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We Need to Change How We Talk about Russia in Africa

Emily Couch

Against the backdrop of China and Russia’s growing influence on the African continent, Western news outlets have recently seized on comparisons between these current rivalries and those of the nineteenth-century colonial era. Emily Couch explains why we need to question the new “scramble for Africa” narrative.

Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes President of Zimbabwe Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa at the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi. Photo: RIA Novosti, Source:


The language of empire strikes back. Against the backdrop of China’s growing influence on the African continent and the attempts of other great powers to counter Beijing’s sway, Western news outlets have, in the last eighteen months, seized on comparisons between these current rivalries and those of the nineteenth-century colonial era. The Economist led the way with its headline “The New Scramble for Africa.”

On October 23, the Black Sea resort town of Sochi welcomed more than 3,000 delegates—forty-three of whom were heads of state and government—from all fifty-four African states for the first ever Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum, hosted by Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and Egypt’s president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. According to Novaya Gazeta, Putin wrote off approximately $24 billion in African debt during the two-day summit. The unprecedented gathering is widely seen as an answer to Beijing’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation.

Predictably, the summit has injected new life into the “scramble for Africa” narrative. Does it signal a new and more intense phase of competition between China and Russia? How does the Kremlin’s Africa policy fit into the shifting geopolitical landscape? How much of a boost does it give Russia’s struggle for great power status? We should view the Kremlin’s latest political performance not as a prompt for yet more speculative answers to these now commonplace questions but rather as a critical juncture at which to reflect on how we as Western observers talk about Russia in Africa. The lens of geopolitics and great power competition should be supplemented by one that spotlights the agency of individual African countries, local populations, and indeed racial politics within Russia itself.

The simplest aspect, but perhaps one of the most significant, of how we talk about Russia in Africa concerns the words we use to do so. The phrase “scramble for Africa,” coined by the Times newspaper in 1884, refers to the period between 1881 and 1914 when the European imperial powers—namely, Britain, France, Germany, and Belgium—fought with local populations and each other to stake their claims on the continent, with often horrific humanitarian costs. Russia’s political foray on the continent is regularly situated within this nineteenth-century colonial frame, with the Times running the piece “President Putin Woos Strongmen in Scramble for Africa,”Newsweek’s “Russia-Africa Summit: How Putin Is Challenging the U.S. and China in a New Continental Race,” and Bloomberg‘s “Putin Enters Contest for Africa after Humbling U.S. in Middle East.”

The vogue for the nineteenth-century phrase is deeply problematic: each of these headlines posits Africa not only as a unitary actor (when in fact it comprises fifty-four distinct countries and countless more tribes and ethnic groups) but as the passive object of the policies of more powerful countries. Breaking away from this neocolonial paradigm is the first step toward a more holistic understanding of relations between African nations and Russia.

Beyond discursive politics, the summit prompts us to see the Kremlin’s Africa policy as a symbiotic process in which African leaders participate rather than a didactic relationship in which Russia simply dictates to them. Vedomostireported that Namibian president Hage Geingob has requested that Putin send Russian military advisers to the country. The request comes as Namibia approaches its November 27 presidential election and shortly after Geingob opened the Chinese-funded Namibia Command and Staff College Okahandja. That Putin did not immediately respond to the request indicates it was a clear initiative on the Namibian side and underscores President Geingob’s confidence in using both China and Russia to advance the interests of his own country.

As Belgium’s infamous colonization of the Congo in the early twentieth century showed, the projection of power by external actors in Africa can have disastrous human consequences. To understand Russia’s Africa policy, we must therefore bring to the fore its impact on local populations. The energy deals signed during the summit offer a prime field in which to apply this approach: Russia's geological survey agency signed agreements with South Sudan, Rwanda, and Guinea to search for carbon resources on their territories. Moreover, Putin also discussed the mining of gold, uranium, diamonds and iron with President Geingob, and Russia's largest oil company, Rosneft, said it was preparing to explore Mozambique's offshore oil resources.

That Africa is the first among the world’s regions to feel the devastating human effects of climate change is now widely acknowledged. Arguably more significant than the economic boons Russia stands to realize from the aforementioned deals are the adverse environmental effects that resource mining could have on the populations of these countries.

Putin’s promise to help bring stability to the Central African Republic also invites a human approach to the analysis of Russia’s Africa policy. According to the UN, the protracted conflict has displaced  more than 642,000 people. During the past year, the actions of Putin’s associate Yevgeny Prigozhin and Prigozhin’s private military company, Wagner Group, in the CAR have faced increasing scrutiny. Columbia University professor Kimberly Marten, for example, has highlighted the group’s mercenary interests in CAR’s mineral-rich mines. Discerning exactly what Putin’s promise entails therefore has a particular humanitarian urgency.

Foreign policy and domestic policy are inextricably connected. For this reason, it is important also to examine the impact of foreign policy on domestic social attitudes. Russia has a notoriously poor record on racism, particularly when it comes to African migrants, as the Los Angeles Times highlighted back in 2014. Since the country hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2018, these problems have been exacerbated by the presence of many Africans who outstayed their Fan Visas in hope of seeking asylum or finding work. In March of this year, Interior Ministry official Andrei Krayushkin confirmed  that 5,500 of these individuals remained in Russia.

Mixed race African Russians also continue to face discrimination and abuse, as this Calvert Journal report shows. In the case of Russia’s “pivot to the East,” official foreign policy has fostered positive attitudes among the Russian population toward China and its people. To what extent the Kremlin’s pivot to Africa will have an analogous effect remains to be seen, but attention should be paid to whether Putin’s overtures to African leaders have any tangible effect on the lives of Russia’s own African population.

Africa is not, as Belgium’s King Leopold contemptuously called it, a “magnificent cake” that exists purely to sate the appetites of great powers—Russia among them. Rather, it is an umbrella term that includes a plethora of independent actors with their own agendas distinct from those of Moscow, Beijing, or indeed Washington. As the South China Morning Post recently reported, Russia is playing catch-up to China and the West in terms of developing economic ties with the continent. With African nations—and the continent as a whole—in ascendance on the international stage, it is time to rethink the way we analyze great powers’ Africa policies. And Russia’s policy is a good place to start.

About the Author

Emily Couch

Emily Couch

Program Assistant for Eurasia, PEN America
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more