When Africa Is Just Around the Corner

On January 23, 2022, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, announced Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was embarking on a new tour of Africa. During the week, the high-ranking Russian delegation paid a visit to several countries on the continent: South Africa being the traditional “mainstay” of Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, the continent’s smallest kingdom of Eswatini, the Russia-friendly Portuguese-speaking Angola, and the little-known Eritrea, which was once even under Russian sanctions. That said, Moscow did not hesitate to announce the terminal point of the visit, the specifics of the secretive Eritrean statehood probably playing a part here.

Exactly six months before that, Sergey Lavrov had already paid a working visit to several African states on July 23, 2022: that tour also included four states (Egypt, Republic of the Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia).

Besides, immediately after the minister’s return to Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry hosted a meeting between Sergey Lavrov and the Personal Representative of the President of the Republic of the Congo for Strategic Issues and International Negotiations, Minister Francoise Joly.

Such a revitalization of Russian efforts in Africa is not accidental.

Amid preparations for the second Russia–Africa Summit and Economic Forum, which is anticipated in St. Petersburg in July 2023 after repeated postponements, Moscow needs to not only embrace a constructive agenda for the discussions but also ensure a high representativeness of their participants—all that in a more challenging geopolitical situation than it was in 2019.

Arcane backdrop

In our opinion, the complexity of the situation in the run-up to the forthcoming Summit has more to do with the processes within the African continent than by Russia’s ongoing special operation in Ukraine.

Even if we solely focus on Russia’s obvious priorities in the region, it is easy to see that the internal political situation deteriorated in a number of ways in 2022. Thus, in South Africa, literally on the eve of the ANC party conference (the ruling party in the country since 1994), where the president of the party is elected, there erupted a major scandal around Cyril Ramaphosa, the incumbent president of the ANC and the nation. A report published in late November 2022 highlighted the findings of an independent commission that had inquired into the allegation made by the former head of South African intelligence, A. Fraser, who claimed that Mr. Ramaphosa deliberately concealed the circumstances of the theft of several million dollars from his private mansion in the province of Limpopo, because that money had not been declared in accordance with the law. The report’s main conclusion was that the President had committed acts incompatible with the spirit of the South African Constitution, which formed grounds for his impeachment. [1] Despite rumors of Ramaphosa’s possible resignation, he managed to retain his position as the ANC’s head, which most likely guarantees his re-election as President of South Africa a year later, when national elections are to be held. At least, this was the logic that persisted throughout the country’s post-apartheid history.

Yet, things can be different in 2024, as the ANC is losing momentum: in particular, the South African Institute for Security Studies says in one of its forecasts that the inter-faction struggle within the party itself, which is taking place amid socio-economic turmoil, could cause a collapse of the ANC’s approval ratings on the eve of elections, and then the government would have to become a coalition government at best, for the first time in South Africa’s modern history.

For bilateral relations between Russia and South Africa, such an outcome would indicate a need for greater flexibility. Right now, the two sides express satisfaction about the growing contacts between the ANC and United Russia as the two ruling parties—yet, engaging other influential forces in the country should not be overlooked either. Perhaps, at some point, this situation will have to be urgently rectified, so this should be taken into account already at present, when preparing for the St. Petersburg Summit and especially in view of the Russia–Africa Parliamentary Forum, to be held in Moscow in the not-to-distant March.

The turmoil in the corridors of power aggravates the large-scale crisis in the national energy system, which no government has been able to properly address. Currently, the situation is such that the state company Eskom has to reactivate outdated coal-fired thermal power plants, because there is no other way to eliminate constant power outages. While there were 200 days of “load shedding” in 2022 (an anti-record in all the years of the crisis, which began as early as 2007) and up to 50% of all capacity was lost in September because of generation failure, the company admits that things can get worse in 2023. On Monday, President Ramaphosa said that the ANC was contemplating a national state of disaster—prior to that, the same situation had only been provoked by the coronavirus pandemic. This state of South Africa’s energy sector not only affects the daily lives of citizens and leads to mounting discontent (in December, army units were first deployed to protect critical infrastructure from acts of “sabotage, theft, vandalism and corruption”), but also takes a toll on the agricultural and industrial potential of South Africa, a country so far considered the most industrialized nation on the continent. If you add the catastrophic flooding that shook the province of KwaZulu-Natal in April 2022 (damages amounted to 17 billion rand) and recall the dire consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it becomes clear why the inflation rate came close to 7% for the first time since 2008-2009, the unemployment rate reached an unprecedented high of 34%, with 63% of the population living below the upper poverty line (under $6.85 a day).

