January 24, 2023

US, Russian Top Officials Visit Africa in Latest Battle for Continent


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Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen

Russian and American top officials are visiting Africa this week in trips that are part of what is seen in diplomatic circles as competitive drives to increase leverage in Africa through alignments with key states on the continent.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in S Africa on Monday to “extend already good relations”, while U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, on a three-country African tour, will be in Pretoria midweek.

In Kenya, US top diplomat to United Nations Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield is set to land on Wednesday.

Lavrov landed in Pretoria and shortly thereafter shared a platform addressing media with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor.

The ministers said they would discuss, among other matters, preparations for the second Russian-African summit and conference that are slated for July 26-29 in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bilateral co-operation

Increased bilateral co-operation, as well as in multi-lateral fora such as the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping, were the main objectives of the ‘working visit’.

Pandor mentioned the conflict in Ukraine, which has seen Russia much isolated in the international community, though less so in Africa, saying only that it was hoped that it would be brought to a peaceful resolution as soon as possible.

South Africa has been a leading voice in Africa on the need for a negotiated settlement between Ukraine and Russia.

Lavrov indicated that Russia sees Ukraine’s position that there will be no negotiations short of Russia’s full withdrawal, including in Crimea and from other Ukrainian territories seized last year and previously in 2014, as being the reason that the warring parties were not already for negotiations.

After brief comments, the foreign ministers moved into private discussions from which media were excluded.

With South Africa holding the BRICS presidency this year, engagement on other international platforms, bilateral issues and key international events were all on the slate for discussions.

Lavrov and his S. African counterpart last met on the sidelines of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly where they reaffirmed “mutual interest in the deepening of political dialogue and further development of relations of (our) strategic partnership”.

Both Russia and the US under President Joe Biden have pivoted towards Africa increasingly in the last two years, putting these two global players on a competitive footing on the continent not seen since the 1980s when the Cold War was still in full swing.

Both countries have made announcements and moves to bring them into closer ties with key countries in East Africa, Southern Africa, West Africa and the Sahel region.

Russia has been keen to re-establish itself on the continent, where once it backed proxy wars with America in several liberation struggles.

In part, Russia’s recent efforts in Africa have been through the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian private military company close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner mercenaries have been active in conflicts in Mali, the Central African Republic, Mozambique and Libya.

Their operational method is to form alliances with leaders and militia commanders who can pay for their services in cash, or with lucrative mining concessions for precious minerals like gold, diamonds and uranium.

Civilian killings

The Wagner Group has repeatedly been accused of torture, civilian killings and other abuses, both in Africa and currently in its efforts to bolster the poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine.

The governments of the Central African Republic (CAR) and Mali are alleged to have used Wagner fighters in attacks against civilians, according to new research by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

Likely also under discussion while Lavrov is in S. Africa is the abortive bid by former president Jacob Zuma for a six-plant nuclear fleet for S. Africa, which is suffering very costly daily multi-hour outages due to inadequate power production and transmission.

Zuma’s deal with President Putin was subsequently ruled illegal in the courts, but S. African Minister of Energy Gwede Mantashe, a long-time Russia-Soviet Union admirer, remains adamant that economic analyses to the effect that S. Africa neither needs nor can afford such power plants, are wrong.

The minister side-steps issues of affordability, and nuclear power’s extremely long build time, with the first station only likely to come on line 15 years after any new deal is signed, when challenged on his repeated determination to build more than the existing two nuclear reactors supplying S. Africa’s grid.

Nuclear power

Putting aside affordability, there is a strong civil society movement opposed to more nuclear power for the country, and any agreement in principle or signed will certainly be challenged in the courts, thereby rendering nuclear power as a ‘solution’ for S. Africa’s power problems even less likely and more distant in time.

For her part, Yellen is in Africa to drive economic relations with targetted African states, a major turn-around from the approach of the previous Trump regime which all but completely ignored Africa, aside from making racist comments about the continent.

The U.S. Treasury Secretary’s Africa tour includes Senegal, Zambia and South Africa, with trade expansion, investment and the U.S. commitment to support African economies all at the top of the agenda.

Her visit follows the promise of President Biden at the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit last month that he and members of his Cabinet would visit Africa in 2023.

The view from Washington think-tanks was that, after a period of intermittent involvement in Africa, the US had realised its absence from the continent was leaving a vacuum which both Russia and China have been attempting to fill.

Already, the Americans have replaced Russian proxy Wagner Group efforts to thwart the ISIS affiliate which has been destabilising the northern part of Mozambique, where development of major offshore gas finds have been hampered by terror attacks, and where the Wagner Group were ineffectual at halting the insurgency.

America has set up a military training programme in the country, which efforts appear to be bearing fruit.

Economic might

Using its economic might, the idea in Washington circles where Africa has again become “of interest” is that the US has both a major opportunity to wield its economic power ‘softly’, and to focus on urgent humanitarian and developmental needs.

This approach has been tailored to counter both Russian and Chinese efforts to increase their respective realms of influence on the continent, both politically and economically.

The US Treasury said Yellen’s trip was to exchange ideas with African government officials, private sector leaders, entrepreneurs and youth, and to deepen economic ties between the US and Africa, charting new opportunities for trade and investment.

In S. Africa she will meet with foreign minister Pandor and the reserve bank governor.

She will also visit a Ford Motor Company assembly plant outside Pretoria, employing over 4,000 people, and slated to become carbon-neutral by next year.

Yellen’s Africa tour coincides with a visit by IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva to Zambia next week and Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang’s recently-completed five-nation Africa tour of Ethiopia, Angola, Benin, Gabon and Egypt.

Ahead of her African trip, Yellen was set to meet with her Chinese counterpart, Vice Premier Liu He, in Switzerland, during which China’s role in Africa was among topics expected to be covered.

Source: The Nation, Kenya

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