DOUGLAS MASON: Moscow — from Africa’s would-be coloniser to operation by proxy
Contrary to the noninvolvement narrative it trades on now, Russia was not wholly a bystander in Africa’s colonisation.
It regarded colonisation as a shared European experience, actively celebrated it and wanted in on the game. There was no lack of trying in putting together an Africa empire; it was reach that was lacking. Africa was less accessible to Russia due to its relative weakness versus Western powers.
Still, Africa’s 19th-century history is littered with Russian forays, direct and indirect. The most famous of these is the short-lived colony of New Moscow in current Djibouti founded by Russian adventurer Nikolai Ashinov that was intended to give Russia a foothold in the Horn of Africa as a jumping-off point for the hoped-for annexation of Ethiopia. France kicked Russia’s agents out of New Moscow in 1889. Thereafter Russia carried on establishing influence and an informal empire in Ethiopia.
This is now portrayed by Russia as protecting Ethiopia from other colonial powers, though its diplomats were clear at the time that this was a means to economic exploitation and colonisation through military conquest when the time was right. That time never arrived — Russia’s sway fizzled in the face of superior capabilities of Western powers. Yet, it carried on participating indirectly in Africa’s colonisation where it could through trade and diplomacy.
That Africa was a colonial sideshow for Russia is mostly because it was amassing its own empire over the Eurasian land mass, fighting wars of conquest from Sweden through Eastern Europe and the Caucuses all the way to Alaska, incorporating countless peoples and whole countries to what is now the Russian Federation.
Soviet Russia promoted independence for colonised Africa, forging links with African nationalists that still endure. Its argument was more with Western capitalism and imperialism, though Leninism did promote independence for colonial Africa and ethnic self-determination elsewhere. And that is where the discontinuity emerges with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
To Putin, the Soviet Union was a continuity of Russia, itself holy and pure by definition but having made the one Leninist mistake of allowing socialist republics based on ethnicity, Ukraine among them
Russia’s current revanchist project means reasserting dominion over the formerly captive nations on its periphery. To Putin, the Soviet Union was a continuity of Russia, itself holy and pure by definition but having made the one Leninist mistake of allowing socialist republics based on ethnicity, Ukraine among them. Rolling this back, extinguishing Ukrainian statehood — or the idea among Ukrainians that they actually exist as a people, separately from Russia — is the animating idea of Putin and the nationalist, mystical ideologues and historians around him.
Russia is not alone among European nations in having harboured the imperial sin of colonial ambition; what it does in Africa now is more at issue. “If you can do no good, at least do no harm”, said American writer Kurt Vonnegut. And so, by this more limited definition, how does Russia fare?
Clean government has long been a struggle for African countries, and now too in democratic SA. That foreign engagement and commercial relations maintain standards of openness and probity to counter this is therefore paramount. Where this is impossible, it is better to do no harm and stay away. This is the action taken by many Western mining companies, for example, which now regard Africa as a largely uninvestable jurisdiction and have ceded the terrain to China and Russia, which are more likely to accede to local practices.
SA’s ill-fated R1-trillion nuclear deal with Russia to build a fleet of 20 power stations is an example of these perils. SA came close to being saddled with a costly power procurement deal that never quite passed the smell test under the scandal-prone presidency of Jacob Zuma. Ultimately, legal challenges, pushback from civil society and institutional oversight were enough to derail the deal. It never quite dies entirely though — the official Integrated Resource Plan for the power sector continues to include nuclear as an option in SA’s energy future, over which Russia’s state nuclear company continues to have exclusive rights.
Nothing is proven, of course, but stories continue to swirl around the nuclear deal, negotiated in secret by Zuma, amid allegations of advance payments of R100m for the ANC’s 2014 election campaign. However, the party is known to have received a R10m donation through mining company United Manganese of Kalahari, which is jointly owned by the party’s investment vehicle, Chancellor House, and Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, a Putin associate who is under American sanctions.
Operation through proxies is one way Russian interests are advanced on the continent. That in itself is not illegal but it does raise ethical questions about undue influence. ANC international relations head Lindiwe Zulu has dismissed allegations that Russian money has anything to do with the government’s position on the invasion of Ukraine. However, proxies with close relations to centres of power bring the taint of association at minimum and ultimately direct responsibility.
It is here that Russian private military corporation Wagner, with its connection to Putin, is most notable for Russia’s contemporary Africa presence. Like the buccaneering companies of the 18th and 19th centuries, Wagner has strayed beyond purely military objectives into commercial relations and direct political influence and control, to the point of being accused of creating a neocolonial empire.
Wagner has expanded into Mali, and most prominently the Central African Republic (CAR), where its members have been promoted into the senior ranks of government, taking on official tasks. Brutality and gross human rights abuses have dogged Wagner wherever it has gone, from Syria to Ukraine, and are well documented in CAR and Mali, according to Human Rights Watch.
It is official policy to discourage the use of private military companies in Africa’s conflicts — for example, ending the Mozambique government’s contract with SA-based Dyck Advisory Group, which was countering the Islamic insurgency in Cabo Delgado, was a requirement for the SA National Defence Force deployment there in 2021. Yet Wagner seems beyond censure.
The ANC’s growing official embrace of Russia carries reputational risks a prudent government would be wary of. It also tarnishes its own struggle history. Support from Africa after its invasion of Ukraine provides some geopolitical capital to Russia in its conflict with Western powers, but when taken back to its source in Russia’s own imperialism, Africans are unwitting participants in the recreation of a colonial empire. Ukraine’s freedom fighters are the true heirs to Africa’s anticolonial struggles.
• Mason, an associate of Johannesburg-based risk and resilience consultancy Eunomix, is on extended assignment in Ukraine.
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