- Paul Milli
- Africa Program, Chatham House, London
Addresses by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to national parliaments around the world have become a staple of the diplomatic calendar over the past few months.
But when he spoke to the African Union last Monday, only four of the continent’s leaders heard his speech, while their assistants or officials reprimanded the rest.
The disappointing turnout rate was another indication of the asymmetric battle Kyiv is facing to win over the African continent, which includes 54 countries, yet is represented by only 10 embassies – a quarter of the Russian diplomatic presence.
Hence, when Zelensky tries to change the African attitude toward the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, he has no political or security leverage comparable to that of Russia.
Ukraine is not a global military power and is not a permanent member of the UN Security Council, unlike Russia.
As a result, many African leaders felt that they simply could not simulate a direct confrontation between the West and Moscow.
This is the situation now, especially as the disruption of grain exports from Ukraine is contributing to an already serious food crisis, driving up import prices, and jeopardizing the arrival of commodities such as wheat and other grains and edible oil to non-self-sufficient African countries.
Earlier this month, Senegalese President Macky Sall, whose country chairs the current session of the African Union, traveled to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss with Putin how to remove obstacles standing in the way of food exports urgently needed by the continent from both Russia and Ukraine.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa also phoned Putin last week to discuss the delivery of Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to Africa.
The talks yielded modest progress, but not a decisive breakthrough.
At the same time, there are some indications that the invasion of Ukraine may have put pressure on the Russian military presence in Africa, amid confirmed reports indicating the recall of some forces from Wagner mercenaries from the Central African Republic.
This is not surprising, given the needs of the intense military campaign in the vital Donbass region.
However, there is no sign of reducing the Wagner Group’s presence in Mali, as its members have been repeatedly seen recently carrying out operations alongside government forces.
A new international context
In addition, security and military agreements between Russia and some African countries are in fact being strengthened.
Cameroon has become the latest target of Russian endeavors.
Cameroon’s Defense Minister Joseph Petti Assumu visited Moscow last month to join his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, in signing a five-year military cooperation agreement.
The agreement includes intelligence cooperation, training and exchange of experiences in the field of combating terrorism and maritime piracy. It is scheduled to conduct joint military exercises between the two sides.
The document does not refer to any arms exports, but hints that additional forms of cooperation could be agreed upon.
In fact, a deal struck between the two countries in 2015 had already allowed Russia to provide Cameroon with artillery, logistical and air support equipment, which are very useful in Cameroon’s campaign against jihadists in the Far North region.
Although the new agreement is less specific and detailed, it appears to have raised concerns in European capitals.
Within weeks, the Director of African Affairs at the French Foreign Ministry, Christophe Pigou, traveled to Yaounde to assure Cameroonian Foreign Minister Joseph Dion Ngot that Paris, too, remained committed to cooperation in the areas of economy, culture and counter-terrorism.
The Russo-Cameronian agreement took place within a new and dramatic international context, namely, the massive Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Western leaders now see Russia as a major security threat, challenging the foundations of democracy and the rules that govern the international system.
But some African governments refuse to accept this perception of the Putin regime. And this is not limited to the governments of Mali and the Central African Republic.
Some African countries, long considered partners of the West, have been reluctant to direct criticism of Putin’s actions.
Senegal, for example, chose not to support a United Nations General Assembly resolution on March 2 that demanded that Russia stop using force against Ukraine.
Cameroon also adopted an indecisive position, as its ambassador to the United Nations went to his country at the beginning of March in order not to attend this important vote.
Then, on April 7, the country also abstained from a vote to suspend Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Public opinion plays a role in such situations.
The support of France, the United States and Britain is not always the most popular policy in Africa, and the government of Cameroon, like many others on the continent, has apparently decided that it should take into account the feelings of the people.
But Cameroon went much further, taking the initiative to sign a new military cooperation agreement with Russia, despite Russia’s continued bombing of Ukrainian cities.
This different position may be explained by the internal situation in Cameroon.
The country’s French-speaking president Paul Biya faces security challenges on two fronts: while his government is fighting Nigeria’s Boko Haram and the Islamic State’s West African affiliate in the Far North, it is also engaged in a protracted conflict aimed at curbing separatist insurgency in the English-speaking southwest and northwest. .
In addition to Russia, Cameroon also has military cooperation agreements with France, China, Brazil and Turkey, and previously had an agreement with the United States.
Wagner accused of torture and murder
Western partners are concerned about issues related to human rights and governance, and their assistance to African countries comes with conditions.
Concerns about the situation in the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon prompted the United States to halt its military support.
With US aid on hold, Cameroonian analysts fear that the government may have decided to seek alternative support from a partner who is less reluctant to resort to relentless military plans, at the expense of human rights accountability.
Russia’s record in other African countries suggests that it has no qualms in supporting those who pursue hard-line tendencies.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner militias have been training the army since 2018, and their members helped government forces repel a rebel attack on the capital, Bangui, in early 2021.
But UN experts have accused the Wagner Group of committing serious human rights abuses against civilians, and its fighters were recently alleged to have killed civilians from villages near Bria, the center of the country’s diamond mining industry.
Wagner is also working alongside the national army in central Mali, where human rights group Human Rights Watch and local residents have alleged that allied forces killed and tortured villagers.
Malian government forces and Russian mercenaries are alleged to have killed more than 300 people in Mora.
It is hard to imagine that the Cameroonian government would go so far as to use these controversial mercenary forces. Most likely, it will be satisfied with the traditional ties with the Russian government, which were shaped by the agreement signed last month with Moscow.
But the new partnership with Russia may, of course, be a sign that the government is seeking to reassert itself militarily while trying to suppress what remains of separatist activities in the two English-speaking regions and the Islamist presence in the Far North.