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Democracy in Africa and Western Countermeasures Against Russian Penetration

Posted on the 10 July 2023 by Shahalexander
Democracy in Africa and Western countermeasures against Russian penetration

The global community has been astonished at unexpected influence of some pro-Russian and autocratic nations in Africa at UN General Assembly vote on the Ukrainian crisis. However, the African Union reaffirmed to suspend the membership of pro-Russian military dictatorship regimes in the Sahel region, that is, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, and Sudan to show zero tolerance against unconstitutional changes of government at the 36th AU summit in Addis Ababa in February this year. Just before this summit, the ECOWAS also (Economic Community of West African States) announced to maintain halting the membership of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea ( "African Union reaffirms suspension of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea and Sudan"; Africa News; 20 February, 2023). Those actions by the AU and the ECOWAS are hopeful signs for democracy in Africa. Therefore, we should not fall into "pessimistic realism" to embrace the fall of democracy and the fall of the West in a supposedly forthcoming multipolar world. In a revisionist world order that Russia and China uphold, our history would devolve and degrade into repression and chaos. The consequence of our defeatism would be fatal to the global community. We have to reconfirm that values of democracy, freedom, and human rights are not restricted within the West, and not completely alien to Africa.

To begin with, we have to understand the overview of democracy in Africa. According to Freedom House, freedom index in Africa has been declining for years recently, as with the case of the trend worldwide. That is in resonance with penetration of Russia and China in this region. However, "African countries have also showed signs of improvement and resilience", according to Tiseke Kasambala, Director of Africa Programs, though resurgence of military dictatorship, particularly in the Sahel, destabilizes the continent. Quite importantly, the AU adopted the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in 1981, which is supposed to be very progressive to defend human rights, but many member states are reluctant to implement it. Meanwhile, the government is weakening constitutional rule of law in South Africa, although it was invited to the Democracy Summit by US President Joe Biden both in 2021 and 2023. However, the judiciary, civil society, and media barely manage to maintain democracy collectively, against populist autocratic attempts by the ruling ANC ( "How African Democracies Can Rise and Thrive Amid Instability, Militarization, and Interference"; Freedom House Perspectives; September 1, 2022). In view of long one-party rule after the fall of apartheid, more attention needs to be paid to the Ramaphosa administration's invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg this August, to assess the rule of law in this country as a member of the International Criminal Court.

Interestingly, a reverse of world history is witnessed in Africa, that is Russian penetration. Remember that shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East European nations including some former Soviet republics jumped into joining the EU and NATO. That is entirely their own sovereign preference. Rationally, nothing of Russia is appealing in view of its poor governance, economy, technology, and also, its anachronistic neo-Eurasianism. But strangely, African countries do not necessarily think so. At the UN General Assembly on Russian invasion of Ukraine in March last year, nearly half of African nations did not support the resolution to condemn the aggression. Some ruling élites in southern Africa feel nostalgic of their cooperation with the Soviet Union in their struggle against colonialism and apartheid during the Cold War era, but that is merely at the governmental level. Unlike commonly believed, Africans are not necessarily obsessed with anti-colonialism today. Also, they are not concerned with the great power conflict on geopolitics and ideology in Europe and Asia. They choose partners through their perceived self-interest, whether Russia, China, or the West. Regarding African views on Russia and global geopolitics, the Economist and Premise conducted opinion polls in six leading African nations including Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Côte d'Ivoire, and Mali, which reveals that people in those countries do not necessarily agree to foreign policy direction of their government. While South Africa, Uganda, and Mali abstained from the UNGA vote to condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine, the rest of them approved it. Among those ruled by pro-Russian government, South Africa is a sample of democracy in southern Africa where the ruling party is engrossed in anti-apartheid nostalgia, while Mali is a sample of military dictatorship in the Sahel where anti-Western regime depends on Wagner in counterterrorism.

As shown in Table 1, the approval rate of Russian invasion of Ukraine is the lowest in democratic South Africa, but highest in Wagner sponsored Mali. Also, as shown in Table 2, people in Mali are the most likely to blame the West for the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, those in South Africa are the least likely to blame NATO and the United States ( "Why Russia wins some sympathy in Africa and the Middle East"; Economist; March 12, 2022).


