A recent New York Times article brought Russia’s increasing military engagement in Africa into sharp focus. Across the continent, several governments are said to be purchasing large quantities of arms and hiring military advisers from Russia, with one country even installing a Russian as the president’s national security adviser. According to published data cited in the article, 13 percent of Russia’s total arms exports in 2017 went to Africa.
This military presence and arms imports are ostensibly meant to help fight rising terrorism on the continent. As the Chibok schoolgirls’ kidnapping in Nigeria by Boko Haram militants, and recent hotel bombings in Kenya by al Shabaab have demonstrated, Africa needs all the external help it can get to combat the terrorism threat. But a closer look at the list of countries developing these military ties reveals some troubling signs. Many are ruled by autocratic leaders who need Russia’s help to prop up their regimes.
Entrenched power is bad enough for Africa, but the bigger worry for its people should be the exchange of their countries’ precious natural resources such as gold, diamonds, and oil, often for far less than they are worth, for Russian military advice and weapons. This same complaint has been leveled against China in recent years by many Africans and various foreign observers. China’s growing relationships with African countries over the past couple of decades is based not so much on military engagement, but rather on provision of loans and infrastructure construction in exchange for resources.
The vast majority of ordinary Africans suspect that much of the continent is similarly getting a raw deal in these transactions with China. In their eyes, a new form of colonialism is taking shape on the continent, involving not just Russia and China, but some of the old colonial powers, as well as new entrants such as Japan, India, and Turkey. In a recent cover story, The Economistcharacterized these countries’ actions as “The new scramble for Africa.”
While African countries need to be clear-eyed in the management of each of these new relationships, they should be particularly careful in their interactions with Russia. The humanitarian disasters that resulted from Russia’s military involvements in Syria and eastern Ukraine should serve as a warning to all Africans. Historically, African dictators have shown that they will employ every tactic, however brutal, to maintain their grips on political power. The last thing the continent needs is a military superpower that is willing and able to supply arms to such dictators.
Sadly, the track record is poor when it comes to expecting African leaders to protect their national interests. It is common knowledge in Africa that many politicians there knowingly enter into deals that are bad for their countries, simply because doing so carries benefits for them and their cronies. That is why, in the absence of institutional capacity that can effectively check such bad impulses, it is incumbent on ordinary Africans to mobilize public opinion to bring pressure on their leaders, in order to prevent the potential disasters from Russia’s growing military engagements on the continent.
“Expanding Moscow’s military sway on the continent reflects Mr. Putin’s broader vision of returning Russia to its former glory. But it also illustrates Russia’s opportunistic strategy to carve out logistical and political gains in Africa wherever and whenever it can,” according to the Times article. Russia, as the dominant member of the Soviet Union, once had a heavy presence in Africa when it vied with America for geopolitical advantage on the continent during the Cold War. Both powers at times used nefarious means toward achieving their goals.
America provided financial and military support to some African dictators, most notably Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire (currently known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC for short). In addition to oppressing his people, Mobutu and his associates are reported to have looted billions of dollars from state coffers and stashed them in overseas bank accounts during his thirty-two years in power.
In a recent conversation with a friend of mine from the DRC, she told me that the dire socio-economic conditions in her country now, which can partly be blamed on the effects of colonialism, but are also largely a result of Mobutu’s multi-decade misrule, make Ghana (where I’m originally from) look like an advanced country. She is quite familiar with life in Ghana because she is married to a Ghanaian, and hence knew what she was talking about. Based on what I’ve observed during my recent visits to Ghana, conditions there are rather unimpressive, so my friend’s statement about the DRC in relation to Ghana was quite telling.
In furtherance of its efforts to gain influence in Africa during the Cold War years, the Soviet government offered scholarships to young Africans to study in Soviet universities. Although there was no direct mention of any obligation on scholarship recipients to learn Marxist principles and help turn them into government policy in their home countries upon their return, that was widely believed in Africa to be the motivation of the Soviet authorities.
I was one of the young Africans who studied in the Soviet Union during that period. In reality, there were no overt attempts to indoctrinate us in my six years in the country. A few of my professors occasionally espoused—what I considered to be—their personal views about communism being a superior socio-economic and political model to capitalism. But I never had a doubt in my mind that there was some hidden agenda behind that generous offer of free university education to thousands of young people from Africa and other parts of the developing world.
If the goal was indeed to develop a generation of Marxist leaders in Africa and elsewhere, the effort largely failed, for three main reasons. First, because the vast majority of us were in our early twenties when we arrived in the Soviet Union, we were already too old to be indoctrinated easily. Second, we heard enough grumblings from some ordinary Soviets (albeit a minority) about their lives under communism to make us aware that things were not as rosy as they appeared on the surface. Third, and most important, as foreign students, we were allowed to travel back and forth between the western and eastern parts of Europe. We had ample opportunity to observe the dynamic economies of countries like West Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands, and France, and compare them to the sclerotic ones in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries.
I will be eternally grateful to the Soviet government and its people for that opportunity to study in their country. As a young man from a poor Ghanaian family, I had reached a dead end. My family didn’t have the means to support my university education in Ghana, and without the Soviet scholarship, I most likely could not have advanced my education. The six years I spent in the Soviet Union constitute one of the best periods of my life. I received a great education and made lifelong friends. I am also happy the reforms introduced by President Mikhail Gorbachev ultimately allowed my Soviet friends to live in an environment that, as I learned in my everyday conversations with them, they aspired to.
Today Mr. Putin is unfortunately engaging in the same military adventurism that doomed the Soviet Union. It drained the resources that the leaders could have used to modernize the Soviet economy and improve the lives of the country’s citizens. Mr. Putin and Russia would win more hearts and minds in Africa now by engaging constructively with African leaders to build sorely needed infrastructure on the continent, for example, instead of supplying weapons to dictators.
Africa’s dysfunctional economies and endemic poverty, which are byproducts of weak institutions and rampant corruption, are the root causes of much of the terrorist activity on the continent. To address the problem, African leaders must reset their priorities. They should partner with governments of developed countries in an effort to bring about sustainable economic development in Africa. That is the way to eradicate the fertile grounds from which terrorist groups germinate on the continent. Buying Russian guns to fight terrorism cannot be a durable solution.