Europe’s relations with Africa and Asia are on the brink of collapse, and Russia is benefiting.
Over a year since the onset of the war in Ukraine, the world remains caught in the middle. Against a backdrop of high energy and food prices, ravaging inflation, social unrest and fears of another global recession, western and Russian blocs are once again vying for the support of nations from the developing world.
Emmanuel Macron, Olaf Scholz, Sergei Lavrov, Qin Gang and Anthony Blinken are just some of the figures who have made high-profile visits to Africa in the last 12 months. All have largely focused on co-operation and trade, yet each has done so in the language of a cold-war reboot, with Ukraine as one of its most prominent features.
Armed with their respective narratives, these superpowers wish the nations of Africa and Asia to pick a side. Yet, unlike in the previous century, those nations cannot so easily be made to choose and nor should they have to. Russia understands this; the west does not.
It is no secret that Africa has been reluctant to condemn overtly Russia’s actions in Ukraine or to participate in western efforts to sanction and isolate the warring country. Instead, African and Asian nations have continued to welcome these longstanding partners with open arms—widely condemning the war but not Russia.
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In Malawi, for instance, Russia’s deliveries of tens of thousands of tonnes of fertiliser amid global shortages are seen by struggling farmers as heaven-sent. Malawi’s minister of agriculture shook hands with the Russian ambassador this month, describing Russia gratefully as ‘a true friend’. Russia’s plans to send 260,000 tonnes of fertiliser to countries across Africa are certain to spread similar sentiments. In my country, Congo-Brazzaville, the government signed five major co-operation agreements with Russia amid its war with Ukraine, including for the construction of a new oil pipeline and to enhance military co-operation.
This charm offensive, prominently led by the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov—who has visited South Africa, Eswatini, Angola, Eritrea, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania just since January—is already nourishing pro-Russian sentiment throughout the continent. It stands in sharp contrast to the damp squib of the recent African adventure by the French president, Macron.
Tone-deaf faux pas
In his press conference with the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, occasion for perhaps the most tone-deaf faux pas of his trip, Macron was repeatedly invited to condemn Rwanda’s support for M23 rebels causing havoc in eastern DRC—a situation comparable to Russia’s covert support for Donbas separatists in recent years. To all intents and purposes, Macron failed to do so. Instead, when a French journalist quizzed him on the disparaging reference by the former defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian to an ‘African-style compromise’ in relation to Tshisekedi’s 2019 election, Macron proceeded to lecture the Congolese president on freedom of the press—much to the disbelief of those witnessing the scene.
Despite Macron’s effusive rhetoric about ‘new relationships’ and ‘new starts’, his outburst brought yet another bitter reminder of Europe’s enduringly paternalistic and dissonant attitude towards the continent. Decades of European political and military influence in Africa have thereby failed to generate meaningful progress, when they did not actively undermine efforts to do so.
Africans are wise to this and refuse to take it anymore, as evidenced by the growth in anti-French sentiment in west Africa. Russia, China and others, though far from being without reproach, are merely seizing the presented opportunities.
Russia fills the gap
While the share of European Union aid going to Africa has declined significantly, similar problems are afoot in Europe’s relationships with Asia. Its share of southeast-Asian merchandise trade, excluding China, fell by over a third over the last two decades. Western Europe was the destination for less than a tenth of Malaysian, Singaporean, South Korean and Taiwanese exports in 2021.
Russia is again moving quickly to fill the gap, adopting China as its main trading partner, and consistently exporting oil and gas to eager Asian buyers rather than the west. When Russia suspended its double-taxation treaties with ‘unfriendly’ countries around the world in mid-March, most southeast-Asian countries were exempted.
Moreover, Russia has over the last decade become the largest arms supplier to the region, recently running joint naval exercises with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have all rejected imposing sanctions on Moscow, while Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia to improve agricultural trade earlier this year.
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One cannot fault these nations for engaging in partnerships and co-operation with international partners, in the interest of addressing their most urgent social priorities. Nor can one criticise African and Asian countries for taking with a pinch of salt a discourse on international values when change stems instead from imposed global power.
What lessons can be given about territorial integrity and justice, when the events of 2011 in Libya—in which an aerial intervention led by Britain and France spurred the fall of the leader, Muammar Gaddafi—with their enduring consequences, remain traumatically fresh in African minds? Or when the posture of African countries relative to the war in Ukraine is almost identical to that of Europe vis-à-vis the conflict in the eastern provinces of the DRC?
What lessons should be drawn from European courts proceeding to the seizure of Malaysian assets and properties worth $15 billion—including lucrative oil and gas assets—based on a questionable arbitration authorised by a Spanish arbitrator facing criminal prosecution from the Spanish authorities? And who will really benefit, given that this claim on sovereign territories, derived from a mid-19th-century agreement between a long-vanished sultanate and a colonial-era British company, is funded by unknown third-party investors? The willingness of European courts to confiscate the resources and assets of a sovereign Asian nation on such flimsy grounds is not lost on observers in Africa and across the developing world.
Relationships between the old and new worlds will continue to be strained as long as underlying assumptions and beliefs do not evolve. Developing nations are not oblivious to the many contradictions between rhetoric and practice in the world as we know it: a system of aid and trade that nourishes the imbalances it purports to address; a discourse on international law that crumbles in the face of past transgressions and current pressures; negotiations on climate finance in which urgency stops where economic interests begin.
The western world can only reverse this trajectory by seeking to put on a genuinely new footing its relations with the countries of Africa and Asia—understanding what a respectful partnership between equally legitimate nations truly entails. This means accepting a due share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, understanding expectations for the future, being willing to make real concessions and aligning discourse with dollars and deeds.
In doing so, the western world would reassure those of us who continue to believe in the promises of the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that these were not merely pretences to maintain hegemony in the face of existential threats but rather an enduring vision for a better world which remains worth fighting for.
Jérémy Lissouba has been a member of parliament in the Republic of Congo for the main opposition party since 2017 and leads his party’s group in the National Assembly. He is a deputy judge in the country’s High Court of Justice and an alumnus of the Obama Foundation’s 2018 Africa Leaders Programme.