Simultaneously, 2022 saw an upsurge of violence sweeping across West Africa. In Burkina Faso, the military led by Paul-Henri Damiba, themselves ascending to power through a coup in January 2022 (having deposed President R. Kabore, who ruled the country for six years), were overthrown in September. A group of junior officers, led by 34-year-old captain Ibrahim Traoré, suspended most political activities. In May, a failed coup attempt was reported in Mali. If successful, it would have been the country’s fourth in the last ten years, with Mali’s transitional president, Assimi Goïta, playing a proactive role in the last two coups (2020 and 2021). Coup attempts also took place in Guinea-Bissau (February) and the Gambia (December). In Sierra Leone, President Julius Bio had a difficult time dealing with bloody mass protests caused by the dire economic situation.

There is a widespread belief in the media that these events play into Russia’s hand (at least, many Western commentators are convinced of this). This is partly confirmed in practice: for example, Prime Minister of Burkina Faso Apollinaire de Tambèla hopes to cement the partnership between the two nations, which received a new impetus with the growth of anti-French sentiment, by opening a Russian diplomatic mission in his country. It is important to note, though, that most states in this subregion are now ruled by a different, younger generation, so Russia’s traditional discourse that largely leaned on the Soviet legacy, may require adjustments. At the moment, however, the logic of having received assistance from the USSR in fighting colonialism perfectly translates into expectations of similar assistance from Russia in fighting neocolonialism. The only question is how pragmatic it would be to build long-term relationships on this basis alone.

On the eve of the presidential elections scheduled for February 25, tensions are also running high in Nigeria. As in the case of South Africa, many of the country’s current challenges are inherited from 2022. In November, for example, the National Bureau of Statistics in Nigeria was forced to admit that the country has an unprecedented inflation rate (above 21%) [2], which causes more and more people to fall below the poverty line—currently the figure is around 63%, indicating some 133 million people in absolute terms. The situation was exacerbated by heavy rains and ubiquitous floods, with at least 1.5 million people badly affected. In the north-western part of the country, terrorist groups are becoming increasingly active, and the federal government has not yet been able to hold them at bay. These events surely overlap with preparations for the presidential elections. Moreover, these are accompanied by a split in the ruling party, the All-Progressive Congress (APC), as well as a general alienation of young people from the ruling elites. One way or another, at the St. Petersburg Summit, Nigeria will no longer be represented by Muhammadu Buhari, like in Sochi 2019, since the constitution bars him from seeking a third term.

Other parts of the continent have their own disturbing trends. For example, the Pretoria agreement envisaging a cessation of hostilities in northern Ethiopia (state of Tigray) was an important step toward fostering stability in the subregion, but that does not resolve the problems of speed and quality of its actual implementation, as well as the more general issue of separatism in Ethiopia, including through the vigorous activities of the Oromo Liberation Front. Although the agreement on the cessation of hostilities with the central government and the removal of the “terrorist” label from the organization was signed back in 2018, on January 23, 2023, the day of Mr. Lavrov’s visit to South Africa, the Front published a manifesto with demands to the official Addis Ababa. The document’s authors demand stopping the persecution of the Front leaders and supporters, stopping the practice of military operations in the state, promoting Oromo to the status of an official language, and including the capital of Addis Ababa in the state. Two days later, on January 25, it was reported that armed clashes between Amhara and Oromo intensified.

