Sudan conflict the latest manifestation of Russia’s destabilising presence in Africa

By Editorial Board - 11 May 2023 at 3:47 pm
Sudan conflict the latest manifestation of Russia’s destabilising presence in Africa

After nearly one month of fighting and failed truce talks, a wave of air raids in Khartoum has started the latest week of a conflict that has already killed over 600, wounded 5,000 and displaced another 700,000 people.

As Professor John Mukum Mbaku has warned, the unfolding violence in Sudan “will have economic, social and political ripple effects” across the conflict-ridden region and foreign economic interests also at play. Russia’s deepening stake in Sudanese gold has come under particularly sharp scrutiny, with evidence surfacing that the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group has been arming Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces in exchange for gold – a resource the country has increasingly relied on to counter Western sanctions and fund its war in Ukraine.

Contrary to its propaganda-fueled image as a defender of African security, Russia has emerged as a deeply destabilising force across the continent, while using its permanent member status on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to protect its invasion of Ukraine. In the upcoming UNSC election, Russia will seek to bolster its influence by promoting the candidacy of its de facto puppet state Belarus, whose election would spell further trouble for Africa.

Russian neo-colonialism wreaking havoc 

In recent years, Russia has significantly ramped up its presence in Africa via its Wagner Group proxies, namely across a belt of insecurity spanning Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), Libya and Sudan.

Although commissioned by African governments to bolster their counter-insurgency and terrorism crusades, the Wagner Group has consistently fanned the flames of conflict and perpetrated atrocities. In Mali, its forces face accusations of torture, executions and other war crimes, while the number of civilian deaths has risen fourfold since late 2021 – a plague Wagner has equally inflicted on local populations in Libya and the CAR. Furthermore, Wagner forces have been widely linked to human rights abuses ranging from harassment of UN peacekeepers, journalists and minorities to rape and forced disappearances.

For all of this brutality, the Wagner Group’s missions have utterly failed, with insurgency and humanitarian situations actually deteriorating. Indeed, Wagner forces’ scorched-earth approach betrays a total disregard for Africa’s long-term security and a relentless pursuit of the Kremlin’s immediate economic and political interests; namely, plundering natural resource and challenging Western influence on the continent – a foreign policy objective that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has, in characteristic bad faith, portrayed as countering “European colonialism.”

Yet Russia’s offensive in Africa should be seen for what it is: a new, insidious form of colonialism that no amount of Lavrov’s posturing can conceal.

Mounting UN influence offensive 

Russia has equally promoted this false narrative in its influence campaign within the UN, where the Kremlin’s oft-repeated lie that European sanctions have caused food and fertiliser shortages in Africa – as opposed to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Black Sea blockade – has not fallen on deaf ears. While the recent UN General Assembly vote on a resolution demanding Russia’s military withdrawal from Ukraine garnered overwhelming support, Africa accounted for nearly half of the 32 countries that abstained and two of the seven countries that opposed the resolution.

Meanwhile, Russia’s veto power as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC) has effectively paralysed its conflict resolution capacities, with Moscow’s April UNSC presidency leaving Ukraine off the agenda entirely. Moreover, the upcoming UNSC election presents Russia with the opportunity to bolster its influence, namely by supporting Belarus’s candidacy for a non-permanent seat in 2023-24.

Keir Giles, a Russia expert at Chatham House, has aptly described Belarus as “a client state for Russia,” a relationship which has been solidified since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine – part of which was launched from Belarus – meaning that a vote for its UNSC candidacy essentially amounts to a vote for continued Russian aggression and exploitation of Africa’s resources to finance it.

Belarus’s false promise for Africa

To generate support within the UN, Russia will doubtless present Belarus as a friend to Africa – namely as a key exporter of potash fertiliser – and continue blaming EU sanctions for the continent’s food insecurity woes.

While EU sanctions on Belarus related to the human rights abuses and supporting war role of Alexander Lukashenko’s autocratic regime have caused a drop in its fertiliser exports, the impact on Africa has been wildly mispresented. Joseph Glauber from the International Food Policy Research Institute has highlighted that “there is no evidence that global agricultural productivity has gone down because of fertiliser disruption,” while Sebastian Nduva from the Kenya-based AfricaFertilizer initiative has said that the continent has “adapted to this reality,” with Nigeria and Ghana among the countries turning to alternative providers such as Canada.

Loosening Belarus sanctions would thus do little for African food security, while propping up the corrupt Lukashenko regime. Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced into exile after challenging Lukashenko in Belarus’s fraudulent 2020 presidential election and sentenced to 15 years in prison on trumped up charges last March, has cautioned that potash “is a critical source of funds” that allows Lukashenko’s government “to fuel repression, terror, and war.” 

Breaking the Great Power cycle

As it has done with Belarus, where dissident activists and journalists are jailed at a shocking rate and legitimate democratic elections have not been held in nearly 30 years, Moscow will continue to support the regime security and democratic crackdowns of corrupt, despotic leaders in Africa to advance its economic and political interests.

But as Paul Stronski, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has wisely argued, unstable African countries do not need to be drawn into another round of Great Power competition. Instead, the international community should help them implement African-led solutions. Stronski points to the importance of empowering strong regional actors, including ECOWAS, with the technical and financial means to facilitate civilian government transitions in military junta-led countries including Mali and Burkina Faso.

Similarly, the East African Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) bloc – which includes Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda among others – should be given a key role in resolving the Sudan conflict before it explodes and spills over into the wider region, thus ensuring that diplomatic alternatives to Russia and Belarus within the UN system prioritise African interests over merely countering Russia’s.


Image by Hans Birger Nilsen, Creative Commons 2.0

Editorial Board

Editorial Board

Africa Times is an independent participative online news site for Sub-Saharan Africa. We aim to empower all African voices through publishing content by a range of people, from academics to bloggers. We are dedicated to bringing the world an African view on life, up-to-date African news and analysis.

Twitter: @_AfricaTimes

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