicly and in closed negotiations. The supply of Russian-made vaccines to Africa is an example. Having concluded contracts for the supply of Sputnik V to a number of African states, Russian suppliers failed to meet contractual obligations on time,” says the report in part.
The coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Worth noting that Russia claims that it was the first to find cure for coronavirus. The World Health Organization (WHO), until today has not certified Russia’s vaccines though. Despite the fact that Russia developed Sputnik V becoming the first registered Covid-19 vaccine, the vaccine lacks WHO approval due to lack of transparency of Russian laboratories and getting approvals before mandatory phase III clinical trials. On the other hand, all the vaccines have been registered in Russia – Sputnik V, Sputnik Light, CoviVac and EpiVacCorona – are produced in large quantities by Russian pharmaceutical companies and are currently used for vaccination.
Director of the Gamaleya National Research Centre for Epidemiology and Microbiology Alexander Gintsburg has several times highlighted aspects of the vaccine production and marketing. He noted to raise the attractiveness of the vaccines on foreign markets, including countries in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
The Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), tasked to engage in marketing the vaccines abroad, got messed up especially in Africa. The RDIF is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. Of course, it took steps and speedily registered the vaccines in more than 20 African countries, but terribly failed on delivery deadlines. Worse was the Russian Direct Investment Fund supplied, at exorbitant prices, through middle-men in the Arab Emirates to a number of African countries.
Sputnik V was registered in several African countries, including Algeria, Angola, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia, the Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zimbabwe. However, Russia has not been able to meet the increasing market demand and did not make prompt delivery on its pledges to African countries consequently, – in experts’ simple assessment Russia’s vaccine diplomacy has arguably failed Africa. Interestingly Russia’s Foreign Ministry has held series of talks with African Foreign Ministers, during this Covid-19 period and in fact this desperate moment, reiterated to assist with direct supplies for vaccinating vulnerable groups and people among the 1.3 billion population. That is Russia, considered as a reliable partner in these difficult and crucial times, whose strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority in it’s foreign policy,
The above thoughts on the part of Covid-19 business offered the reasons why Russia absolutely refused to join and be part of the Covax facility, which acts as a global collective bargaining initiative to secure vaccine doses for countries who signed up, including those which are self-financing their purchases, as well as assistance from donors for poorer developing countries. The first vaccines purchased through Covax were indeed destined to reach the Africa. That was, monitored by this author, some 88.7 million doses of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines distributed to 47 countries including Africa during the first half of 2021. This same year, during the virtual meeting of G7 leaders, the European Union announced it had donated a further 500 million euros to the COVAX program. The World Bank also committed $12 billion as concessional loans to assist African countries access foreign vaccines.
That is not all from several reports monitored. In April 2022, writing under the headline: “How Russia’s Hollow Humanitarian Hurt Its Vaccine Diplomacy in Africa,” – the co-authors, Matthew T. Page and Paul Stronski, both noted in 2020, that Russia touted deliveries of medical and protective supplies to several African countries, while the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine offered hopes that African countries would soon be able to launch large-scale immunization drives. Russian efforts to promote Sputnik V in Africa have floundered for a variety of reasons, including regulatory worries, production and logistical shortfalls, bureaucratic inertia, and even sticker shock. There is, however, another key factor behind Moscow’s failed vaccine diplomacy: its traditionally diminutive post-Soviet development presence on the continent.
Compared to Australia, Canada, the European Union, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and even many foundations, Russia has provided a tiny share of international development assistance to African countries since the end of the Cold War. Unlike India and Cuba, it has provided scanty medical assistance to – or investment in – African countries.
If Russia wants to be influential on the continent, African political and economic leaders should demand more of Moscow, not simply settle for the symbolic diplomatic engagements or agreements at which the Russian leadership excels. Indeed, Africa has not ranked high on the Russian foreign policy agenda for much of the past three decades, getting barely a mention in the country’s key security documents except as either a partner in an emerging multipolar world or a source of instability.
Indeed the time has come for African leaders to rally together to ensure that no effort is spared in facilitating and supporting the building of large-scale vaccine manufacturing capacity on the continent. The African Vaccine Manufacturing Summit held in April, 2021 was an encouraging start. Currently, no African country is manufacturing the vaccine so far. Therefore, focus needs to be on developing real vaccine R&D capacity which must necessarily lead to health products. This requires substantial investment and a long-term commitment. In a similar vien, under the aegis of the African Union, leaders have to begin looking for inside solutions, rather than base hopes on these geopolitical games, external great powers seeking only support for their peculiar or parochial interests.
