The short-lived rebellion in Russia last weekend has raised uncertainty about the future of Moscow’s military influence in Africa, where the mercenary Wagner Group has been the forward arm of President Vladimir Putin’s strategic interests. For African leaders, however, the failed mutiny prompts a different question: Does the continent’s future rely more on guns or on the civic values of democracy?, ask the Christian Science Monitor’s Editorial Board.
The answer was unequivocal for more than 50 leaders from Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, who had gathered last week in Poland. Being merely pro-liberty is not enough, the group declared in a statement. “Defending democracy requires common purpose – of solidarity – among democrats inside and outside all countries.”
That consensus takes aim at a core tenet of Africa’s diplomacy – that the continent must resist choosing sides between great powers, such as the West and its global rivals. That explains how Kenya could announce its intentions for a trade deal with Russia in late May and then, three weeks later, sign another deal with the European Union. It explains why nearly half of all African governments refuse to condemn Russia for invading Ukraine.
By staying neutral, African leaders argue, they can promote equality between richer and poorer nations and help broker peace in foreign conflicts. Yet pursuing ties simultaneously with countries that uphold democratic values and with those that undermine them has instead resulted in costly entanglements, intense foreign competition over strategic natural resources, conflict, and financial dependency.
Wagner’s spread across a handful of faltering countries, mostly concentrated in the Sahel region, has undermined efforts by France and the United States to strengthen professional African militaries under civilian command. “Its effect,” the United States Institute of Peace noted recently, “is to strengthen rule by force rather than by democracy and law [and] to promote corruption over transparency.”
Mr. Putin has said that Wagner’s roughly 5,000 personnel will stay in Africa. Moscow’s interests in Africa, ranging from resource extraction to a military base on the Red Sea coast of Sudan, have not changed.
But Africa’s determination to remain nonaligned now faces a pivotal test. South Africa is due in August to host the leaders of the so-called BRICS countries – including Brazil, Russia, India, and China. In March, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Mr. Putin. That puts South Africa, as a signatory to the ICC, under an obligation to arrest the Russian president if he attends the summit.
“I’m quite sure, we can’t say to President Putin, please come to South Africa, and then arrest him,” former South African President Thabo Mbeki told the South African Broadcasting Corp. in May. “At the same time, we can’t say come to South Africa, and not arrest him – because we’re defying our own law. … We can’t behave as a lawless government.”
On the point of opposing a war of aggression, neutrality does not apply.