Johannesburg — If Vladimir Putin was hoping for a big show of support at his Russia-Africa summit, which kicked off Thursday in St. Petersburg, he has once again been caught on the backfoot by his own overweening confidence. Just 17 African heads of state, according to Russia’s own tally, showed up for the summit. That’s less than half of the 43 leaders who participated in the first Russia-Africa summit in 2019.
The list of notable absentees included the leaders of several large African nations, including Nigeria’s Bola Tinubu and Kenya’s William Ruto, as well as Félix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
Africa, a continent of 54 nations and 1.3 billion people, has a complicated relationship with the western world.
It’s true that Africa harbors lingering suspicions toward former colonizers in Europe and the U.K., and the U.S. African leaders often accuse their western counterparts of hypocrisy and acting purely in their own self-interest — of only paying attention to the challenges on this continent when they need to.
But any sense that the continent as a whole is leaning toward Russia is mistaken.
As Putin has become increasingly isolated by sanctions imposed over his war in Ukraine, the Russian leader has tried to use the West’s colonial past and its perceived condescension toward Africa to woo the continent.
Africa and the Ukraine-Russia grain deal
Many African countries share Putin’s contempt for U.S. and European economic sanctions, and have even called on the West to lower its financial weaponry aimed at Moscow. But Russia’s decision last week toto enable the export of grain — and to then bomb Ukrainian ports, destroying thousands of tons of food — enraged countries like Kenya, which lambasted the decision in no uncertain terms as a “stab in the back.”
“Putin has miscalculated the mood on this continent,” South African professor William Gumede, of Wits University’s School of Governance, told CBS News.
Gumede said Putin’s decision to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative had strained Russian relations with countries where food security is often a matter of life and death.
The agreement was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey last year to allow the safe passage of agricultural goods from Ukraine’s ports through the Black Sea — a region squarely in the crosshairs of Russia’s invasion. While the vast majority of the nearly 33 million tons of grain exported since the deal was reached a year ago never actually reached the world’s poorest countries, the deal did help bring down reverse spiralling food prices by more than 20%, according to the UN.
“Even if countries can afford to buy grain, Russia’s decision has a massive impact on inflation,” said Gumede.
Speaking at the summit on Thursday, Putin said Russia was ready to supply six African countries with between 25,000 and 50,000 tons of grain free of charge.
“We will also provide free delivery of these products to consumers,” he said.
Putin again accused Western countries of “obstructing” the supply of Russian grain and fertilizers — repeating his government’s longstanding complaint that the U.S. and its allies weren’t keeping up their end of the bargain under the grain deal, while “hypocritically accusing us of the current crisis situation in the global food market.”
Gumede dismissed Putin’s remarks as a “cynical announcement” and told CBS News it was, “at best… only made to stem rising criticism of Russia’s withdrawal from the grain deal by African leaders.”
An overture treated with “disdain”
Last month, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa led an “Africa Peace Mission” of leaders from the continent to the capitals of both Ukraine and Russia in a bid to find common ground and a political solution to the war. Gumede said the mission was treated with “disdain and disrespect” by Putin.
“He simply failed to understand how significant it was that African leaders had engaged him in this way,” the professor said, noting that, “leading a peace mission to Europe was something they [African leaders] hadn’t done since the end of colonialism.”
Instead, Putin bombed Ukraine during the African leaders’ meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Gumede said the visiting African leaders perceived it “as humiliating… and then in Russia, Putin didn’t even bother to listen to the delegation, basically interrupting them before they’d even finished speaking, implying there was no point in discussing anything as the war would continue.”
The Wagner Group in Africa
Among the African nations that did send official delegations to the summit in St. Petersburg are Mali and the Central African Republic. The governments of both of those countries are clients of the Wagner Group, Russia’s private mercenary army.
Russia has said it will continue to deploy Wagner forces in Africa, despite the Wagner Group’s bosslast month.
Wagner mercenaries have caused havoc in many countries in Africa and been accused of human rights atrocities and war crimes on the continent.
Despite the company’s state mission of helping clients bolster security, Gumede told CBS News that, “wherever they have gone, terrorism has increased rather than decreased.”
Our own CBS News investigation uncovered the extent to whichwere helping to fund Russia’s war in Ukraine, at the .
Russia’s future relations with Africa
The poor attendance from African heads of state at the summit will be a bitter blow for Putin, who is discovering that far from lining up behind him, some African nations are questioning whether Russia is the heavyweight economic partner it claims to be.
Russia’s 2019 pledge to double trade with African nations to $40 billion has so far fallen flat, with total trade amounting to only around $18 billion since then. A significant percentage of that trade is with just four countries: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and South Africa.
Despite many African countries’ long-held desire to remain non-aligned with the world’s biggest powers, they’ve been dragged into the fight.
When the International Criminal Courtin March, accusing him of war crimes in Ukraine, it put South Africa in a difficult position. Next month, the African nation will host a conference of the BRICS group — an economic bloc that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
But South Africa is a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the international court, which means it would be under pressure to arrest the Russian president if he set foot on South African soil.
After, South Africa announced earlier this month that Putin would not attend the event, “by mutual agreement.” The Kremlin has said he will join via remote video link.