A bill that would compel the United States Government to counter Russian influence in Africa by punishing African governments that are “complicit in aiding Moscow’s activities” has been passed by the US House of Representatives, and was read in the Senate on 28 April 2022, and has now been referred to the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations. If the Senate passes the law, President Biden will have 10 working days to sign it into law.

The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Gregory Weldon Meeks, the House Committee Chairman on Foreign Affairs is titled ‘Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act’ and intends to counter Russia in Africa by tracking its military operations, investments, oligarchs and suspected illicit financial flows. Mr Meeks is a Democrat from New York.

The bill, which was voted overwhelmingly with 415 votes – the House of Representatives has 435 members – will require the US State Department to send to Congress, every year, a report on US measures to counter Russian machinations in Africa. This would enable Congress to: “regularly assess the scale and scope of the Russian Federation’s influence and activities in Africa that undermine United States objectives and interests, and determine how to address and counter such influence and activities effectively, including through appropriate United States foreign assistance programmes; and to hold accountable the Russian Federation and African governments and their officials who are complicit in aiding such malign influence and activities.”

The bill is part of a broader US-led strategy to punish Russia for its ongoing invasion of Ukraine and a response to the refusal of African governments to support sanctions against Moscow outrightly. During the 3 March vote at the United Nations General Assembly on a resolution condemning the invasion, 27 African countries supported the resolution, 17 abstained and nine were absent altogether. Only Eritrea voted against the resolution.

Although Rep. Meeks has cast the bill as intended to protect Africa’s “fragile states” and “all innocent people who have been victimised by Putin’s mercenaries and agents credibly accused of gross violations of human rights in Africa, including in the Central African Republic and Mali,” the bill will be viewed in many African capitals as an expression of the unhappiness that Washington feels regarding how many African countries voted at the General Assembly and their relatively non-aligned position. The United States, obviously unsatisfied with the choice of about a third of Africa’s position, decided to take things further: on 3 March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Macky Sall, chairperson of the African Union in an attempt to press home US demands in what many analysts have viewed as America’s paternalistic attitude towards the continent which bordered around a disrespect for its sovereignty in decision making. This chain of events begs the question: why were African countries not more enthusiastic about voting against Russia and taking a hardline position regarding its invasion of Ukraine?

In 2020, Russia exported $12.4 billion worth of goods to Africa and bought only $1.6 billion worth of goods from the continent. From Russia, Africa mainly buys grains (30% of overall imports), especially wheat, which alone accounts for about 95% of the cereals imported. More than half of the wheat supplies from Russia are absorbed by the most populous countries on the continent: Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Tanzania, Algeria, Kenya, and South Africa. Besides grains, Africa also buys mineral fuels such as coal, oil products, and gas from Russia. These account for 18.3% of the total imports. For its part, Africa sells mainly edible fruits and vegetables, aquatic products, organic chemicals, and precious metals to its partner. However, this trade volume gives Russia only a 2.4% market share in Africa-bound trade compared with the European Union with 33% and China with 19%. Evidently, it is not trade that has dampened the enthusiasm of African countries with respect to taking sides in this conflict.

After a decline in its influence on the continent following the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has been steadily rebuilding its soft power influence in Africa through diplomacy, investments and defence agreements. Of these, the area where its influence is most apparent is in defence: Russia is now the largest exporter of weapons to sub-Saharan Africa, with exports increasing by 23% from 2016 to 2020 when compared to the period between 2011 and 2015. These weapons sales have become a tool by Moscow to influence African political and military leaders. This gives the Russians a significant control of the African arms market with a 37.6% market share between 2015 and 2019. This is more than twice the share of the United States with 16%, France with 14%, and China with 9%. Algeria reportedly remains the biggest customer of Russian weapons on the continent, followed by Egypt, Sudan, and Angola. It is now estimated that Moscow may account for as much as 49% of total arms exports to Africa, according to the database of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Moscow has also signed military cooperation agreements with 27 countries, half of the entire continent, since 2015, including the latest signed with Cameroon on 12 April right in the middle of its invasion of Ukraine, handing it a minor diplomatic win. Another area of defence where Russia has an influence on African countries is through the work of private military contractors such as the Wagner Group, a defence behemoth run by a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, which enjoys considerable state support. The Wagner Group is particularly active in unstable countries on the continent such as Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic where it provides military training and leadership protection in exchange for fees or mineral concessions.

