Russia finds friends in Africa far away from others

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Russia finds friends in Africa far away from others

NAIROBI, Kenya — Since the days of Nelson Mandela, South African leaders have rejected American criticism of their friendship with autocrats such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, whose countries have been among the most desperate of anti-apartheid nations. He was supported during the moments. struggle.

Now South African another autocrat – Vladimir V. Defending his loyalty to Putin – and venting global outrage over his invasion of Ukraine.

At the United Nations on Wednesday, South Africa was among 24 African countries that refused to participate in a forceful vote condemning the Russian invasion: 16 African countries did not participate, seven did not vote at all and one – Eritrea – voted against it, keeping only the company with Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.

The striking tally reflected the ambiguous attitude across the continent, where with few exceptions, the Ukraine war has been greeted with conspicuous silence – a sharp contrast with Western nations that are expanding sanctions, confiscating the yachts of oligarchs. are pushing for war crimes investigations, and even openly threatened to collapse the Russian economy.

“Russia is our friend through and through,” South Africa’s minister of social development, Lindive Zulu, who studied in Moscow during the apartheid years, said in an interview. “We’re not going to condemn the relationship we’ve always had.”

Many African countries have links with Russia dating back to the Cold War: some political and military leaders studied there, and trade ties flourished. And in recent years a large number of countries have entered into contracts with Russian mercenaries and bought more and more Russian weapons.

Some African countries have condemned the Russian invasion as an attack on the international system, notably Kenya and Ghana. Some 25 African countries voted on Wednesday for a UN resolution condemning Mr Putin’s actions. But deep divisions in the continent’s response were evident from the start.

Sudan’s deputy leader flew over Moscow on the first day of the conflict, shaking hands with Russia’s foreign minister as warplanes bombed Ukrainian cities. Morocco, a longtime US ally, made a strange statement, upsetting US officials, who nevertheless remained silent.

in Ethiopia, Russian flags fly At a ceremony Wednesday to commemorate a famous 19th-century battle against Italian invaders, commemorating the participation of Russian volunteers on the side of Ethiopian fighters.

African sympathy for Ukraine was also weakened by reports of Ukrainian border guards forcing African students behind lines as they attempted to leave the country, sparking an uproar over racism and discrimination. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, which has 4,000 students in Ukraine, denied the reports.

Mr Putin partially bypassed the opprobrium in Africa by calling in the chits of the Cold War era, when Moscow backed African liberation movements and presented itself as a shield against Western neo-colonialism. On Sunday, Russia’s foreign ministry turned its attention to Ukraine, reminding South Africa in a tweet of its support for the fight against apartheid.

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But Mr Putin has also divided African opinion for his efforts to expand Russian influence across the continent through an unusual combination of diplomacy, guns and mercenaries.

In an effort to regain some of the influence Moscow lost with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mr Putin hosted a spectacular summit in 2019 in the southern Russian city of Sochi that was attended by 43 African heads of state. A second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for this fall.

But as Russia’s economy strained under Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it could not stand costly inducements offered by other powers in Africa, such as cheap China loans or Western development aid.

It has therefore offered arms sales and the services of Russian mercenaries, many of whom are employed by the Wagner Group, a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close aide of Mr. Putin, known as “Putin’s cook”. .

In recent years, Wagner mercenaries have fought in civil wars in Libya and Mozambique, and are currently guarding the president of the Central African Republic, where he helped repel a rebel attack on the capital last year .

In January, Wagner fighters appeared in Mali as part of a deal to deal with Islamist rebels that angered France, the former colonial power, which announced last month that it would pull its troops out of Mali. was pulling.

Military junta ruling Mali denied inviting Wagner to the country, but US military officials say more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries are already working there.

Russia’s influence also stemmed from arms sales. According to Russia’s Arms Export Agency and organizations that oversee arms transfers, Russia accounts for nearly half of all arms imports into Africa.

Last week one of Putin’s staunch defenders was a powerful figure in Uganda, a major customer of Russian weapons. Lieutenant General Muhuji Kenerugaba, son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said a tweet,

“Most of the human race (who are non-white) supports Russia’s position in Ukraine.”

He continued, “When the USSR planted nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the West was ready to blow the world on it. Now that NATO does the same they expect Russia to do it differently. Huh.”

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That context exposed a staggering contradiction in Mr. Putin’s new embrace of Africa, said Maxim Matusevich, a history professor at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University who studies Russia’s relations in Africa.

“During the Cold War, the Soviets were trying to sell socialism to African countries while criticizing Western colonialism and imperialism,” he said. Now, Russia is engaged in a new bid for influence in Africa, but fueled by right-wing nationalism.

A similar division has emerged in Asia, where authoritarian leaders or nations with weak ties to the West have accepted Mr Putin’s war or avoided criticism of Russian military aggression.

For Africans, the war can be heavy on the pocket. Last week the Automobile Association of South Africa predicted that rising fuel prices would hit record highs in the coming weeks. Food is also getting more expensive – Russia and Ukraine are major sources of wheat and fertilizer in Africa – at a time when many African countries are still battling the pandemic.

But the war could also be an economic reversal for Africa, although it may take years to realize it. As Europe moves away from Russian gas imports, it may turn to African countries exploiting recently discovered energy reserves.

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, who is seeking a $30 billion investment to tap a giant gas discovery in the Indian Ocean, said an invasion of Ukraine could provide an opportunity.

“Whether it is Africa or Europe or America, we are looking for markets,” she told The Africa Report, an online news outlet.

Elsewhere, however, Mr. Putin is still benefiting from his image as a thorn in the West. Many South Africans remember that the United States supported the apartheid regime until the 1980s. Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Pretoria, said South Africa also took a sour view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, aside from historical ties with Russia, South Africa is inclined to call for diplomacy rather than fighting because the approach is in line with the country’s stance on international conflicts for the past 30 years, she said.

Ms Maybete said: “That’s the lesson he took from his struggle in South Africa – that apartheid actually ended when both sides sat down at the table.” “When it came down to it, the conflict only ended through negotiation and compromise.”

Reporting was contributed by Abdi Latif Dahiriin Nairobi, Kenya, Ruth McLean in Dakar, Senegal, linsey chutelin Johannesburg, South Africa, and aida alami In Casablanca, Morocco.

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