US and Russia tussle for Africa influence with competing visits

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrives in South Africa just two days after Russia's Sergei Lavrov, as both warn of malign forces

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sergey Lavrov during his meeting with South African Minister of International Relations and Co-operation Naledi Pandor. AFP
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Top American and Russian officials are on competing tours of Africa as they vie for influence on the continent against the backdrop of war in Ukraine.

US Treasury chief Janet Yellen arrives in South Africa on Wednesday, just two days after Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was there.

President Joe Biden has declared that the US is recommitting to the continent after years of diplomatic neglect, but the superpower faces a game of catch-up with Russia and China, both of whom have built considerable influence across the continent.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is welcomed by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema during her visit to Zambia. AFP

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is trying to counteract American and European efforts to isolate Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks in Pretoria with South Africa's government, which much to the frustration of Ukraine and its western backers has refused to condemn Russian aggression.

The Russian minister praised his host's “independent, well-balanced and considerate approach” and slammed the West for putting "pressure" on African countries to join anti-Russia sanctions.

Naledi Pandor, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, told reporters that calling on Mr Lavrov for Russia to pull out of Ukraine would be “quite simplistic and infantile”.

Pretoria had at first called on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine unilaterally, but that was no longer its position, she said.

South Africa recently became chair of the Brics economic group – made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – which was set up as a counterweight to US global dominance.

The ruling African National Congress party, like liberation movements in other African countries, received significant support from the former Soviet Union during its struggle against apartheid and the party retains close ties with Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets his Eswatini counterpart Thuli Dladla in Mbabane. AFP

Reflecting those ties, a Russian naval frigate carrying Tsirkon hypersonic anti-ship and land-attack missiles will take part in joint South African, Russian and Chinese naval manoeuvres off Durban next month.

Pretoria publicly says it refuses to be bullied into picking sides over the Ukraine conflict, though one diplomat told The National that in private, officials appreciate Russia's conduct has put them in a difficult position.

Gustavo de Carvalho of the South African Institute of International Affairs said that since the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, both Russia and western powers have increased their presence in Africa.

“The West aims to counter what it calls ‘malign influence’ from Russia in Africa and has created a new impetus to gain Africa’s support,” he said.

“Regardless of the war’s outcome, it is vital that the continent ensures that it does not become a pawn of global power competition,” he warned.

Ms Yellen's visit is expected to be the first this year of a string of senior Washington figures, culminating in a trip by Mr Biden himself.

The Treasury Secretary has denied she is vying for influence on her tour, or trying to get African nations to choose sides over Ukraine. But she has used her trip to criticise both Moscow and Beijing.

Earlier this week, she said Russia's invasion of Ukraine had “exacerbated food insecurity and caused untold suffering”.

Mr Putin's actions were “creating an unnecessary drag on Africa's economy,” she said in a speech in Senegal.

Ms Yellen also made veiled criticism of China's investments on the continent, warning nations to be wary of "shiny deals that may be opaque and ultimately fail to actually benefit the people".

She has asked Beijing to help restructure Zambia's debt.

In an illustration of Beijing's influence on the continent, Nigeria on Tuesday marked the opening of a $1.5 billion, Chinese-funded deep seaport in the commercial hub of Lagos.

The Lekki Deep Sea Port is one of the biggest in West Africa and will be operated jointly by the Nigerian government, Lagos state, Singapore-based Tolaram Group and state-owned China Harbour Engineering Company.

Updated: January 25, 2023, 2:09 AM