Trouble keeps mounting in Central Africa. On account of constant clashes between the national government of the DR Congo and rebels from the March 23 Movement (M23) in the province of North Kivu, relations between the DRC and Rwanda have markedly deteriorated, as evidenced not only by mutual allegations but also by the recent incident with the Congolese Su-25 aircraft that violated Rwanda’s airspace being attacked by the Rwandan air defense. These negative developments affect not only civilians, who are forced to seek refuge in the neighboring countries, but the entire East African Community. So far, no successful solutions to this round of conflict have been found: talks between the leaders of the DRC and Rwanda, which were apparently scheduled for January 23 in Qatar (again, the start date for Lavrov’s African tour), never took place. It might be that getting Paul Kagame and Félix Tshisekedi to participate in the same event could well be one of the challenges for Russian diplomacy during the preparation for the Summit, given the current antagonism between the DRC and Rwanda.

Finally, one cannot but mention an essentially new level of external pressure exerted by all parties on the countries of Africa within the walls of the UN. With the beginning of Russia’s special military operation, the 11th emergency special session of the UNGA adopted a series of resolutions condemning Russia. While most African countries previously managed to avoid adopting active stances on such resolutions (their agenda is obviously far from the real foreign policy priorities of African nations), many of them could not remain neutral now.


Putting all the pieces into a single puzzle, we see that the Russian diplomacy has to expend greater effort in its African track, usually not the most active of all, as at stake—in the run-up to the not-far-off summit—are not only Russia’s practical interests on the continent but also Moscow’s reputation and media image.

A certain reference point, most likely, will be the U.S.–Africa Leaders Summit, also the second in history (held in mid-December 2022). At the level of heads of state or government, 45 countries of the region were represented in Washington D.C., while delegations from Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Guinea, Mali and Sudan were not invited (officially due to the suspended membership in the African Union). More telling, though, is that South Africa—alongside the Gambia, South Sudan and Zimbabwe—was represented at the summit at the level of its foreign minister. With that, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s participation in the St. Petersburg summit is virtually certain.

Obviously, Moscow will seek to ensure that the Summit in July is no less representative. In the very least, it will be important to achieve the same “turnout” as in 2019. The first summit gathered together 43 heads of state and government from the African continent. Representation, of course, is not an end in itself. It is by this, however, that the media will evaluate the success of the Summit, reflecting on Russia’s global isolation. Besides, it is necessary to correlate the media picture of the “growing Russian influence” with reality. So far, if proceeding from the voting record of the states at the UNGA, the level of support for Russian positions is the weakest among West African nations (especially against the background of Southern Africa).

Given the active phase of preparations for the St. Petersburg Summit, Lavrov’s most recent tour of Africa can be considered in the context of the key messages sent by Moscow to the potential participants.

First of all, noteworthy is the parties’ increased focus on economic cooperation. Despite constant statements about it expanding and deepening, it has always been a weakness in Russia’s presence on the continent. For example, Russia’s trade relations with South Africa are not nearly on the same level as the political component of the relationship. Thus, South African exports to Russia amounted to R4.47 billion in 2022, less than 3% of their total volume (by comparison, South African exports to Denmark stood at R5.24 billion). Russian exports to South Africa came in at R8.58 billion, which is also unimpressive when compared to countries like Turkey (R28.1 billion), Italy (R37.3 billion), Thailand (R45.8 billion) or India (R119.5 billion). No point in mentioning the country’s trade volumes with China. This “politics vs. trade” disparity is typical of Russia’s relations with most states on the continent. During his tour, commenting on the first-ever visit of Russia’s Foreign Minister to the Kingdom of Eswatini, Sergey Lavrov himself said quite characteristically: “Main efforts should now be focused on the economic sphere, which is lagging far behind other areas of our cooperation, above all behind the excellent level of political dialogue.” Therefore, it is quite logical that Moscow is trying to put its economic relations with African states into a somewhat more practical channel on the eve of the Summit. Thus, at the joint press conference with South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, it was announced that she would co-chair the 17th session of the Joint Intergovernmental Committee on Trade and Economic Cooperation in the first quarter of 2023 (Angola will host a similar event in late April, while a similar mechanism with Eritrea will only be built up in the time to come).

