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Shunned by the West, Russia finds friends in Africa
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 04 - 03 - 2022

Defying the global outcry over Russia's invasion of Ukraine, African countries are affirming their loyalty to President Vladimir Putin, the New York Times reported.
At the United Nations on Wednesday, 24 African countries, including South Africa, declined to join the resounding vote denouncing Russian aggression: 16 countries abstained, seven didn't vote at all and one — Eritrea — voted against it, keeping company only with Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea.
The striking tally reflected the ambiguous attitude across much of the continent where, with a handful of exceptions, the Ukraine war has been greeted with conspicuous silence — a sharp contrast with Western countries that are expanding sanctions, seizing oligarchs' yachts, pressing for war crimes investigations, and even openly threatening to collapse the Russian economy, the Times said.
"Russia is our friend through and through," Lindiwe Zulu, South Africa's minister of social development, who studied in Moscow during the apartheid years, said in an interview. "We are not about to denounce that relationship that we have always had."
Many African countries have a long-standing affinity with Russia stretching back to the Cold War: Some political and military leaders studied there, and trade links have grown. And in recent years, a growing number of countries have contracted with Russian mercenaries and bought ever-greater quantities of Russian weapons.
A few African countries have condemned Russian aggression as an attack on the international order, notably Kenya and Ghana. About 25 African nations voted for the UN resolution that denounced Putin's actions on Wednesday. But deep divisions in the continent's response were apparent from the start.
The deputy leader of Sudan flew into Moscow on the first day of the conflict, exchanging warm handshakes with Russia's foreign minister as warplanes bombed Ukrainian cities. Morocco, a longtime American ally, offered a watery statement, annoying American officials who nonetheless kept quiet.
In Ethiopia, Russian flags flew at a ceremony Wednesday to commemorate a famous 19th century battle against Italian invaders, recalling the involvement of Russian volunteers who sided with Ethiopian fighters.
African sympathies for Ukraine were also diluted by reports of Ukrainian border guards forcing African students to the back of lines as they attempted to leave the country, raising a furor over racism and discrimination. President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, which has 4,000 students in Ukraine, decried the reports.
Moscow backed African liberation movements and presented itself as a bulwark against Western neocolonialism. On Sunday, Russia's foreign ministry paused its focus on Ukraine to remind South Africa, in a tweet, of its support for the fight against apartheid.
But Putin has also divided African opinion thanks to his own efforts to expand Russian influence across the continent through an unusual combination of diplomacy, guns and mercenaries.
In an effort to regain some of the influence that Moscow lost in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin hosted a glitzy summit in the southern Russian city of Sochi in 2019 that was attended by 43 African heads of state. A second Russia-Africa summit is scheduled for this fall.
But as Russia's economy strained under Western sanctions imposed after the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, it could not afford the expensive enticements offered by other powers in Africa, such as China's cheap loans or Western development aid.
So it has offered no-questions weapons sales and the services of Russian mercenaries, many employed by the Wagner Group, a company linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin's.
Russia's influence also stems from weapons sales. Russia accounts for nearly half of all arms imports into Africa, according to Russia's arms export agency and organizations that monitor weapons transfers.
One of Putin's staunchest defenders in the past week was a powerful figure in Uganda, a major customer for Russian weapons. Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, said in a tweet: "The majority of mankind (that are nonwhite) support Russia's stand in Ukraine."
He added, "When the USSR parked nuclear armed missiles in Cuba in 1962, the West was ready to blow up the world over it. Now when NATO does the same, they expect Russia to do differently."
A similar divide has emerged in Asia, where nations with authoritarian leaders or weak ties to the West have embraced Putin's war or avoided criticism of Russian military aggression, according to the Times report.
For Africans, the war could hit hard in the pocket. Last week, the Automobile Association of South Africa predicted that rising fuel prices would reach a record high in the coming weeks. Food, too, is getting more expensive — Russia and Ukraine are major sources of wheat and fertilizer in Africa. — Agencies
But the war could also have an economic upside for Africa, albeit one that could take years to be felt. As Europe pivots away from Russian gas imports, it could turn to African countries looking to exploit recently discovered energy reserves.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania, which is seeking a $30 billion investment to tap a huge gas discovery in the Indian Ocean, said the invasion of Ukraine could provide an opportunity.
"Whether Africa or Europe or America, we are looking for markets," she told The Africa Report, an online news outlet.
Elsewhere, though, Putin is still benefiting from his image as a thorn in the West's side. Many South Africans remember that the United States supported the apartheid regime until the 1980s. South Africans also took a sour view of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Pretoria.

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