Spotlight: US Congress welcomes ISS insights into Russia’s influence in Africa


The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) has informed a political process in the United States (US) seeking to understand and deal with Russia’s growing role in Africa. It comes as the response by African states to the invasion of Ukraine has led their international partners to take a more critical view of the continent’s relations with Moscow.

With 120 staff across Africa and a focus on human security, the ISS is well-positioned to analyse the impact of geopolitical rivalries being played out on the continent. ISS Executive Director Fonteh Akum in July gave evidence to a US House of Representatives foreign affairs subcommittee looking into the effect of Russian activity in Africa, and how it undermines democratic governance.

Akum’s evidence explored Russia’s impact on African economies, governance, peace and security. He contrasted Russia’s approach with European Union (EU) and US partnerships, and advised how US foreign policy can foster democratic governance for a majority of Africans. Akum explained that ISS aims to strengthen African agency in global diplomacy, in a landscape marked by geopolitical fractures and with democracy under strain from competing political ideologies.

This work aligns to the new ISS Africa in the World project, which in a new report outlined the scope and implications of contemporary Russia-Africa relations for cooperation with the continent’s major international partners.

Akum noted that Moscow’s re-engagement with Africa was on full display at the first Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019, hosted by President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and attended by 43 African heads of state. Putin emphasised ‘state sovereignty’ and Russian willingness to offer aid or trade deals ‘without political or other conditions,’ claiming that western states used pressure, intimidation and blackmail against African governments.

Russia can’t compete with western or Chinese investment in Africa, and is not among Africa’s top military or economic partners. The country also does not come with finance, infrastructure or humanitarian and development offers. Instead, Russia’s economic role in Africa is anchored by arms exports, military cooperation, and mining and energy exploration.

With 120 staff across Africa, ISS is well-placed to analyse the impact of geopolitical rivalries on the continent

Russia generates an outsized impact at relatively little diplomatic or financial cost, with its state media promoting Russian interests and publicising missteps by the US and other western powers.

Growing African agency has seen the continent lead on its own security and development by fostering ties with multiple global partners. Russia’s rhetorical commitment to African development is not matched by either trade, aid or knowledge exchange. Only Madagascar and Mozambique were among its top 10 official aid recipients in 2019, and in 2020, just US$4 million went to Africa from Russia’s total finance for humanitarian projects of US$62.1 million.

Akum argued that Western powers also need to recognise that the current international order has struggled to deliver economic or developmental dividends. The failure of protracted democratic transitions and the neo-liberal order to improve livelihoods for many in Africa has led to growing disillusionment. This increases the allure of alternative governance models such as the authoritarianism which accompanies China’s economic success – a perilous path for a youthful continent struggling with corruption and low levels of political accountability.

Akum told the committee that future international engagement with Africa should be shaped by what African countries need to make the African Continental Free Trade Agreement a success – including energy, inter-regional infrastructure, technology transfer and support for good governance.

Akum’s briefing was part of a long-term ISS engagement with the US House of Representatives. In 2019 ISS Senior Researcher Akinola Olojo was invited to discuss responses to terrorism in Africa, and earlier this year, ISS Sahel Programme Head Ornella Moderan briefed the House Foreign Affairs committee on security dynamics in the Sahel. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Akum and ISS Senior Researcher Priyal Singh briefed aides on African voting patterns at the United Nations Security Council.

For more information, contact:

Fonteh Akum, ISS: [email protected]

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