How Russia overwhelmed Ukraine in Africa

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A supporter of Mali’s interim president wears a face mask of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin during a pro-Junta and pro-Russia rally in Bamako on May 13, 2022

Addresses to summits and national parliaments around the world by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have become a staple of the diplomatic calendar in recent months.

But when he addressed the African Union (AU) on Monday, only four heads of state on the continent listened to him, the others being represented by subordinates or officials.

The disappointing turnout was symptomatic of the uneven struggle Kyiv faces to get its message across on a continent of 54 countries where it has just 10 embassies – only a quarter of the Russian presence.

Thus, in trying to change African perspectives on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of invasion, Mr. Zelensky cannot deploy political or security clout comparable to that of Moscow.

Ukraine is not a world military power and it is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, unlike Russia.

As a result, many African leaders concluded that they simply could not afford to emulate a direct Western confrontation with Moscow.

This is especially the case now that the blockage of grain export shipments from Ukraine is contributing to an already severe food crisis, driving up the price of imports and jeopardizing the flow of wheat, other grains and of cooking oil to African countries that are not self-sufficient. sufficient.

Earlier this month, Senegalese President Macky Sall, the current AU chief, visited Sochi, a Russian Black Sea resort, to discuss with Mr Putin how to remove obstacles that are holding back the food exports that Russia and Ukraine desperately need.

And last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called Mr Putin to discuss deliveries of Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to Africa.

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The talks produced some modest progress but not a breakthrough.

A statue of soldiers

A monument to the Russian army has been erected in the capital of the Central African Republic

Meanwhile, there are hints that the invasion of Ukraine could put a strain on Russia’s military commitment to Africa, with unconfirmed rumors that some troops from the Wagner mercenary group are being withdrawn from the Central African Republic. (RCA).

This would hardly come as a surprise, given the demands of the intense military campaign in the crucial Donbass region.

However, there are no signs of a reduction in Wagner’s presence in Mali – where his men have frequently been seen in operations alongside national forces.

New dramatic international context

Moreover, official Russian security and military arrangements in Africa are being strengthened, despite the needs of the war in Ukraine.

Cameroon has become the latest target of this charm offensive.

Cameroonian Defense Minister Joseph Beti Assomo was in Moscow last month to sign a five-year military cooperation agreement with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.

This encompasses intelligence, training and the sharing of expertise in the fight against terrorism and maritime piracy. Joint exercises are planned.

The document makes no mention of arms deliveries but hints suggestively that other forms of collaboration could still be agreed.

In fact, a 2015 agreement had already provided for Russian deliveries of artillery and logistical and air support – useful for the campaign against jihadists in the Far North region of Cameroon.

However, if this new agreement with Moscow is less precise, it seems to cause concern in Western capitals.

Within weeks, the Africa director of the French foreign ministry, Christophe Bigot, had flown to Yaoundé, apparently to reassure Cameroonian Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute that Paris also remains committed to economic, cultural and counterterrorism cooperation. .

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This photo taken on June 16, 2017 in Bamenda shows a hotel destroyed by fire, allegedly attributed to a radical separatist movement demanding independence for the English-speaking region from the rest of French-speaking Cameroon.

Cameroon is grappling with an insurgency by English-speaking separatists and Islamist militants

The agreement with Cameroon was signed in a dramatic new international context – the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Western leaders now view Russia as a major security threat, challenging the very foundations of democracy and the rules-based international system.

However, some African governments are reluctant to accept this negative perception of Putin’s regime. And that doesn’t just apply to those like Mali and the CAR.

Anti-Western sentiments are at their height

There are also long-time African partners of the West who have refrained from openly criticizing Mr. Putin’s actions.

Senegal, for example, chose not to support the United Nations General Assembly’s March 2 motion calling on Russia to stop using force against Ukraine.

Cameroon took a similarly equivocal position, its UN ambassador wisely returning home in early March to miss the crucial vote.

And then, on April 7, the country also abstained when the General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

National public opinion plays a role in these positions.

Alignment with France, the United States and the United Kingdom is not always the most popular position on the continent and the Cameroonian government, like a number of its peers, seems to have concluded that it must hold account of these popular sentiments.

The flags of Russia and the Central African Republic are raised by protesters gathered in Bangui on March 5, 2022 during a rally in support of Russia

Many people in the Central African Republic welcome the Russian military commitment in their country

However, Cameroon is going much further, taking the proactive decision to sign the new military cooperation agreement with Russia even as Russian forces continued to bombard Ukrainian cities.

This particular position is probably explained by the internal situation in Cameroon.

Francophone President Paul Biya faces security challenges on two fronts: as his regime battles Nigeria-based Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (Iswap) province in the Far North, it is also engaged in a long struggle to suppress the separatist rebellion in the two English-speaking regions of the country, the South West and the North West.

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Besides Russia, Cameroon also has military cooperation agreements with France, China, Brazil and Turkey – and it also had an agreement with the United States.

Wagner accused of torture and murder

Yet Western partners such as Washington and Paris are concerned about human rights and governance issues and their aid comes with strings attached.

Indeed, concerns over the situation in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have recently led the United States to suspend military support.

As the Americans hold back, some Cameroonian analysts fear the government has now decided to seek alternative support from a partner less scrupulous about hardline military tactics, at the cost of human rights accountability.

Moscow’s track record elsewhere in Africa suggests it is comfortable supporting a hardline approach.

A group of women make fans during a workshop given by members of the NGO Plan International, during a visit by Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to Maroua on 28 April 2022

Violence in Cameroon has forced tens of thousands to live in camps

In the CAR, Wagner has been training the army since 2018 and his men helped government forces repel a rebel assault on the capital Bangui in early 2021.

But UN experts accused Wagner of committing serious human rights violations against civilians; its fighters reportedly recently killed villagers near Bria, the center of the diamond mining industry.

Wagner also operates in central Mali, alongside the national army, where, according to Human Rights Watch and locals, these two allied forces have tortured and killed villagers.

Malian government forces and Russian mercenaries reportedly killed more than 300 people in Moura, central Mali, in March.

It’s hard to see the Cameroonian government going so far as to hire the controversial mercenary contractor. It seems far more likely to stick to the conventional government-to-government ties envisioned in last month’s Moscow deal.

But the new partnership with Russia could certainly signal renewed military assertiveness as the regime attempts to quell residual separatist rebel activity in the English-speaking regions and militant Islamist presence in the Far North region.

Map depicting the links between Africa and Russia

Map depicting the links between Africa and Russia

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