Africa is the new battlefront where Russia and the US are vying for prominence.
- The battle is not new. During the Cold War, Russia and the US sought to expand their influence by supporting various African governments.
- The outcome will determine not only the fortunes of the competing powers but also the trajectory of African nations.
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In the vast expanse of Africa, a new chapter in geopolitical influence is being written, with Russia and the US vying for prominence. As the continent rises in global importance due to its resources, burgeoning markets, and strategic significance, the world powers are engaging in a multifaceted competition for the hearts, minds, and resources of African nations.
Historical echoes of Russia and US maneuvers
The geopolitical dance between Russia and the US in Africa is not entirely novel. During the Cold War, both powers sought to expand their influence by supporting various African governments, often in proxy conflicts. Decades later, the narrative has evolved, but the underlying struggle for supremacy remains evident.
Russia’s resurgence under President Vladimir Putin has brought renewed attention to its interests in Africa. The Russian approach combines diplomacy, military cooperation, aid, and economic engagement. Moscow’s strategy capitalizes on historical ties established during the Soviet era and leverages shared challenges such as counterterrorism and arms sales.
For instance, the Central African Republic (CAR) witnessed a marked Russian presence, offering military training, equipment, and assistance to the government. This partnership is framed as aiding local stability, but it also establishes Russia as a valuable ally in the region. Economic interests are also evident through mining and energy deals.
Wagner Group in Central African Republic
Concerns about safety arose as a result of the Wagner troops’ recent withdrawal from various towns around CAR. Their departure earlier in July caused concern from an unnamed source in the capital Bangui, who told DW that “their presence (in CAR) is a deterrent (to rebels).”
According to CAR government spokesperson, Albert Yaloke Mokpem, this initial departure was primarily of a rotating nature. “It goes like this every year. There are some who come and those who go,” he told DW, adding that it was unclear how many Wagner fighters were overall still in the nation.
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The work is over, Mokpem emphasized, primarily alluding to security measures put in place prior to the country’s July 30 referendum. Referendum results show President Faustin Archange Touadéra has received the green light to seek a third term. The draft of a new constitution was approved by over 95 percent in the referendum.
Currently, Russia-backed Wagner mercenaries are accused of military and commercial links in crisis-saddled Sudan. Wagner, however, denies these accusations that place Russia deep at the heart of the crisis in Africa.
Russia’s gold mining deals in Sudan
Russia’s interests in Sudan have been in existence for long. In 2017, jailed strongman Omar al-Bashir entered into agreements with the Russian government while on a visit to Moscow. According to the BBC, these included a provision wherein Russia would establish a naval facility in Port Sudan, off the Red Sea. Additionally, there were agreements for the allocation of rights involving gold mining, a collaboration between the Russian firm, M Invest, and the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals.
The US Treasury Department asserts that M Invest, along with an affiliated entity, Meroe Gold, serves as a façade for the operations conducted by the Wagner Group in Sudan, a top gold producer in Africa.
In 2020, then US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asserted, “Yevgeniy Prigozhin (head of Wagner Group) and his network are capitalizing on Sudan’s natural resources for personal profit, concurrently propagating adverse influence on a global scale.”
Oil-rich Libya, Mozambique, and Mali are other African countries where Wagner Group has presence.
Russia’s influence across Africa appeared to hit the tipping point in July as leaders of BRICs prepared to meet in Johannesburg, South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea on whether to host Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Putin is under a warrant of arrest issued in March by the ICC for alleged war crimes in Ukraine.
Putin no show at BRICS’ August Summit
By choosing not to attend the BRICs summit fearing for his arrest, the decision appears to be a major blow to Kremlin. Russia’s state media RIA Novosti said Putin will connect to the August 22-24 summit via video link. The leaders of the other BRICS economic bloc nations: Brazil, India, and China will attend in person.
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On the other hand, the US, although historically engaged with Africa, has faced challenges maintaining its focus amidst other global priorities. The competition with China, the world’s second-largest economy, for African resources and influence has drawn attention away from the continent’s Western engagement. However, recent efforts to bolster diplomatic ties, trade, and investment signal the US’ determination to reassert its presence.
While visiting Zambia in March, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced $7 billion in private-sector investments to boost food production across Africa. During a weeklong trip to Africa, Harris also visited Ghana and Tanzania. In Dar es Salaam, Harris unveiled US plans to provide $560 million in bilateral assistance for Tanzania in 2024.
Still in March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken toured Ethiopia, where the US offering $331 million in aid. As fate would have it, Blinken also visited now ousted Niger President Mohamed Bazoum. “Niger is a young democracy in a challenging part of the world,” Blinken said in Niamey.
US First Lady Jill Biden visit to Kenya
Earlier in February, First Lady Jill Biden visited Kenya and Namibia in a five-day tour. “This is a young democracy, and we want to support democracies around the world,” Jill Biden said in Namibia. While in Kenya, she met with women entrepreneurs who are running their own lending platform as they cannot get credit from mainstream lenders.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations is another high-profile Biden official who has met leaders in Africa. In January, she made a trip to Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, and Somalia.
The US often slaps sanctions on nations citing “democratic ideals”. Uganda is now under the wrath of the US after introducing anti-LGBQ law. Senior officials of President Yoweri Museveni are now under a vice-like grip of US travel restrictions.
China’s growing role: A twist in the tale
While the US and Russia jostle for influence, a third contender, China, is firmly in the race. The Asian giant’s deep pockets and infrastructure investments have rapidly expanded its footprint in Africa, creating a complex geopolitical web. As China’s involvement continues to grow, it adds an additional layer of competition and cooperation.
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In this intricate power struggle, African nations find themselves at the center of attention. While the increased engagement offers opportunities for economic growth and development, it also raises concerns about sovereignty and dependence. African leaders are compelled to carefully navigate this new landscape, ensuring that they secure favorable terms from their international partners while avoiding becoming pawns in larger global games.
Implications for the future
The battle for Africa’s heart between Russia and the US is a microcosm of the evolving geopolitical dynamics in a multipolar world. The outcome will determine not only the fortunes of the competing powers but also the trajectory of African nations. As Africa’s significance in global affairs grows, the continent’s leaders must engage with a sense of agency, shrewdly balancing the interests of competing powers while safeguarding their sovereignty and progress.
In this intricate chess game, the chessboard is vast and the stakes are high. How Africa’s narrative unfolds will depend not only on the intentions of external powers but also on the choices made by African nations themselves. One thing is certain: East is meeting West on the African continent, and the outcome will shape the contours of the geopolitical landscape for years to come.