28 February 2023

Growing Great-power competition in Africa

Africa’s strategic importance in the world is growing. Amid Moscow’s growing isolation from the West following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin is intensifying its efforts to court African nations. FOI is monitoring these developments, as they are of utmost significance for both Sweden and Europe.

Two soldiers folding a flag.

French soldiers of the Barkhane operation folding the French flag after it was removed from the flagpole of the Barkhane military base during a handover ceremony to the Malian army in Timbuktu. Photo: Florent Vergnes/AFP.

What happens in Africa also affects the situation in Europe. Vital trade routes pass through the continent; approximately 20 percent of the EU’s trade passes through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In recent years, violent Islamism has spread to more countries, with major consequences for security, stability and migration.

Africa is also gaining geopolitical importance, for example through votes at the UN General Assembly (UNGA), where African countries form the largest regional group. This is evident in the West’s efforts to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at UNGA where many African countries have chosen to abstain. It is largely against this backdrop that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s has made four visits to Africa since February 2022.

“Since the Cold War, African countries have refused to take sides in the global power competition. Nevertheless, some governments maintain friendly ties to Moscow from the time when the Soviet Union supported liberation movements in southern Africa,” says Anna Ida Rock, Project Manager for FOI’s Africa Group.

New reports and memos

Five people work in FOI’s Africa Group and another five periodically contribute to its studies. Its work is primarily carried out on behalf of the Swedish Ministry of Defence. The group recently published a report and two memos concerning the Mali’s relationship with France, the former colonial power, and on Russia’s actions in Africa after the invasion of Ukraine.

In the report, Relationerna mellan Frankrike och Mali 2017–22 – Historien om en skilsmässa [Relations between France and Mali 2017–22 – The story of a divorce], researchers Carina Gunnarson and Gabriella Körling analyse the drivers behind the dramatic “divorce” between Mali and France. The diplomatic crisis between the two countries culminated in 2021–22; this led to the end of the French military Operation Barkhane – manned by about 5,000 troops. The operation was also supported by the Swedish military through its contribution to the UN mission Minusma and the European-led Task Force Takuba.

“The break-up was out in the open and came in three stages. Firstly, with Mali expelling the French ambassador. Secondly, the French forces being called home. And thirdly, France suspending its aid to Mali,” says Carina Gunnarson.

In the memo, Russia's relations with Africa: Small, military-oriented and with destabilising effects, FOI analyst Karolina Lindén gives a nuanced description of Russia’s relations with Africa. She argues that while Russia has less economic muscle than the EU and the US, Moscow’s official engagement in Africa is instead characterised by arms exports (Russia is Africa’s largest supplier of weapons). Russian unofficial engagement is made up of disinformation campaigns, as well as the provision of mercenary and security support, through the so-called Wagner Group, which often assists governments in countries struggling with instability and have substantial natural resources.

Burkina Faso next?

The Wagner Group’s destabilising role is also described by analyst and former ambassador Carl Michael Gräns in his memo Russia's growing influence in Mali – Is Burkina Faso next? He depicts worrying signs that Burkina Faso may follow the same experiences as Mali, by turning its back on the West and France and approaching Russia instead.

“The two countries face similar scenarios, with military juntas, increasing terrorism and expanding anti-French sentiment. But unlike Mali, Burkina Faso has no previous relationship with Russia and the junta has so far been wary of breaking with other countries even though its relation with France seems to be deteriorating,” says Carl Michael Gräns.

Reduced dependence on Russia

Looking ahead, Anna Ida Rock anticipates that Africa’s strategic importance will continue to increase. The continent has major deposits of oil, gas, minerals and metals that could make Europe less dependent on imports from Russia and China. China has established a military base in Djibouti and Russia is trying to open a base in Sudan.

“In addition, Africa has the world’s fastest-growing population; it is estimated that 25 percent of the world’s population will live there by 2050. Africa’s young population will then stand in stark contrast to an aging population in many other parts of the world,” she says.