Since then, however, African criticism of Russia has been subdued, especially in the UN, where the continent’s 54 votes can swing resolutions. Barely more than half of the African states voted in favor of the UN resolution of March 2 condemning the invasion; 17 abstained, eight abstained. Eritrea – along with Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Russia itself – voted against. Despite diplomatic efforts by the United States and its allies to rally African opinion against Russia, several countries have climbed the fence: 33 either abstained or did not vote in a resolution on April 7 to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.
The reasons for the reluctance to criticize Russia range from the historical to the pragmatic. The colonial past, Kimani quoted, informs of a widespread caution against admonitions from the West. Gauzy recalls Soviet support for newly independent African states in the 1960s and 70s encourages a certain amount of sympathy for Moscow.
The recent deepening of economic relations also plays a role: although Russia is no longer a major contributor to development aid to Africa and only a minor source of direct investment, it has become a major supplier of food, especially in the past. few years, an increasingly important provider of military assistance.
Read: How a sanctioned Russian company gained access to Sudan’s gold
But these ties are now pinching Africa. The refusal to take a stand not only represents a moral danger, it provides no protection against the consequences of war. African nations are already in economic pain as a direct consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine; political pain will inevitably follow.
The war has cut off Africa from two major grain sources. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, 14 African nations depend on Russia and Ukraine for half of their wheat, with Eritrea (100%), Somalia (over 90%) and Egypt (almost 75%) at the top of the list. Overall, wheat imports account for 90% of Africa’s trade with Russia at $ 4 billion and nearly 50% of trade at $ 4.5 billion with Ukraine, according to the African Development Bank. In an interview with Al Jazeera, the bank’s president, Akinwumi Adesina, warned of a growing food crisis that could “destabilize the continent.”
In addition to shrinking wheat supplies, the war has caused a rise in the price of a wide range of commodities, which has sent inflation soaring, even as nations struggle to recover from two years of economic suffering caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This poses a threat to governments across developing countries, but especially in Africa, which is already experiencing a democratic withdrawal and a resurgence of military coups.
The war also draws the attention of the developed world to Ukraine, making it almost impossible for African nations to get the extra aid they desperately need. It is not surprising that economists covering Africa at the World Bank are predicting more civil unrest.
It is the greatest irony that the prospect of civil unrest, which in itself is the consequence of Russia’s actions elsewhere, will increase African demand for Russian services of a different kind. For many governments, the ammunition and manpower provided by Moscow are precisely the tools they need to suppress political disagreement and strike down a reluctant population.
The most potent of these weapons are the mercenaries from the Wagner group, the Kremlin’s infamous private army for hire. After first appearing in 2014 as an aide to the Russian military during the annexation of Crimea, the organization has become an instrument of Putin’s extension to despots and autocrats throughout Africa. Wagner is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Putin.
Russian mercenaries, most of them military veterans, have for several years fought for rebel general Khalifa Haftar in Libya and supported the government of the Central African Republic. Recently, Wagner warriors have appeared in Mozambique, Sudan, Madagascar and Mali. (The group is also active in Syria.)
The withdrawal of French forces from the fight against jihadist groups in the Sahel – the belt of countries just south of the Sahara – represents more opportunities for Prigozhin, especially as many of these countries are now ruled by military junta. Wagner fighters have not always been successful against terrorists: in Mozambique, for example, Russian entrepreneurs fled from persistent attacks by Islamist militias. But the Wagner warriors’ propensity for extreme violence and disregard for the rules of war – lowering such things as human rights – make them attractive to regimes seeking to eradicate political resistance. As payment, Prigozhin gladly accepts rights to exploit minerals, such as gold in Sudan.
Putin’s war represents both a short-term challenge and a long-term opportunity for Wagner. It has been committed to sending fighters from Africa to Ukraine and will fight to cope with any increase in demand from African states. But Prigozhin will also be able to recruit from the ranks of battle-hardened Russian soldiers.
African countries may be sitting on the fence over the war in Ukraine, but they will be its victims in the years to come.
More from other authors on Bloomberg Opinion:
Putin’s Autarky election is between Stalin and Hitler: Leonid Bershidsky
Putin is losing, so here’s how he wants to make the war worse: Andreas Kluth
Some countries belong on the sidelines of Cold War 2: Hal Brands
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial staff or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. He was former editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times and was editor-in-chief of Quartz and Time Magazine’s international editor.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion