Since the invasion of Ukraine, America and European countries have been at the forefront of attempts to isolate Russia in Africa. But Russia has also been pushing to deepen its ties on the continent.
The diplomatic lobbying was intense last year, with Russian diplomats flying out of Africa as Americans flew in.
“To me it’s not the US wanting to isolate Russia, it’s the Africans having to decide who their real friends are,” former US assistant secretary of state for African affairs Tibor Nagy tells The Africa Report in a phone interview from Washington.
The Russia-Africa summit on 27-28 July in St Petersburg was an opportunity for each side to take stock of its wins and losses.
A day before the summit, Russia said the West had “put pressure on the leadership” of African countries not to attend the summit. None of the US’s largest aid recipients on the continent snubbed the summit except Kenya, which didn’t send a delegation. Kenya was represented by the African Union.
Who gets American money and who attended?
The US gave aid worth $16bn to sub-Saharan countries in 2022, according to the US foreign assistance data. And $7.1bn, or 44% of that aid, went to seven countries in the Great Lakes region and the Horn of Africa.
At the top of the list is Ethiopia, which was embroiled in civil war between Tigray and President Abiy Ahmed’s federal government for most of 2022. It received $2.05bn, followed by South Sudan, which received $1.1bn, and Somalia which got $1.04bn.
Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania follow consecutively, receiving aid amounts between $960m and $600m.
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Ethiopia’s Abiy attended the Russia-Africa summit in person. South Sudan and Tanzania were represented by delegations led by vice presidents. Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo were represented by their deputy prime ministers.
Nagy says a substantial percentage of America’s aid goes to humanitarian and health responses. “Unfortunately, in the Horn of Africa, they have more humanitarian crises [than in other parts of Africa],” he says.
And he is cognisant that aid can’t win favour. “Here is the sad truth: there is no direct relationship between the type of assistance you give a country and whether they will be friendly. That is just the fact of life,” Nagy says.
Gratitude to Moscow
Despite being recipients of large amounts of aid from the Western world, some countries such as South Sudan and Ethiopia also owe Moscow gratitude for helping them evade sanctions and Western world condemnation.
“Abiy owes Putin for helping Ethiopia avoid more pressure and attention at the UN. It was expected he would go [to the summit] despite his more recent efforts to curry favour with donors,” a researcher at a US government-funded organisation based in Washington tells The Africa Report.
The US government last month lifted its condemnation of the Addis Ababa regime for engaging in ‘patterns of gross violations of human rights‘, which started during the war in Tigray.
The assessment was not welcomed by human-rights observers. The clearance opens doors for the US to normalise relations with Ethiopia severed during the Tigray war. Ethiopia will have its membership of the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) – a preferential trade pact for African countries to sell products in the US market – reactivated.
And the favours don’t stop there.
In 2018, the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on South Sudan in a bid to bring to an end years of civil war between factions of President Salva Kiir and his first vice president, Riek Machar.
The UN has, however, complained of a breach of its arms embargo, for which the country has Russia to thank, Allawi Ssemanda, an international relations analyst, tells The Africa Report.
“South Sudan has been under sanctions; [UN member states were] banned from selling arms [to South Sudan], but Russia would find a way of doing business with the country,” he says.
Kiev matters more for the leadership in Africa than it did before.
Ssemanda adds that many African countries have come to learn that their real friends aren’t those providing them with large amounts of aid with strings attached, but those who stand with them when the West starts biting back.
“The African countries see Russia as that friend, not the US, or the West,” he says.
Ukraine could gain more ground
At the start of the invasion of Ukraine, many commentators in Africa and some African governments were hesitant to engage with Ukraine at all, says Ivan Kłyszcz, a Russian foreign policy research fellow at the International Centre for Defence and Security based in Estonia.
“Now, one and a half years later, the African peace delegation was not only in Moscow but also in Kiev. We can see the recognition that Kiev matters more for the leadership in Africa than it did before,” he tells The Africa Report.
With many African leaders gravitating towards Russia, or refusing to condemn it outright because of its easily accessible weapons industry, Kłyszcz says the West should find the means to provide an alternative market to countries willing to abandon Russia.
“The West could think of other active engagements. We have seen [this] in India, especially [with] the French, who have been very active in courting the Indian government and [its] weapon manufacturers to push out Russia’s participation in the Indian market. When it comes to Africa, I haven’t seen such a push,” he says.
Nagy says Russia also beats American companies when it comes to quick delivery of weapons, because the US has more checks and balances on who it sells weapons to.
Does the US need to change to compete with Russia for Africa’s weaponry market?
“I wish they could,” Nagy says.
“But there are many laws that the US has to go through before you deliver weapons. For example, you must make sure the unit you’re giving weapons to has not committed human rights violations.”
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