Speeches by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to world summits and national parliaments have dominated the diplomatic calendar over the past few months.
But when he spoke to the African Union (AU) on Monday, only four heads of state from the continent were heard, with others represented by subordinates or officials.
The disappointing turnout is indicative of the unequal struggle Kyiv faces in getting its message across on a continent of 54 countries with just 10 embassies – only a quarter of what Russia exists.
As a result, Zelensky cannot wield the political or security clout compared to Moscow’s when trying to change African perceptions of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion war.
Unlike Russia, Ukraine is not a global military power, nor is it a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
As a result, many African leaders have concluded that they simply cannot emulate the West’s direct confrontation with Moscow.
Especially now, blockages in Ukrainian grain export shipments are exacerbating an already severe food crisis, pushing up import prices and jeopardizing the flow of wheat, other grains and edible oils to non-self-reliant African countries. sufficient.
Earlier this month, Senegalese President McKee Saller, who is now the head of the African Union, flew to Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss with Putin how to remove obstacles to exports of much-needed food from Russia and Ukraine.
Last week, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called Putin to discuss sending Russian agricultural products and fertilizers to Africa.
The talks made some modest progress, but not a decisive breakthrough.
Meanwhile, there are some signs that the invasion of Ukraine could put pressure on Russia’s military operations in Africa, with unsubstantiated rumors that some troops from the mercenary Wagner will be recalled from the Central African Republic (CAR).
This is not surprising given the need for intense military operations in the key Donbass region.
However, Wagner’s presence in Mali shows no sign of diminishing – Malians often operate alongside the national army.
dramatic new international context
Moreover, despite the demands of the Ukrainian war, Russia’s official security and military deals in Africa are actually being strengthened.
Cameroon has become the latest target of the charm offensive.
Cameroonian Defense Minister Joseph Betty Assomo signed a five-year military cooperation agreement with Russian Defense Minister Shoigu in Moscow last month.
This includes intelligence, training and sharing of expertise in combating terrorism and piracy. A joint exercise is planned.
The document makes no mention of arms shipments, but hints that other forms of cooperation may be agreed upon.
In fact, a 2015 deal already provided Russia with artillery, logistics and air support — useful in fighting jihadists in Cameroon’s far north.
However, while the new deal with Moscow is less specific, it appears to have caught the attention of Western nations.
A few weeks later, Christophe Bigot, the director of African affairs at the French foreign ministry, flew to Yaounde, seemingly to reassure Cameroonian Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngut that Paris would also remain committed to economic, cultural and Counter-terrorism cooperation.
The deal with Cameroon was signed against a dramatic new international backdrop – a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Western leaders now see Russia as a major security threat, challenging the foundations of democracy and the rules-based international system.
However, some African governments are reluctant to accept this negative perception of Putin’s regime. This doesn’t just apply to countries like Mali and Central Africa.
Anti-Western sentiment on the rise
The West’s longtime African partners have also been outspoken in criticism of Putin’s actions.
For example, Senegal chose not to support a March 2 UN General Assembly motion calling on Russia to stop the use of force against Ukraine.
Cameroon took a similarly ambiguous position, with its ambassador to the United Nations wisely flying home in early March, thus missing a crucial vote.
Then on April 7, when the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council, the country also abstained.
Domestic public opinion played a role in this position.
Standing with France, the US and the UK is not always the continent’s most popular position, and the Cameroonian government, like many of its counterparts, seems to have concluded that it must take into account such popular feelings.
Cameroon, however, went even further, voluntarily deciding to sign a new military cooperation agreement with Russia as Russian troops continued to bomb Ukrainian cities.
The domestic situation in Cameroon may explain this unique position.
French-speaking President Paul Biya faces security challenges on two fronts: As his regime battles Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Islamic State’s West African province (Iswap) in the far north, it also conducts a lengthy campaign. The struggle to suppress separatist insurgents in the southwest and northwest of the country’s two English-speaking regions.
In addition to Russia, Cameroon has military cooperation agreements with France, China, Brazil and Turkey – and with the United States in the past.
Wagner charged with torture and killing
However, Western partners such as Washington and Paris are concerned with human rights and governance issues, and their aid is conditional.
In fact, concerns about the situation in the English-speaking region of Cameroon led to the recent suspension of US military support.
As Americans back down, some Cameroonian analysts worry that the government may now have decided to seek alternative support from a partner less squeamish about uncompromising military tactics, at the expense of human rights accountability.
Moscow’s record elsewhere in Africa suggests it is content to support a hard line.
In the Central African Republic, Wagner has been training the army since 2018, and his personnel helped government forces repel a rebel attack on the capital Bangui in early 2021.
But U.N. experts have accused Wagner of gross human rights violations against civilians; his fighters are said to have recently killed civilian villagers near Bria, the center of the diamond mining industry.
Wagner also operates in central Mali with the national army, where Human Rights Watch and the local population say the two coalition forces tortured and killed villagers.
Malian government forces and Russian mercenaries allegedly killed more than 300 people in Mora, central Mali, in March.
It’s hard to see a controversial mercenary contractor being hired by the Cameroonian government. It appears more likely to stick to the traditional intergovernmental relationship envisioned in last month’s Moscow deal.
But a new partnership with Russia is sure to herald new military confidence as the regime seeks to suppress remnant separatist insurgents in English-speaking regions and the presence of radical Islamists in the far north.