Influence operations are happening around the world and the best known example is perhaps the Russian intervention in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Less attention is given to influence operations in Africa, yet state actors and their proxies are very active on the continent. This piece traces some of the activities of Russia, Iran and China in terms of how they use their diplomatic, informational, military, economic and other capabilities to sway attitudes, behaviors, or decisions of target audiences in Africa.
The activities undertaken by these three countries are markedly different than what the U.S. has been pursuing. Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, the U.S. focused mainly on security and countering violent extremism, as perpetrated by ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab. Violent extremism was seen as the greatest threat to U.S. interests in the region. To that effect, the U.S. offered military and logistical support to countries that were most affected by extremists’ activities.
This ‘America first’ approach has, however, opened up a power vacuum in the region, which Russia, China and even Iran have exploited. The Trump administration belatedly recognized that its geopolitical adversaries have gained a strong foothold in Africa and it is now trying to reverse negative perceptions. During the official unveiling of the Trump administration’s Africa policy at the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C., the National Security Advisor, Ambassador John Bolton, singled out China and Russia as the main foes curtailing U.S. interests in Africa. In his December 2018 speech, Mr. Bolton assured continued support in countering violent extremism in the region and giving aid. More importantly, he committed U.S. support in specifically countering Chinese and Russian economic and political policies in Africa.
Russia’s Activities in Africa
Much of Russia’s focus revolves around energy with it making investments in oil, gas, and nuclear power. It also has a strategic interest in minerals. These activities are often accompanied by military aid, information operations and attempts to sway elections.
Russia has a military training complex to train soldiers in the Central African Republic. It also provides aides and a Russian was appointed as the national security advisor. Finally, CAR is a major importer of Russian arms.
Egypt is another major asset despite the fact that it is the second highest recipient of U.S. foreign aid globally. Russia is involved in the development of the country’s nuclear power plant and it invested $190 million in the ‘Russian Industrial Zone’ in the Suez Canal Economic Zone.
The Kremlin’s influence extends further into North Africa. Algeria is one of the main importers of Russian arms on the continent. Russia also has some oil exploration activities in Algeria.
In Zimbabwe, the Russians are seeking military cooperation including updating Zimbabwe’s defense system and the countries signed a $4 billion platinum mine deal in April 2019.
Other countries on the continent with similar Russian economic interests and operations include Nigeria, Mozambique, Ghana and Guinea. In the latter, state owned Russian mining companies are exploring bauxite projects.
According to media reports, Russia also meddled in the Sudan revolution that ousted President Omar Al Bashir. It is alleged that Russian operators proposed a narrative in aid of the dictator and against the protestors.
A BBC investigation revealed that at least six presidential candidates in Madagascar were offered money during the 2018 elections in a bid to influence the outcome.
Russia has been trying to improve bi-lateral relations with Namibia and it pledged humanitarian support to the country affected by a severe draught.
Angola is a principal buyer of Russian arms and it acquired six SU-30K fighter jets earlier in 2019 and two more expected. Angola’s Defense Minister also expressed interest in buying Russian S-400 air-defense systems, but talks have not progressed because of economic difficulties. Vladimir Putin and Joao Lourenco signed six documents regarding the cooperation in diamond mining, gas and oil production, space and agriculture after a three-day visit to Moscow by the Angolan president in April 2019.
During the just concluded elections in South Africa, it is alleged that a Russian company close to Vladimir Putin was involved in drafting a digital strategy for the ruling ANC party.
China’s Activities in Africa
China’s Belt and Road Initiative plugs right into East Africa and acts as a jumping-off point to pursue its geopolitical and economic interest on the continent. It is thus no surprise that the China Global Television Network (CGTN) chose Nairobi for its African headquarters. CGTN is the English-language news channel run by China’s state broadcaster.
Chinese state owned corporations are massively involved in infrastructure projects in Kenya. For example, they have constructed the Standard Gauge Railway, the Thika Super Highway and the Lamu port expansion.
Uganda has also benefitted from road construction projects.
In Ethiopia, Chinese firms have been involved with structural economic change projects such as the construction of a Chinese operated economic zone.
Perhaps the most significant operation of the Chinese in Eastern Africa is found in Djibouti where they set up their first overseas military base in 2017.
In Sudan, the Chinese have been involved in agricultural projects, e.g. cotton, and construction of energy infrastructure.
In West Africa, the Chinese are present in Nigeria for oil exploration, construction of energy grids and the construction of the Abuja Lagos high speed railway line.
In August 2018, it was reported that China deployed surface to air missiles in Zimbabwe.
Chinese state owned enterprises have long had a foothold in Zambia and China is Zambia’s biggest lender.
In Southern Africa, China has major oil exploration and infrastructure projects in Angola and it provides loans to state owned telecom corporations in South Africa.
Iran’s Activities in Africa
South Africa is one of the main importers of Iranian oil and gas outside Asia. Iran has also been importing raw materials critical to its nuclear program from South Africa.
Zimbabwe also serves as one of the most important Iranian partners by providing raw materials for its nuclear program.
Algeria is another key Iranian ally, especially in the manufacturing industry where SAIPA (Iran’s largest car manufacturer) and the Algerian motor industry have a substantial memorandum of understanding. Algeria furthermore serves as the transit point for Iranian arms shipment to rebel fighters in Western Sahara. Lastly, Algeria is a staunch supporter of the Iran nuclear program.
Eritrea likewise is a staunch supporter of Iran’s nuclear program.