The desire to foster cooperation in the field of energy, the most grievous domestic plight in South Africa, was also mentioned. Unfortunately, cooperation in this area has already encountered pitfalls. In 2014, after an agreement on a strategic partnership in the nuclear power sector was signed with South Africa, Russia’s Rosatom outlined the negotiated arrangements to build up eight nuclear power units in the Western Cape province, but these plans were buried by intense inter-party debates, intra-party squabbles and corruption scandals (the lawsuit against former President Jacob Zuma is still dragging on). Overlaid on top of this was the general media backdrop, with Russia portrayed in a negative light. By the end of 2017, the project had probably been forgotten. It is still a matter of uncertainty whether the Russian side intends to invite the new South African leadership to revisit this issue, given the rapidly mounting crisis in the country’s power supply. It is also unclear how realistic any agreement would be in the current international environment, given that any such agreement would have to be debated in the South African parliament, which could lead to the liberal and pro-Western Democratic Alliance launching another wave of criticism against such plans.

Second, Russia has indicated its willingness to invest in soft power instruments for promoting cooperation with countries on the African continent. In particular, the number of South African students who will study in Russian universities at the expense of the federal budget is to be significantly increased. The same has been done for students from Eswatini and Angola. More importantly, there was expressed a willingness to open new cultural centers in Africa, which are really lacking at present. If their activities were more in line with the “realities on the ground”, rather than limited to exhibitions and ceremonial openings of Yuri Gagarin busts, Russia’s media image in Africa would not only become more recognizable and high-profile, but also more meaningful. And, for sure, African nations are keenly interested in sending their staff to train in Russia: for example, Foreign Minister of Eswatini T. Dladla pointed out that many of the doctors working in the Kingdom’s hospitals are the most visible and pragmatic evidence of Russia’s responsible approach to bilateral relations and people-to-people contacts. Relations with Eritrea are also likely to move in this direction in the near future. For example, the parties are preparing an agreement on the mutual recognition of education, which will allow students from Eritrea to receive scholarships for studying in Russia.

Third, Moscow has consistently promoted the idea that the Russia-proposed model of polycentric world order architecture, rooted in the principles of multilateralism, can best accommodate the interests of African nations and be truly inclusive and equitable. During his African tour, Mr. Lavrov reiterated Russia’s commitment to the enhancement of Africa’s role in the world through a UN Security Council reform, also voicing Moscow’s support for the African Union joining the G20. Recently, as was earlier noted, these propositions have been bolstered by references to the West’s neo-colonial practices [3], which, in the words of Mr. Lavrov, “have never gone anywhere.” And it should be noted that such references were far from unsuccessful, and they resonate with African nations. Thus, Minister N. Pandor pointed out that the tendencies mentioned by her Russian counterpart are especially evident when it comes to the functioning of the Bretton Woods Institutions which do not reflect the interests of the most vulnerable developing states. Besides, she picked up the idea typical of the Russian foreign policy discourse about the inadmissibility of double standards, making an obvious reference to Washington when she spoke about the upcoming trilateral naval exercises of South Africa, Russia and China, whose active phase symbolically begins on February 25, 2023. Another interesting outcome was at the meeting between Minister S. Lavrov and President of Angola J. Lawrence, where the latte proposed to convene a summit of the African Union, where Africa’s place in the emerging world order would be discussed, from both economic (in the first place) and political perspectives.

Fourth, the matter regarded Russia’s assistance in addressing the entire range of security challenges, including through the resolution of deep-rooted African conflicts. Clearly, “export of security” to Africa has already become Russia’s carte-de-visite. Much has been done for the training of peacekeepers, law enforcement and military personnel. According to Mr. Lavrov, all of these will continue. Moscow’s aspiration to back up the high status of political relations judicially seems a new and positive development in this regard. For example, it was announced that work is being done on a draft Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Eswatini. It is likely that its provisions could well anticipate closer coordination on international issues, including at the UN, which is fundamentally important for Moscow in the midst of increased pressure (after the SMO’s commencement) that is being put on the African countries to support the resolutions proposed by the Western bloc.

Fifth, we must mention another traditional area of Russia’s cooperation with African nations, which is geological exploration as well as exchange of technology and experience in the extractive industry. During the tour, this emphasis was particularly apparent during Mr Lavrov’s visit to Angola, and it was this aspect that was stressed by Foreign Minister Tete António at the joint press conference, as he enlarged upon the prospects for economic cooperation.

