War in Ukraine: Dakar at the centre of a struggle for influence between the US and Russia

By Mawunyo Hermann Boko
Posted on Wednesday, 11 May 2022 18:52

Roustam Minnikhanov and Macky Sall in Dakar, 31 March 2022. © Presidency of Senegal

A Tatar in Dakar! It was the night of March 30 to 31. At the Blaise-Diagne International Airport, Moïse Sarr, the secretary of state in charge of Senegalese abroad, was waiting, as required by the rules of diplomatic decorum, for a very special guest: Roustam Minnikhanov.

This ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was not strictly speaking a VIP. If that was the case, he would have been welcomed by Aissata Tall Sall, the foreign affairs minister. However, his status did require some attention, as he is the president of Tatarstan.

This Russian republic, which is located in the centre of the former Soviet power and 800km from Moscow, means little to the average Senegalese person. However, this was not the first time that Minnikhanov had visited Dakar.

He had set foot in the capital in 2004, when he was the prime minister of this oil-rich state that became part of the Russian Federation in the 1990s.

This time, within the context of the war between Moscow and Kiev, and while Senegal holds the presidency of the African Union (AU), the visit did not go unnoticed. Why did Minnikhanov come to the gates of the Sahel? Was he sent by Putin, with whom Senegal’s President Macky Sall had talked three weeks ago?

Officially, the Tatar leader came to strengthen the economic ties between Tatarstan and Senegal. He was accompanied by several Russian businessmen, including heads of companies specialising in manufacturing, agriculture and petrochemicals.

A forum was organised for the occasion. But, in front of Sall, who received him, Minnikhanov – who also went to Touba, the Mouride brotherhood’s holy city – began by invoking the religious similarities between the two states. Like Senegal, Tatarstan has a Muslim majority.

Stronger support

This detail is certainly important, given the real reason behind this visit. “Russia is isolated by the various European and US economic sanctions and is looking for support in Africa. He mentions Islam in Dakar on purpose,” said Marc Lavergne, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique and a specialist in Africa and the Middle East. “Roustam Minnikhanov knows that this religious angle will resonate beyond Senegal, even in the Muslim world.”

As a matter of fact, the Tatar shared Russia’s reasons for invading Ukraine with the Senegalese head of state. The Kremlin is keen to present as “a special military operation”. Putin wants African countries to demonstrate more assertive support for this war, both militarily and diplomatically, which sees North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member countries – the US in the lead – opposing Russia.

Did Minnikhanov succeed? On 7 April, a week after his visit to Dakar, Senegal abstained from voting on the United Nations (UN) General Assembly’s motion to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Twenty‐four other African countries did the same. A month earlier, however, the country had approved a Human Rights Council resolution to establish a commission responsible for investigating the violations committed during the Russian invasion.

The Senegalese foreign affairs ministry, however, denies having yielded to “any pressure”, Russian or American. On the day of Minnikhanov’s arrival, US emissaries left Dakar, where they had tried to obtain the continent’s support.

“We are looking for a strong African response to Russian aggression, and we welcome the opportunity to partner with Senegal and other African countries in that response, but also around ways to address the global implications,” Jessica Lapenn – the AU’s US ambassador, who accompanied Akunna Cook, assistant secretary of state for African affairs – told the press at the time.

Diplomatic activism

Since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, Senegal, as the voice of Africa, has been subjected to intense diplomatic pressure from Washington and Moscow. The two economic powers want to get the support of some 20 African countries that do not want to take sides in a conflict that does not concern them.

On 2 March, during the first UN vote condemning the Russian invasion, many Western governments were surprised that Senegal and South Africa had abstained. Dakar then invoked the principle of non-alignment to justify the neutral stance it had adopted since beginning its term as head of the AU.

“When you look at Senegalese diplomacy, you see that it is very concerned about the positions of other African countries. It defines itself according to them and not according to the Europeans or Americans,” says Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the Institut Français des Relations Internationales.

The US has made it clear that it does not see it this way. At the beginning of April, in an interview with us, Victoria Nuland, US under secretary of state for political affairs, called on African countries “to stand up” to Russia in the name of an international system built on democratic principles and from which Africa “has benefited through peacekeeping missions”. These missions are financed in large part by Washington, the largest contributor to the UN budget.

The US diplomat went even further by raising the threat of food insecurity. “What I want to say to Africans is that even though this conflict is far away, it already has a global impact,” said Nuland. “That is why we are very grateful to the African countries that have said no to this aggression. The continent has already started to feel the effects of this conflict.”

Like many African capitals, Dakar is suffering the consequences, including higher prices for basic necessities. Senegal has also had to deal with petrol and jet fuel shortages in recent weeks, which jeopardise its air traffic.

On a trip to the Senegalese capital on 1 May, after visiting Moscow and Kiev, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on developed countries to ensure “a steady flow of food and energy in open markets, by lifting all unnecessary export restrictions”. The US responded by pledging more than $11bn over five years to mitigate the effects of the war in Ukraine, particularly in Africa.

Wheat diplomacy

What can Russia offer? In the Central African Republic and Mali, although Moscow has managed to advance its position by riding on anti-French sentiment and then relying on Wagner’s opaque mercenary networks, the former Soviet power has little room for manoeuvre to sway African votes in its favour.

“It is true that at the UN, Russia has obtained the support of Bangui and Bamako. But it cannot obtain more from other countries, as they could risk being cut off from European or US development funds,” says Lavergne. Moscow did not manage to secure the support of Angola or South Africa, with which it has historical ties, during the vote marking its exclusion from the Human Rights Council. Or even Sudan, to which it donated 20,000tn of wheat on 7 March.

Even though the grain diplomacy bears little fruit, Moscow can always play the military card. Cameroon, which is in the grip of a civil war in its English-speaking regions, signed a new defence agreement with Russia on 12 April, which includes information exchange, troop training, experience sharing and joint activities to combat terrorism and maritime piracy.

“At this level, Putin’s challenge is to show that he is not isolated on the international scene. Russia has proposed military agreements to many countries. But, within this context of war, I don’t see how it could put them into practice,” says Vircoulon.

When he took over the AU’s chairmanship in January, Sall thought he would be working on Africa’s post-Covid economic recovery. He now seems to be caught in a headlock, as he is being pressured on all sides by the world’s biggest powers.

On 11 April, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that he would like to address the AU General Assembly. Nine days later, Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov called Moussa Faki Mahamat, the AU Commission’s chairperson. To dissuade him? Forced to choose between its partners, Africa finds itself trapped on the edge of a war that is taking place several thousand kilometres away.

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