Understandably, while making efforts to maintain and expand its presence in Africa, Russia simply lacks the capability to deliver on its various promises in Africa. Surely, African countries have to begin to re-evaluate their relationship with Russia. African leaders should not expect anything tangible from meetings, conferences and summits. Since the first Russia-Africa summit held in 2019, very little has been achieved. At this point, it is even more improbable that Moscow would commit adequate financial resources to invest in economic sectors, given the stringent sanctions imposed following Putin’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.
In stark contrast to key global players, for instance the United States, China and the European Union and many others, Russia obviously has limitations. Notwithstanding that, for Russia to regain part of its Soviet-era influence, it has to address its own policy approach, this time try to shift towards new paradigms – that is to implement some of its decade-old pledges and promises, and those signed bilateral agreements; secondly to promote development-oriented policies and how to make these strategic efforts more practical, more consistent, more effective and most admirably result-oriented with African countries.
Russia’s harmful influence in Africa
Russia’s aggression on Ukraine has been exposing Africa to supply chain destabilizations, financial instability and heightened food insecurity, thus gravely hurting millions of Africans and inflicting an increased potential for instability on some African states. Even so, and from the invasion onward, Russia has had no qualms about uninterruptedly reaching out to the Continent. So, it’s been preparing a Russia-Africa summit, putting forth dubious scenarios for mutual economic cooperation, taking part in joint exercises with African states, and sending Lavrov to such important countries as South Africa, Angola, Uganda, Sudan or Ethiopia.
Russia moved closer to Africa in recent years, with the seeming intent of recreating a strategic presence in the Continent in the post-Soviet era. So, and even though Russia hasn’t succeeded in developing a significant economic weight in Africa in the meantime, the fact is it expanded trade with African countries, it established ties in the energy sector and it attained a number of mining concessions. Russia also signed military-technical cooperation agreements with multiple African countries and, according to the Swedish institute SIPRI (p.7), it actually became the biggest major arms exporter to the Continent. In all this, Russia privileged creating partnerships with autocratic regimes, to which it provides assistance in exchange for political collaboration, economic arrangements or extractive access.
Yet, Moscow’s strategy in Africa also includes influence and disinformation campaigns, which are mobilized to foster sympathy toward Russia and hostility toward the West, but also to interfere in elections, as well as to inflame and exploit social tensions and support autocrats. Additionally, as pointed out by Joseph Siegle writing for the Marshall Center (pp. 81 and 87), such campaigns seek to discredit democracy and foster the perception that it offers no advantages over authoritarianism. The practical application of the anti-democratic worldview which Russia promotes in Africa, continues Siegle, is undermining legitimate governments, fomenting social polarization, propping up unconstitutional power, and tearing at the thin social fabric of many African societies.
From the invasion on, and even while Africa’s been facing supply chain disruptions and heightened food scarcity, Moscow’s been targeting the Continent with disinformation rationalizing the war and fostering anti-Western sentiment. Lavrov gave depth to this exercise when he alleged food markets were not being destabilized by the aggression on Ukraine, but rather by the Western sanctions on Russia. Later, he went on to accuse the West of presiding over a racist and neo-colonial division of the world, an accusation which has also been deployed by Putin himself. This is in logical continuity to one of Moscow’s typical propaganda ploys in Africa, which is to bash the West for alleged neo-imperialism, while attaching modern-day Russia’s image to the Soviet Union’s role in the anti-colonial struggles in Africa—in what seems to be a crude attempt to exploit the appreciation many Africans still have for the USSR, for the backing it provided to African liberation. However, and regardless of the anti-colonial rhetoric, Moscow apparently even went to the point of pressuring African students in Russia to accept enlistment for the war in Ukraine.
