How Russia became Africa’s favorite superpower

OPINION: The West's failures as well as the legacy of colonialism has compelled some African nations to seek geopolitical partnerships with Russia and China.

Ethiopians hold up the poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin President of Russia by saying "We thank you Erdogan" during a huge gathering built up at Meskel square, a central road , in Addis Ababa to condemn the Tigray People's Liberation Front fighting for a comeback after it was deposed in 2018 through three years of antigovernment protests in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on August 8, 2021. (Photo by Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

When war erupted between Russia and Ukraine, a line formed at the Russian Embassy in Addis Ababa with a few dozen Ethiopians ready to fight for Russia.

Why this response?

To understand some Africans’ views of Russia as their favorite superpower, you have to understand how the West has failed Africans repeatedly, not to mention the legacy of Western colonialism that Africans still suffer from to this day.

China has stepped in to be a major economic player in the African continent over the past three decades, but Russia is a big player on the military front as the largest arms supplier to sub-Saharan Africa.

Russia’s footprints are beginning to be felt in many of the major military conflicts in the continent, often through weapons sales but sometimes with boots on the ground through private military forces linked to the Russian government. 

The Wagner Group, a secretive private military outfit operating out of Moscow has been busy across the African continent, while it remains engaged in the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side.

The Wagner Group is headed by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin who started out as a caterer for Vladimir Putin and eventually scaled up his business to provide private military contractors, similar to what Blackwater, later renamed Constellis, and other similar companies do for the American government. 

Companies such as the Wagner Group offer counterinsurgency and counterterrorism training and advice to African governments struggling to combat militancy and often receive payment in the form of concessions for natural resources, commercial contracts, or access to strategic locations such as ports and air bases. 

Despite the fact that mercenary activity has been illegal in Russia since 2018, these contractors have been involved in various conflicts around the world, including in Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali. They have also been accused of human rights violations and abuse of civilians. The use of private security contractors allows the Kremlin to avoid official military casualties and maintain plausible deniability for their actions.

In Ethiopia’s case, Russia and China consistently sided with Ethiopia in the United Nations Security Council meetings in which Western powers sided with the regional leaders of Tigray, who had ruled Ethiopia for 27 years and were now fighting the central government in a dispute over regional autonomy and power. 

A man waves a Russian flag during the celebration of the 126th victory of Adwa, at Menelik square in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 02, 2022. The Battle of Adwa was the climactic battle of the First Italo-Ethiopian War. (Photo by AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

As the rebels headed by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, or TPLF, advanced on the capital Addis Ababa in late 2021, the United States predicted an imminent collapse of Ethiopia’s government and refused to help militarily, which forced the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to turn to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for military aid, which eventually turned the tide of the war. 

But America’s refusal to help Ethiopia and the Biden administration’s leveling of economic sanctions against Ethiopia enraged many Ethiopians in and out of the country, prompting those living in the diaspora to vote against Democrats in elections in Virginia and Georgia where there are large concentrations of Ethiopian-Americans. 

Ethiopians with long memories trace their country’s friendship with Russia to the time of the czar and successor Russian governments. 

When fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Russia was the lone country that stood up to condemn Italy at the League of Nations where Emperor Haile Selassie urged world leaders to come to his country’s aid, noted Derese Getachew Kassa in a tweet during the height of Ethiopia’s civil war. 

“Ethiopians relish history,” added Kassa, a professor of sociology at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.  “At times they are burdened with it too. But in this time of darkness, we will remember not just the adversity and scheme of our geopolitical foes; but the SILENCE of our ‘friends.’”

Seventeen African countries voted to abstain from a vote at the United Nations that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including South Africa. 

There is a very strong sentiment of love in South Africa for the anti-apartheid American activists in the U.S. who helped defeat the racist system but also a lot of residual anger toward the American government, which helped sustain the white-minority government for decades in the name of fighting Communism.  

“The warm feelings many South Africans — and other Africans — have for the Soviet era are understandable given the economic, military, and diplomatic assistance Moscow provided to liberation movements across the continent at a time when the United States and Europe opposed them and even provided aid to their oppressors,” wrote Eusibeus McKaiser and Sasha Polakow-Suranksy in Foreign Policy. “But these loyalties and perceived historical debts have blinded South Africa’s leaders to the reality of what contemporary Russia has become.”

The Congolese remember how the CIA helped the Belgians murder their young leader Patrice Lumumba and install Mubutu Seseko, who looted the largest and most resource-rich country in Africa for four decades. The Angolans remember how the Russians and Cubans helped turn back Western-backed apartheid invasions from South Africa. The Mozambicans remember how the West backed colonial power Portugal as they fought for their freedom. 

The U.S. government appears to be aware of its tenuous reputation among Africans and has lately launched a charm offensive, inviting such former pariahs like Ethiopia’s Abiy to watch the World Cup with President Joe Biden during the recent U.S.- Africa Leaders Summit. 

The summit underscored the work the U.S. has to do to convince Africans that it’s just not a fair-weathered friend and is dedicated to addressing the concerns of Africans in a multipolar world where Russia and China offer an alternative vision of the geopolitical landscape. 

Samson Mulugeta has reported from 45 of Africa’s 54 countries and has lived and worked in South Africa for two decades.

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