All these points will obviously be reflected in the agenda of the forthcoming Summit and Economic Forum in St. Petersburg. Already now, we know that the economic program will be divided into four blocks: food and energy security, technology transfer and healthcare. Since 2019, Russia has built up competencies in many of these thematic areas, and the recent visits of Russian delegations to Africa will hopefully help developing the approach to forming a “package of proposals” in a much more nuanced way, taking into account the real needs and demands of the nations of Africa.

Negate and reclaim

The latest visit of Minister Lavrov to Africa certainly did not go without attention and response from the West. Even before his arrival in South Africa, the German Foreign Office had published a scandalous post on Twitter stating that Mr. Lavrov went to Africa “not to see (leopard emoji) but to bluntly claim that Ukraine’s partners ‘want to destroy everything Russian’.” Yet in place of Africa’s articulate alignment with the recent developments around German arms shipments to Ukraine, Germany received a barrage of criticism, including from African Union spokeswoman Ebba Colondo. She saw the tweet as a mockery of the continent and its people.

During the press scrum following the talks, journalists representing the Western media often asked blatantly provocative questions. For example, Minister Pandor was reminded that on the SMO’s commencement date she called on Russia to “immediately withdraw troops from Ukraine,” and was asked whether she repeated this call during the talks. The answer was: “To repeat that statement to Minister Lavrov today would make me appear quite simplistic and infantile, given the massive transfer of arms that has occurred, given the level of conflict that there is and all the developments that have occurred in almost a year a month from now. So no, I did not repeat that particular statement to Minister Lavrov because I don’t wish to appear as if I don’t know what has occurred in the world.” This was the first time South Africa’s position was presented in such a candid way.

One way or another, Africa’s contacts with the Western world, even against the background of the French contingent’s withdrawal from Burkina Faso (which apparently came as a surprise to Paris, where they probably thought that Ouagadougou would not dare taking this step), are not put on hold. On January 27, Pretoria hosted the 15th meeting of the EU–South Africa Political Dialogue at the ministerial level, where Minister Naledi Pandor welcomed Josep Borrell. In the first half of 2023, South Africa should host the eighth South Africa–EU Summit, whose agenda will include not only trade, investment and aid for sustainable development, but also issues related to politics and security. In mid-January, the French and German foreign ministers visited Ethiopia after a long break caused by the internal conflict. Shortly before Lavrov’s tour, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury Janet Yellen had visited Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, while U.S. representative to the U.N. Thomas-Greenfield went to Africa immediately after the beginning of Lavrov’s tour, specifically paying a visit to Ghana, Mozambique and Kenya. Secretary of State Blinken arrived in Egypt on January 29-30. Such activity indicates only one thing: the U.S. and its partners are doing their best to steal initiative from Russia, staking on those states which do not enjoy close ties with Moscow and are influential enough to “confuse the cards” on the eve of St. Petersburg Summit.

Already now, the African dimension of Russia’s foreign policy is becoming more prominent than before. Hopefully, this results not only from the preparations to the second summit of African leaders with President Putin, but also with a greater awareness of the prospects that a closer cooperation with a seemingly distant Africa could yield for everyone. And yet that summit meeting is near at hand.

From our partner RIAC

1. In March 2022, the Parliament of South Africa already considered a draft motion of confidence to the Cabinet (excluding the Presidency), at the behest of the liberal Democratic Alliance. The draft was then supported by 36% of MPs.

2. Even in the relatively prosperous Ghana, the year 2022 passed under the sign of record inflation (up to 40%), an anti-record for the past 20 years. At the same time, the national currency, the sedi, collapsed against the dollar by almost 52% – more than any other currency (including the Ukrainian hryvnia).

3. Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Lavrov’s answers to media questions following the talks in Mbabane: “The neocolonial mentality and logic based on the ‘divide and conquer’ principle are still evident in most of the foreign policy actions taken by our… Western colleagues. We are in favor of uniting the efforts of all nations … to jointly solve the problems of the global South, primarily African nations, instead of using these countries as a ‘fertile field’ for promoting their unilateral confrontational approaches.”

Nikita Panin
Nikita Panin
Program Assistant, Website Editor at the Russian International Affairs Council