Democracy in Africa and Western countermeasures against Russian penetration
Democracy in Africa and Western countermeasures against Russian penetration

After the military coup d'état in 2020, Mali has been isolated from the global community, as France withdrew counterterrorism troops and the membership of the AU and the ECOWAS was suspended. Wagner seized this opportunity to infiltrate there. Impoverished and poorly educated people are easily misled by propagandas that Russia and the military regime spread.

That is not the case with South Africa, where checks and balances by parliamentary opposition, the judiciary, and the media are balking the ANC's revisionist foreign and domestic policies. Particularly, the Democratic Alliance (DA) which succeeds from anti-apartheid white liberal Progressive Party, is launching a fierce campaign against President Cyril Ramaphosa's invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the BRICS summit in Johannesburg this August. The DA applied for litigation so that the Gauteng High Court can enforce the ICC rule to arrest Putin upon his arrival to South Africa to attend the BRICS summit ( "DA launches court application to compel the arrest of Putin in South Africa"; DA News; 30 May, 2023). Also, DA leader John Steenhuisen even warned that the ANC administration sent some weapons to Russia in an interview with CNN, according to Briefly News, a South African digital media, which displays "Stand with Ukraine" banner on its web site ( "John Steenhuisen Says President Cyril Ramaphosa Is a "Political Swindler" Who Fooled the Country";; June 1, 2023). Furthermore, he criticizes Ramaphosa's intermediation between Russia and Ukraine as a waste of taxpayers' money and diplomatic stunt. More importantly, the DA blames the ANC's close association with autocracy like Putin's Russia ( "How much did South Africans pay for Ramaphosa's failed diplomatic PR stunt?"; DA News; 17 June, 2023). As shown in the recent draft of race quotas for water use, which would impose huge burden on farmland owners that consume 60% of the resource, the ANC seems to be obsessed with an ideology of class struggle and victimhood ( "Parched Earth: ANC introduces Race Quotas for water use"; DA News; 1 June, 2023). Right or left, such victimhood minded populists would easily befriend dictators like Putin.

We should also discuss the Russian presence in Africa from Russian perspective. Joseph Siegle at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies testified about Russian activities in Africa at the hearing of the US House of Representatives. He mentioned three main pillars of Russian strategy in Africa. The fist pillar is to gain influence on the sea lane from southern Mediterranean to the Red Sea through Suez and Djibouti. The second pillar is to remove Western influence from the continent. Wagner activities in Central Africa and Mali are one of the most noticeable. The third pillar is to reshape rule-based world order, by disrespecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence of member states, which is displayed in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin's involvement in Africa pleases only autocrats and disinformed people, as its strategy of those pillars just destabilizes political economy of this region ( "Russia's Strategic Objectives and Influences in Africa"; Africa Center for Strategic Studies; July 14, 2022). After all, Russia hardly cares about local development, empowerment, and well-being and simply wants to make use of Africa for siloviki's perceived national interests. That is entirely at odds with the ideal of the AU, the ECOWAS, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Most fundamentally, Paul Stronski at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace quotes a speech by US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills that Wagner presence in the Sahel aggravates human sufferings without resolving real causes of instability, such as poor governance, broken institutions, long term displacement, and armed groups proliferation ( "Russia's Growing Footprint in Africa's Sahel Region"; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; February 28, 2023).