One of the key drivers of instability in Africa today is the Russian paramilitary entity known as the Wagner Group, which is of course also involved in the aggression on Ukraine. Even while it’s nominally private, Wagner has been consistently accused of being a foreign policy instrument for the Kremlin: a deniable, informal proxy by which Moscow pursues strategic goals abroad without having to compromise itself through official force deployments. Wagner is now in several African countries. In Sudan, where it went in concurrently with the Moscow-Khartoum approximation, it’s allegedly involved in spreading disinformation and in illicit activities connected to gold mining. In Libya, it’s collaborating with Khalifah Hifter’s faction and it’s entrenched in strategically important oil infrastructures, which gives it the tacit ability to compromise the now crucial supply of Libyan energy to Europe. And, in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), where it’s providing assistance to Bamako and Bangui respectively, Wagner seems to be involved in torture, rape, summary executions and massacres, as well as in the abusive exploitation of resources. In addition, Wagner’s presence in the CAR accompanies the Russophile transformation which has taken over that country in recent years, and which is expressed in things like the embedding of Russian citizens in the governmental structure, the adoption of Russian as one of the CAR’s official languages, and even the recruitment of Central Africans by Wagner itself for combat in Ukraine.
Russia has for some time now been looking to expand its influence in the Western Sahel, a region plagued by persistent conflict fueled by jihadi insurgency. So, it’s been deepening ties and developing security cooperation with the military juntas in Mali and Burkina Faso. This has been occurring against the backdrop of a deterioration in relations between those juntas and France, something which Russia itself has been nurturing through disinformation efforts, and which has already led to the end, in mid-2022, of the anti-terrorist assistance missions by France and by its European allies in Mali, and also to the recent cancellation of the French mission in Burkina Faso. Furthermore, it was concurrently with the Kremlin’s approximation to the region that, in late 2021, the Wagner Group went into Mali to provide assistance to Malian forces in the fight against jihadism. More recently, and according to the President of Ghana Nana Akufo-Addo, Wagner purportedly established a similar arrangement with the Burkinabe junta. In Mali, operations involving Wagner are characterized, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), by a normalization of indiscriminate violence against civilians. Also, and since European forces left that country, there’s been a rise in the extent of ungoverned territory, along with a strengthening of the jihadi insurgency. As pointed out by a recent study for the Terrorism Combat Center at West Point, Wagner is not just incapable of filling the security vacuum which the departure of European forces brought about, but the violence against civilians which it typifies has actually bolstered jihadi recruitment in the area. So, the study adds, Wagner is in fact aggravating the jihadi threat in Mali. To that, you can add that a growth of the jihad in Mali could make utterly intractable the already chaotic security situation in Burkina Faso, and worsen that of the littoral states of the Gulf of Guinea, which are already threatened by the regional expansion of the jihad. Even so, Wagner—perhaps not contented by the havoc it’s inflicting on Mali—is also reportedly working with rebels in Chad to destabilize that country’s government.
Africa should liberate herself from the turbulence Russia brings to her soil. That, however, may not be all that simple. The fact is that Moscow developed relevant relations in the Continent, and many African countries have come to depend either on Russia’s assistance, or on imports of Russian grain or defense equipment. Russia’s ties with Africa even seem to have played a part in multiple African countries’ decisions not to sanction Russia, nor vote against Moscow in UN General Assembly resolutions on the war in Ukraine.
Freeing Africa from Russia’s harmful influence is, of course, a choice belonging to Africans alone. However, and as pointed out by a recent study for the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (pp. 26-29), the West can and should support such a purpose, by means of policies encouraging the strengthening of democracy in the Continent, promoting regional security, and backing Africa’s economic development.
A democratic, noticeably developing Africa wouldn’t need to depend on Putin’s Russia. Moreover, it would take on a key position in the global economy. As asserted by Joseph Sany of the U.S. Institute of Peace, Africa, being endowed with 60 percent of the globe’s uncultivated arable soil and a vast natural and mineral wealth, has therefore the potential to feed itself and become a global supplier of food and resources, thus solidifying global supply chains—and, adding to Sany, freeing those supply chains from disruptions such as those caused by the aggression on Ukraine.
Even while still afflicted by grave infrastructural and technological gaps, the fact is that Africa has been undergoing rapid economic growth, with that trend being expected to continue. Additionally, Africa is interested in developing its productive power, besides enjoying rapid urbanization and a youthful demography, and also a free trade area encompassing 55 African economies.
Africa’s modernization could be vigorously accelerated via the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, by which the G7 intends to invest $600 billion in Africa and in other regions in the next few years. Moreover, the United States are preparing to invest $55 billion, and the European Union €150 billion, in an African Continent which could easily become a key strategic and commercial partner to the West. It’s important for those investments to be geared toward unleashing Africa’s potential, improving Africans’ lives and fully integrating the Continent in global markets. That is key to realizing the African design for a peaceful, prosperous and dynamic Africa.
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