In Libya, the Wagner Group has provided support to General Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army that seeks to overthrow the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Wagner has established bases and deployed troops that help Khaftar further Russian interests in North Africa. Moscow has been accused by the United States of providing support to the Wagner Group, including fighter jets. The Wagner Group has also been active in the Central African Republic and Mali since 2018 and December 2021 respectively. In both countries, the arrival of mercenaries from the Wagner Group coincided with the withdrawal of the French military, especially after the fallouts of Paris with the governments of both countries. The presence of the Wagner Group has been holding up the weak government of President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in Bangui, and Colonel Assimi Goita regime in Bamako which came into power via a coup in a May 2021 coup. Their presence continues to be denied by the governments of Russia, Mali and the Central African Republic. Besides the Wagner Group, another lesser-known Russian security company, Sewa Security Services, operates in the Central African Republic and is responsible for the personal protection of President Faustin-ArchangeTouadéra.

Officially, Moscow has since 2018 expanded its diplomatic and financial activities in the former French colony in exchange for major concessions in the country’s mining sector, particularly gold and diamonds, including pledging to invest up to $11 billion in the country’s reconstruction. The Central African Republic has mineral resource endowment including copper, diamond, gold, graphite, ilmenite, iron ore, kaolin, kyanite, lignite, limestone, manganese, monazite, quartz, rutile, salt, tin, and uranium.

Unofficially, the presence of the Russian private military contractors and presidential advisors has given Moscow immense influence in the Central African Republic. There are accusations of meddling in the country’s politics, including orchestrating the removal of the president of the National Assembly for protesting the lack of openness in mining contracts which benefits Russia. A lot of the mining going on is also not done legally and is suspected to be a conduit for money laundering as a way to bypass sanctions on Russia.

Previously, the Wagner Group has provided support to the Omar al-Bashir regime in Sudan, including deploying some 500 men to put down local uprisings against the government in 2017. As payment, Prigozhin received exclusive rights to gold mining in Sudan, channelled through his M-Invest company. It was the Wagner Group’s influence that Moscow leveraged to secure an agreement to build a naval base on the Red Sea in 2019, a site of strategic importance to Putin. However, the activities of the Wagner Group have been trailed by accusations of human rights violations: Russian mercenaries have been accused of summarily executing, torturing and beating civilians in the Central African Republic (CAR). The international organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently said that it had been told by witnesses that in one incident last July, Russian-speaking fighters shot dead at least 12 unarmed men at a roadblock. Similar accusations have also been made by the Working Group on the use of Mercenaries of the United Nations Human Rights Council on what they call ‘grave human rights abuses including mass summary executions, arbitrary detentions, torture, forced disappearances, forced displacement of civilians, indiscriminate targeting of civilian facilities and attacks on humanitarian workers.

In Mali, Internal Malian army documents seen by the Guardian Newspapers reveal the presence of Wagner members – referred to as “Russian instructors” – on “mixed missions” with Malian soldiers and gendarmes during operations in which many civilians have been killed. According to data compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), as many as 456 civilians died in nine incidents involving Malian forces and Wagner between January and mid-April this year.

It is expected that such activities of the Russian government in African countries will come on the radar of the proposed law. However, what is unclear is whether this will apply to any Russian investments in African countries.

The US National Defence Strategy was released in 2018 and it emphasised America’s shift away from counterterrorism operations in Africa. In its place, the strategy aimed to “support relationships to address significant terrorist threats in Africa.” This development came alongside a speech by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton at the Heritage Foundation in December 2018 that the United States will refocus its Africa priorities in light of the mounting geopolitical competition with China and Russia to counter their influences. In pursuit of this goal, the United States has more or less relinquished its Africa counter-insurgency initiatives to France and has adopted a reactionary role which is what Bolton’s speech clearly indicated. The effect of this backchanneling is that it has okayed or overlooked France’s missteps on the continent and the latter’s continued political and economic hold on its former colonies has earned it criticism which also extends to the US. The rising tide of anti-French sentiment in Sahelian countries such as Chad, Mali, Niger and Senegal has not been limited to France alone but has also been extended to the realms of broader anti-Western sentiments that France and the United States embody.

The proposed legislation is an indication that the US is not as concerned about its image problems on the continent as it ought to be, and does not have problems with being painted with the same brush as its overbearing Western partners in Africa, especially France. We think that this is a strategic error, especially as one fallout of the new legislation is that it will also heighten the geopolitical competition and strategic rivalry between East and West in a favourable way for Africa’s strongmen. These strongmen will know that going forward, they can put up a minimal display of supporting American initiatives to be in Washington’s good books. The long term effect of that would be a stifling of democracy and human rights on the continent, and the rise of a generation who will mistrust American motives, even more, having the unintended consequence of pushing future African leaders deeper into the orbit of America’s geopolitical rivals.