JOHANNESBURG – Russian, French and American leaders are touring Africa to win support for their positions on the war in Ukraine, waging what some say is the fiercest competition for influence on the continent since the Cold War.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron will visit several African countries this week. Samantha Power, the head of the US Agency for International Development, traveled to Kenya and Somalia last week. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas Greenfield, will travel to Ghana and Uganda next week.
“It’s like a new cold war is being waged in Africa, with rival parties trying to gain influence,” said William Gumede, director of Democracy Works, an organization that promotes good governance.
Lavrov, in his travels across the famine-stricken and drought-stricken continent, sought to portray the West as the villain, blaming it for rising food prices, while Western leaders accused the Kremlin of cynically using food as a weapon and launching an offensive. The Empire-style War of Conquest – Words calculated to appeal to listeners in postcolonial Africa.
Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has worked to win support in Africa for several years, revitalizing friendships dating back half a century, when the Soviet Union supported many African movements fighting to end colonial rule.
“Now this campaign is on high alert,” Gumed said.
Moscow’s influence in Africa was demonstrated in March during the United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While 28 African countries voted in favor of the resolution, a large minority of the continent’s nations – 25 – either voted to abstain or did not vote at all.
Russia’s top diplomat this week visited Egypt, Congo, Uganda and Ethiopia, vowing friendship and accusing the United States and European countries of raising food prices by pursuing “reckless” environmental policies. He also accused them of hoarding food during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The situation in Ukraine has additionally negatively affected food markets, but not because of the special Russian operation, but because of the absolutely inappropriate reaction from the West, which announced the imposition of sanctions,” Lavrov said in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Lavrov, who had been a US ally for years, was warmly received in Uganda by President Yoweri Museveni, but refused to criticize Russia over the invasion. Museveni even suggested at the outbreak of the war that Putin’s actions might be understandable because Ukraine is in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Lavrov expressed his support for the reform of the UN Security Council to give African countries permanent seats and greater influence.
The Ugandan leader spoke with Lavrov fondly about the old relations with Russia, wondering how he could refuse Moscow when he had good relations with the countries that participated in slavery.
Ugandan political analyst Asuman Bisika said Museveni, the opinion leader on the continent who has held power for three decades, is an obvious choice for Russia as a person to strengthen ties with.
“Uganda is the center of gravity in East Africa,” Besika said.
Museveni, 77, had been wearing a strict mask in public since the COVID-19 outbreak. But he did not have one when greeting Lavrov in front of the paparazzi, apparently wanting to show warmth to the Russians. Museveni brought back the mask in his next public appearance the following day.
Russia also courtes African public opinion through its state television network RT, formerly known as Russia Today. RT has announced that it will open a new office in Johannesburg.
RT was abruptly removed from Africa’s largest pay-TV platform, Johannesburg-based Multichoice, in March after the European Union and Britain imposed sanctions against Russia. It is not clear whether the establishment of the new office will enable RT to resume broadcasting to Africa through Multichoice, which has nearly 22 million subscribers on the continent.
“For Russia, you should hear the battle in Africa. It’s not important for the actual war effort but for its long-term political impact,” said Anton Harper, professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. “They see it as fertile ground to grow their influence, and of course the vote at the United Nations is important.”
On his African tour, Macron accused the Kremlin of using television channels such as RT to spread pro-war propaganda. He accused the Kremlin of blackmailing the world by thwarting the export of grain from Ukraine.
In Benin, he said, “They are blackmailing because they are the ones who banned grain in Ukraine. They are the ones regulating their grain.” His trip also included Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau.
Macron appealed to Africans to stand up against Russia.
“I tell you here in Africa, the continent that has suffered from colonial imperialism: Russia is one of the last imperialist colonial powers. It has decided to invade a neighboring country to defend its interests,” he said. “this is the truth”.
Power, the top USAID official, was in East Africa to pledge aid to help fight hunger in the region amid a devastating drought for several years. She did not back down from criticizing Russia.
“By banning Ukraine’s grain exports and restricting Russian fertilizer trade, Putin’s actions have had the consequences of hurting the people of Kenya and other countries around the world,” Power said in Nairobi. “He is harming the people of Kenya for the benefit of his situation.”