21st Sep 2023

Little love from Africa for Putin at lavish summit

  • Russian leader Vladimir Putin (r) with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (l) in St Petersburg on Wednesday (Photo:
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When Alex Vines, an Africa scholar at British think-tank Chatham House, met with ex-guerrilla fighters at a remote demobilisation camp in the Zambezia province in Mozambique last November, he was surprised to hear their number one concern: inflation.

"These were preliterate people, some of whom had been in the bush for 30 years, but somehow they'd rationalised that the biggest challenge they'll be facing in their new lives is the cost-of-living increase", Vines said.

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  • Military pomp and luxury gifts to flatter African guests (Photo:

And the same issue will top the agenda at Russian president Vladimir Putin's Africa summit in St Petersburg this week.

"Looking at the summit programme — so much is on fertiliser — it makes me think Putin will announce a grand offer of [Russian] grain and fertiliser for Africa," Vines said.

"What can Russia offer the African continent to ensure its food security?," the programme says in one of its panels, stuffed with Russian food company bosses.

"Agricultural products are in acute shortage," the blurb for a second panel says, adding: "Russian companies not only offer fertiliser supplies, but are also ready to transfer modern agricultural technologies to Africa".

Putin will make a "big statement" on food at the summit plenary session on Friday (28 July), his aide, Yuri Ushakov, also told media on Tuesday.

The gross irony is that spiralling food prices on world markets are a direct result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a global-scale grain and fertiliser supplier, last February.

And Putin piled pressure on African governments and ordinary people, such as those in rural Mozambique, on the eve of his Africa summit by abandoning an international 'Grain Deal' to let Ukraine export food via the Black Sea and by bombing Ukrainian grain silos.

His spin is that African hunger and poverty is all the West's fault.

Time and again, the summit programme condemns the "neocolonialism" and "sanctions wars" of the "Global North ... the Golden Billion ... the Anglo-Saxons and their satellites", while portraying Russia as Africa's salvation.

"An alternative Grain Deal allows Putin to claim he continues to put the agro-commodity needs of Africa first, while bypassing Ukraine," said Theodore Murphy, from the European Council of Foreign Relations think-tank.

Putin will claim "it was simply the (unfair) Western conditions on the Grain Deal that Russia could no longer shoulder," Murphy added.

The St Petersburg summit is to see 17 African states send presidents or prime ministers, including from some of the region's most powerful countries — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda, and Zimbabwe.

Putin is laying on lavish hospitality, with each delegate allowed to bring five guests and with luxury gifts in summit "goodie bags", according to Western intelligence sources.

In skilful diplomacy, he's flattering even minor VIPs, such as the leaders of Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau, with televised bilaterals.

"[US] president [Joe] Biden met the African leaders ensemble — Putin can score points by making time for each and every delegation," said Murphy, speaking of an US-Africa summit last year.

The summit programme also says the West seeks to "distort the institution of family and marriage" and implant "sinful" pro-LGBTI "pseudo-values" in Africa.

"Tens of thousands of representatives of Africa, who currently occupy high government posts, have been trained in Russia," the programme notes.

"On the African continent ... the word 'Russia' is perceived with warmth and love," it says.

Beauty contest

But if all that sounds like a triumph, the attendance figures show a lot less "love" than the 43 African leaders who came to Putin's last summit in Sochi in 2019.

In what Vine called a global "beauty contest", the St Petersburg event is also less impressive than the 49 African leaders who met Biden last year and the 40 who attended an EU-Africa summit in 2022.

"That's a really dramatic drop from Sochi — illustrative of the short-term impact done to Russia-Africa relations by the invasion of Ukraine," Vine said.

"If attendance numbers denote Russia's standing in Africa — across all of Africa — it has dropped," Murphy added.

Africa's leaders are genuinely unhappy with many aspects of Western geopolitics, such as the fallout from military intervention in Iraq and Libya, Vine said.

Some accuse the EU and US of "duplicity" and "double standards" in the way they piled billions of dollars of aid into Ukraine while ignoring African conflicts, he added.

They also say the West mismanaged "Mr Putin's paranoia and fragility" in its ever-closer relations with Kyiv, helping cause a "European war" for which hungry Africans now pay the price, Vine said.

But none of that translates into "romantic beliefs" in Russia or in Putin's anti-colonial rhetoric, the Chatham House expert said.

The low attendance in St Petersburg is pure "pragmatism" at a time when the shrinking Russian economy is worth just €16bn a year to the whole continent — less than one percent of total foreign investment.

"Russia really isn't offering any significant trade and investment deal prospects and for many leaders going to St Petersburg is not worth the effort," Vine said.

"The strawman of neocolonialism plays well at home for some African leaders. It deflects responsibility for failure by leaders to deliver for their populations and distracts from the population's basic needs," but most African elites don't really buy Putin's propaganda, Murphy said.

Wagner fiasco

Food deals aside, Putin's mercenaries, the Wagner group, also used to represent a tempting security option for embattled African leaders in places such as the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, and Sudan.

But Wagner's recent mutiny against Putin means its future is uncertain, with the Russian ministry of defence and military intelligence now trying to take over its African military and political operations, according to a Russian source.

Security has been relegated to just one minor panel in the summit programme, in a sign of Kremlin embarrassment, even though the mercenaries' role "will be the burning question to Putin from those African countries most dependent on Wagner's services", Murphy said.

And if African states mistrust the EU and US, then there is also growing resentment with foreign privateers in general, Vine noted.

A newly assertive Nigeria recently helped persuade Burkina Faso to say No to Wagner.

Rwanda is emerging as a local alternative after its armed forces signed security deals with Benin and Mozambique.

And the poor performance of Russian soldiers and military equipment on the battlefields of Ukraine is becoming an increasing turn-off in Putin's quest for Africa's affection, Vine added.

"Turkey and Iran were out in force in a recent drone exhibition in Nairobi and China is nibbling away at Russia's share of defence sales to Africa," he said.

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