Russia in Africa
Author: Samuel Ramani
Publisher: Hurst, UK
I am reading the book Russia in Africa at a hotel in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. It’s been a few weeks since the uprising in neighbouring Sudan broke out, and the hotel is full of Turkish and French military personnel. I can never find out what all the Russians at the hotel are doing here. The hotel is right next to the airport, and all day long, we hear fighter jets taking off. From the swimming pool, we see military transport planes circling above us.
One morning, the lobby was full of African aid workers evacuated from Darfur during the night. Mercenaries from the Wagner group are fighting alongside the leader of one faction in Sudan. In the Central African Republic, Wagner supports a new Chadian rebel militia. Rarely have I felt that the subject of a scholarly book has been more relevant.
Russia’s Arms Sales to Africa
Political scientist Samuel Ramani defended his dissertation on Russian foreign policy in the Middle East at Oxford University two years ago. Now, he has already managed to write a 400-page book on Russia’s engagement in Africa from 1991 to 2022. Admittedly, the last 100 pages are devoted to 1300 footnotes. They almost exclusively reference American, European, and Russian news reports and policy documents over the previous 30 years. And it’s symptomatic – the book is more a news update than an analysis of Russia’s engagement in Africa.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s Africa policy was in low gear for a few years. One example Ramani uses to show this is that arms sales from Russia to Africa fell by 700 percent from 1991 to 1995. Towards the end of the 1990s, Russia became more active – and upheld the principle of non-intervention in increasingly more cases. Russia increased arms sales to Africa and was the continent’s second-largest supplier of military equipment by the year 2000. In many cases, like in the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia (1998–2000), Russia supplied weapons to both sides in a conflict.
During Putin’s first two presidential terms (2000–2008), Africa became even more important. Russia forgave debts to several African countries while signing several military-technical agreements, including training and arms sales. During the Darfur war (2003–10), Russia supplied over 80 percent of the weapons to al-Bashir’s regime in Sudan. At the same time, they used their veto power in the UN Security Council to block proposed sanctions against the regime in Sudan.
After the Arab Spring, towards the end of Medvedev’s presidential term (2008–2012), Russia’s skepticism toward Western Europe and the USA increased. Russia abstained from voting when the Security Council dealt with resolution number 1973 on using «all necessary means» to protect the civilian population in Libya. #NATO continued bombing in Libya after the African Union and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime wished for negotiations. At the same time, the USA accused Sudan’s president of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. Russia believed NATO was doing the same in Libya.
NATO continued bombing in Libya after the African Union and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime wished for negotiations.
17 African countries abstained on condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Mercenaries from the Wagner Company
While the West was busy understanding China’s expansion in Africa, Russia expanded with little attention. Russia was very committed to non-interference and let authoritarian regimes conduct their own politics without setting any political demands for trade or aid. Ramani says that during this period, Russia supported a number of African autocracies, often with the help of the very regime-friendly private military company Wagner. In 2017, Prigozhin, who owns Wagner, established two companies for mining gold and diamonds in the Central African Republic – while mercenaries from Wagner were stationed in the country. About a thousand mercenaries from Wagner were also engaged against the Libyan regime on the side of the rebel Khalifa Haftar. In Sudan, Wagner supports Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces, while in Mali, they support the newly established military regime of General Goïta. The Russian support was one of the reasons France pulled out of Mali during 2021-22. Ramani claims that the Kremlin’s misinformation is the strongest supporter of the regime of the military junta in Mali. He refers to several media statements criticizing France for neocolonialism in the Sahel and where the coup maker Goïta is presented as a skilled and sorely needed national leader.
The book is so up-to-date that it includes sections on how African countries reacted to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the UN General Assembly (March 2, 2022), Eritrea, as the only African country, voted against condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But 17 African countries voted abstaining. This shows an ambivalent attitude toward Russia in Africa compared to Europe, where all, except Belarus, condemned the invasion. Many African countries were concerned with maintaining neutrality in the conflict; they wished for negotiations rather than condemnation or saw Ukraine as part of Russia.
Although the book is about the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, I miss reflections on the relevance of the Cold War in Africa for Russia’s Africa policy today. I also miss more thorough analyses and source criticism of the facts presented. For those in a hurry, reading the first two and the last two pages of each chapter suffices – that’s where the author conducts analytical summaries. The chapters are otherwise full of names of Russian politicians traveling on official visits and meeting African presidents and ministers. They sign numerous military and commercial cooperation agreements. They trade weapons and surveillance technology for gold, diamonds, bauxite, and uranium.
Ramani has written an updated, well-sourced, and easy-to-read reference book on Russia’s engagement in Africa over the last thirty years. Those looking for an analytical academic book on Russia in Africa will still have to wait.