Editor’s Note: Joyce M. Davis, outreach and opinion editor for PennLive and The Patriot-News, is the president and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She is a veteran journalist and author who has lived and worked around the globe, working for National Public Radio, Knight Ridder Newspapers in Washington, DC, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Russia seems to be outmaneuvering the United States in Africa. In recent days, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underscored that stark reality as he wined and dined his way through a tour of four African capitals.
As much as President Joe Biden would like African countries to join the Western alliance in isolating Russia over its brutality in Ukraine, Russia is making a show of bolstering ties with some powerful players on the continent.
Instead of being treated like a global pariah as the US wants, leaders in South Africa, Eritrea, Angola and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) treated Lavrov like a cherished friend during his visit.
In South Africa, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor greeted Lavrov with open arms. She didn’t use the meeting in Pretoria last Monday to repeat calls for Russia to stop killing Ukrainians. And she brushed off criticism, saying it would be “simplistic and infantile” to do so.
To make matters worse, Pandor also announced South Africa will soon conduct joint naval drills with Russia and China, calling it “exercises with friends.” The US and Europe were not amused.
But South Africa has historically strong ties with Russia, dating back to the days of apartheid when the Soviet Union stood with the then-banned ANC when it most needed support. It’s likely Lavrov reminded South Africans of that history during his visit.
Turning a blind eye
Now the West is having to face the fact that a good swath of Africa appears to consider Russian President Vladimir Putin a friend – or at the very least, strategically important enough to keep on side.
South Africa was one of 17 African nations which abstained against condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at the United Nations in March. Eight others didn’t submit a vote.
It was a significant – though just shy of a majority – portion of the continent. In total, 28 African nations – including Nigeria and Egypt – voted to condemn Russia.
Eritrea was one of only four countries globally – the others being Belarus, North Korea and Syria – to openly side with Russia, which has a history of military co-operation with these decidedly undemocratic, authoritarian regimes.
It’s easy to understand why. Putin sends weapons to prop up authoritarian regimes. He sends mercenaries to fight Islamic insurgents; and he doesn’t care a whit about democracy, corruption or human rights.
Putin doesn’t care that Amnesty International says Eswatini’s government has launched a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists in the country.
He doesn’t care that Eritrea’s president Isaias Afewerki has been unelected since 1993 and that Human Rights Watch says the country has no legislature, no independent civil society organizations, and no independent judiciary.
Putin doesn’t care that the Human Rights Watch World Report 2022 says Eritrean forces have carried out large-scale massacres, summary executions, and widespread sexual violence, including gang rape and sexual slavery.
He doesn’t even care that Human Rights Watch says Mali’s government security forces are responsible for extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests, and detentions of suspected armed fighters.
Putin is not only deepening military ties with these governments, he’s a key figure behind the Wagner Group helping to carry out their brutality. (A charge the Kremlin denies).
The Wagner connection
Russia’s private military group is bolstering authoritarian regimes throughout Africa, including in Mali, Sudan, Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya. And human rights organizations say Wagner is guilty of its own atrocities on the continent.
There are numerous reports of Russian mercenaries massacring miners in the Central African Republic to plunder the region’s gold.
None of these horrors matter to Putin. He has none of the constraints Western democracies are expected to honor in international relations. He is willing to deal with whoever is in power and help them stay there, as long as they remain his friend.
Putin is the best friend any brutal dictator could have. But his lack of scruples presents a major problem for US efforts to exclude Russia and strengthen its own ties in Africa.
And Putin’s influence in Africa has had a dramatic impact on the world stage during a time of crisis when the US sought unified condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine. Just look at voting at the United Nations.
Where the US fits in
It is true, America has also been guilty of propping up authoritarian regimes and ignoring human rights abuses. Let’s not forget American atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere in Africa.
But democracies can hold their leaders accountable and do. Western democracies are supposed to care about human rights and rule of law. Putin simply does not. And no one holds him accountable for anything.
Despite the constraints of international law and respect for democracy, the US has a few powerful tools to help counter Russian influence in Africa: chief among them – money.
President Biden’s pledge of $55 billion in economic, health, and security aid over three years not only helps counter Russia’s influence but China’s, as well.
Also in Africa last week, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin used her trip to promise even more money. She announced American plans to expand partnerships with Africa on conservation, climate change, and access to clean energy. And she said the United States will provide over $1 billion to support African-led efforts to combat climate change.
It’s harder for Russia to do that. International sanctions and its war in Ukraine will keep Putin financially crippled for a while.
And as Russia focuses its efforts on controlling Africa’s despots, the US would do well to focus on the African people, especially on its youth. As they soon take over the seats of power, there are signs young people want more responsible and accountable governments.
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According to the 2022 African Youth Survey, 74% of young Africans say democracy is preferable to any other form of government, even if they don’t want to be carbon copies of the West.
So, while Putin thinks he’s outmaneuvering the West, he may find himself alienating Africa’s youth.
Unlike Pandor, there is hope these emerging leaders will not see Russia as their friend but as it really is – an obstacle to stability, democracy, and African prosperity.