Russia is too opportunist in its charm offensive in Africa, because its influence is declining in former Soviet CIS, Eurasian Economic Union, CSTO since the invasion of Ukraine, but the Kremlin still wants to display their diplomatic power in a multipolar rivalry of geopolitics in this century. That is the background of Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to seven African countries including South Africa, Eswatini, Mali, Mauritania, and Sudan early this year. However, Vadim Zaytsev, an independent expert on Russian policy in Africa, comments that most of the African nations take cautious neutrality, and do not want to risk their ties with the West, although they rhetorically resonate with Russia's contradictory denouncement of neocolonialism that dismisses the colonial nature of the invasion of Ukraine ( "What's Behind Russia's Charm Offensive in Africa?"; Carnegie Politika; 17 February, 2023). It is not only Western experts who are critical to Russian penetration. African experts also warn the danger of Russian presence. Peter Fabricius at a South African think tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS) comments that Russia deepens its relations with Africa through military dimensions, rather than increasing the amount of trade and investment. He argues that Russia penetrates in Africa through exploiting instability in the target country. In Mali and Burkina Faso, Wagner filled the vacuum after the withdrawal of French troops. That weakens AU deterrence against military dictatorship. Meanwhile in Cameroon, Russia provokes separatists in the Anglophone region. It is likely that they want to overturn the regime to use this country a gateway to export natural resources from the Central African Republic. Such natural resource export is one of the means for Russia to finance its war in Ukraine and elsewhere, along with organized crimes such as trade of illegal weapons and drugs, money laundering, hacking to cryptocurrency, etc ( "Africa shouldn't ignore Russia's destabilising influence"; ISS Today; 24 February, 2023). Fabricius is a white South African, and submitted some policy recommendations on African development to the World Economic Forum from African point of view.

After the Prigozhin mutiny, the foresight of Wagner activities and Russian influence in Africa is unpredictable. Kimberly Marten at Columbia University comments that it would be relatively easy for the Russian defense establishment to replace Yevgeny Prigozhin with someone else. Meanwhile, Jędrzej Czerep at the Polish Institute of International Affairs argues that everything depends on whether African clients perceive Russia strong and reliable enough to achieve their goals ( "What next for Wagner's African empire?"; Economist; June 27, 2023). Either way, what should America and its allies do to edge out Russia from Africa? Last August, the Biden administration released "US Strategy toward Sub-Saharan Africa" to address new opportunities and partnership between the United States and African nations. Joseph Sany at the US Institute of Peace comments the following. Not only does it pledge aid surge to resolve regional problems such as food security, agriculture, supply chains, and climate change, but also stresses the necessity of listening to Africans. Thus, US embassies need sufficient work force led by accredited ambassadors. Furthermore, he argues that America enable African nations to resolve their problems by their own initiative ( "The New U.S. Africa Strategy Is a Moment We Must Seize"; USIP; August 11, 2022). Regarding Wagner presence, Sany says that moral condemnation does not work. African clients are forced to sign with brutal Wagner out of desperation because international counterinsurgency operations have not wiped-out terrorism. But he mentions that bipartisan American policymakers have found past US policies are too myopic and too narrowly focused on military aspects, without giving sufficient consideration to governance and the economy of target countries ( "In Africa, Here's How to Respond to Russia's Brutal Wagner Group"; USIP; April 6, 2023).

Despite Russian penetration through Wagner, Africa shares our values of freedom and democracy. At G7 Hiroshima, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida may have had to invite AU Chairman Azali Assoumani and South African DA leader John Steenhuisen to confirm this, rather than Wagner supported Mozambiquan President Filipe Nyusi. In order to deepen partnership with this region, the Western alliance needs to upgrade their diplomatic presence. For this objective, the United States should reconsider the Jacksonian system of political appointment of ambassadors. Senate confirmations are delayed frequently, and appointed ambassadors are poorly qualified occasionally. Particularly, the Trump administration nominated a handbag designer Lana Marks to the ambassador to South Africa for her contribution to the election campaign. But those who commit to elections are not necessarily well-acquainted with foreign policy, and some of them fall into narrow-sighted vote grubbers. There is an interesting example. In the past, I had some opportunity to see a Japanese LDP diet member's office from inside. One day, a senior staff of the office was watching TV news, and he devoted himself to seeing Nagatacho and election affairs, but when the news turned to international affairs, he suddenly changed his attitude to shut out information from the TV disdainfully like street noises. Though he graduated from Kyoto University, he behaved like a poorly educated bumpkin. Therefore, any US president should abstain from appointing such an irresponsible vote grubber to the ambassador. After all, it is our firm commitment that would enable us to outcompete with Russia in Africa.

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