Putin’s Attempts to Penetrate Africa
During the cold war, the Soviet Union had great interest in Africa, where it sought to build its own influence against Western countries which had already established their presence through colonization. Its strategy involved penetrating trade union movements, supporting liberation struggles, and providing aid to newly independent African states.
Its policy towards African trade organisations, which were still in their early stages, was two fold. The first was to indoctrinate budding Africans by sponsoring their studies in trade union colleges in communist countries with the aim of making them influential trade unionists on their return. Secondly, to win over African leading trade unionists by enticing them with gifts and cash, and also sponsoring their holidays and tours to socialist countries.
Most African political parties had been banned while others had restrictions imposed on them by colonial governments. This effectively made trade union organisations the only channels through which Africans could pursue their political goals. So whoever controlled trade union movements controlled the African masses.
It was also hoped that the enticement of leading trade unionists would eventually influence the transfer of African trade union organisations from the Western backed International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) to the Soviet backed World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). In Kenya, for instance, the Soviet-sponsored Oginga Odinga to initiate a split in Tom Mboya’s Kenya Federation of Labour which was allied to the ICFTU. The result was the formation of Trade Union Congress of Kenya (TUCK) which immediately allied itself to the communist WFTU. However, because of the strong British influence in Kenya, the TUCK couldn’t survive long enough.
A similar strategy was adopted by the Soviet in its support for Africa’s struggle against colonialism. This involved sponsoring leading nationalists and sending upcoming politicians to colleges in socialist countries. Working through the Soviet Afro-Asian Solidarity Committee (SAASC) which served as its unofficial foreign policy organ, support was mobilised for African and Asian nationalist movements under the cover of defeating racism and colonization.
Across the continent nationalists were recruited as agents and groomed as future leaders in the hope that they would protect and cater for Soviet interests in their respective countries after independence.
These preferred leaders acted as point men, coordinated Soviet aid in their respective countries, and furthered communism. They selected young Africans who were sent to institutions in the Soviet where they learned many skills including military tactics. It was expected that on their return they would help in furthering Soviet goals.
In independent African countries which were perceived as being led by Western backed leaders, the Soviet took steps to sponsor pro-East rivals to take over the government. This included funding their political campaigns and giving them huge sums of money to buy off support in parliament. And in some cases, to start revolutions to depose the existing governments. African countries which had won independence but were still under White minority rule, such as South Africa, were also given military aid.
After the cold war, however, Russia just like western countries lost its interest in Africa and limited its aid to the continent. But this changed in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. This followed the deposition of the pro-Moscow Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, who later on sought refuge in Russia. Western countries and the European Union termed Russia’s move illegal and came up with a series of sanctions to put pressure on President Vladimir Putin’s administration and its oligarch.
A range of diplomatic measures which included the exclusion of Russia from the G8 which subsequently became the G7, were introduced. The G8 summit which was supposed to be held in the Russian city of Sochi, was cancelled and instead a meeting of G7 was held in Brussels on 4-5 June 2014. The ongoing talks of Russia joining the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) were suspended. The same applied to all bilateral talks between Russia and EU.
Another set of sanctions were called “restrictive measures” targeting individuals and entities who were perceived as having played a great part in the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. These included visa bans and asset freezes. The EU’s third set of sanctions were called, “Restrictions for Crimea and Sevastopol”. Since the Union did not recognise the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, it imposed substantial restrictions on economic exchanges with the territory.
The US and Canadian sanctions were more open ended and could be placed in three categories. The first restricted Russia’s access to Western financial markets and services for designated Russian state-owned enterprises in the banking energy and defence sectors. The second placed an embargo on exports to Russia of designated high-technology oil exploration and production equipment. The third was an embargo on exports to Russia of designated military and dual use goods. The effects of these sanctions coupled with the fall of oil prices, rapidly depreciated the value of Russia’s currency, the Rouble. After making numerous efforts the Central Bank of Russia stopped defending the value of the Rouble and instead hiked interest rates .
With the sanction putting intense pressure on the economy, Vladimir Putin decided to turn to Africa to find new markets and partners. The efforts to penetrate Africa are currently being led by Yevgeny Progozhin, one of his close allies who has been linked with military contracts in Syria and Ukraine. Just like during the cold war, Russia hopes to increase its influence in Africa by providing military aid, grooming new leaders and signing business deals. Apart from selling arms, it hopes to make economic gain by exploiting Africa’s mineral resources such as gold and diamond.
In Central African Republic (CAR), which has been plagued by a serious civil war, Russia runs a peace keeping mission which is being carried out by a small team of its military personnel and mercenaries from Wagner Group, a private military company linked to senior officials in the Kremlin and whose main financer is Yevgeny Proghozin. Although the goal of the peace keeping mission according to Russia is to bring about stability, it is secretly being used to create a conducive environment for the exploitation of the country’s minerals.
Central Africa is rich in diamonds, gold, and uranium which are yet to be explored, and Russia, using its new influence, has already secured mining concessions which were initially given to China. It has also established its presence in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, another mineral rich country with huge deposits of gold and diamond. Recently, it sent a team of military specialists to the country to offer maintenance and repair services to military equipment.
To ease the shipment of raw materials from Africa to Russia and goods from Russia to Africa, Moscow recently entered an agreement with Eritrea to establish a logistics base in the country. Eritrea is strategically located along the Red Sea and would definitely give Russia good access to the world’s major maritime routes. The Chinese and the Americans already have their bases in the neighbouring Djibouti. The only concern amongst security experts is that Russia’s interest in Africa could lead to gross human rights violations and security challenges, as it sells weapons to despotic governments and deploys mercenaries in regions under conflict.