Peter Burdin is a former BBC Africa Bureau Chief. He has thirty-five years’ experience as a senior editorial leader in the BBC’s International News operation and has worked extensively in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, the Indian subcontinent and Asia from where he has covered numerous major international news stories. He has won several Sony Awards for his news and documentary programmes, including the war in Bosnia, the Tiananmen Square protests, South Africa’s first democratic elections and the funeral of President Nelson Mandela. Peter is an Advisor to BBC Africa and is lecturing in International Journalism at universities in the UK and Africa.
The tectonic plates of international diplomacy are shifting in Africa this week as South Africa hosts the BRICS summit in Johannesburg.
The BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa are gathering at a time of international crisis. Russia’s President Putin won’t be there amid fears of being arrested to face International Criminal Court charges, but his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will attend as Russia seeks to fuel global divisions prompted by its invasion of Ukraine into a wider conflict with the West.
At the BRICS Foreign Ministers meeting in Cape Town earlier this year in preparation for this week’s BRICS Summit Lavrov issued this warning about what was at stake:
“This is not about Ukraine at all but about the new world order. The unipolar world is irretrievably receding into the past and a multi polar world is being born”.
As we saw when President Putin hosted the Russia-Africa Summit last month in St Petersburg, Russia is determined to prise as many African states as possible away from the US and its western allies. He told the 17 African Heads of State who attended:
“Many of today’s problems are a direct consequence of the persistence of old colonialism and the imposition of revised forms of colonialism…the Soviet Union rendered African nations tangible support in the struggle against colonialism, racism and apartheid”.
In response, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who will host this week’s BRICS Summit, expressed “deep gratitude” for Russia’s support in the liberation struggles and pledged that their “bilateral relationship remains strong”.
President Ramaphosa and other African Heads of State then signed the Africa-Russia Summit Declaration pledging to “complete the decolonisation process in Africa and work together to counter manifestations of neo-colonial policies that aim to undermine the sovereignty of states”.
That sets the tone for this week’s BRICS Summit. BRICS is an opportunity to promote Russia’s interests while turning the block into what South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor calls “the champion of the global south.”
To that effect some 23 countries have applied to join BRICS including Egypt, Algeria and Ethiopia. Russia’s key ally Belarus is also believed to have applied along with Kazakhstan, Iran, Argentina and Saudi Arabia. It might be too soon for this mass expansion of BRICS to be implemented but the intent is there to forge a new world group to challenge western hegemony.
The existing BRICS group of five nations have already started to build the structures of this evolving political and economic block. It already has a BRICS Bank based in China with early discussions underway to launch its own currency to rival the dollar. And there’s now a BRICS TV Channel headquartered in Moscow to promulgate its activities throughout Africa and beyond.
China remains by far its largest and most dominant economy in BRICS. It has long-standing and extensive economic interests throughout Africa. China replaced the US as Africa’s largest trading partner back in 2009, and now has almost three times as much trade with the continent as the US. It has already brought parts of East Africa into its Belt and Road policy which is designed to deepen trading routes between Asia and the rest of the world.
In contrast Russia’s economic activity with the continent is relatively weak. South Africa remains the continent’s largest and most diversified economy yet Russia accounts for just 1.7% of South Africa’s total global trade and 0.2% of South Africa’s total exports. In comparison the European Union takes 21.3% of its exports and the US 8.8%.
Where Russia wealds its influence is in striking lucrative business deals across Africa from the Sahel in the west, through the Central African Republic to Sudan in the East. The Wagner Group which has also been fighting in Ukraine has been particularly active here. It made $1 billion this year from its deals in Africa. Its 5,000 mercenaries provide muscle and protection to African leaders and in return obtain gold and diamond mining concessions. These massive revenues are sent back to Russia to support its war in Ukraine.
Wagner also extends its influence through a campaign of fake news and disinformation. It employs PR companies and African online influencers to produce locally targeted content. The Kremlin-owned media outlets like RT (formerly Russia Today) from its Newsroom in South Africa and the Sputnik magazine also broadcast anti-western narratives which find resonance among many African Editors. According to Cayley Clifford of Policy Insights as many as 4,000 African online news websites happily re-publish unverified content from Kremlin-sponsored media.
Wagner also uses cartoons and video content to attract younger African audiences. In one a Russian mercenary with bulging muscles is shown firing his machine gun at demonic French zombies and a snake in French colours, while African supporters shout “down with imperialism, down with France”.
The French Foreign Ministry at the Quai D’Orsay has discovered around 50 such videos and traced them to a cluster of Facebook accounts with links to Wagner.
There’s a wider political ambition as well. A Wagner internal memo leaked to Le Monde newspaper in France states how Russia plans “to groom a new generation of leaders in Africa, to discredit US, UK and France, get them out of Africa and see off pro-western uprisings”.
The west still has friends in Africa. Key regional powers like Nigeria and Kenya remain close economic and political supporters, but they are also fighting their own insurgencies encouraged by Wagner.
According to the US’s Africa Centre for Strategic studies Russia is actively working in over half the countries in Africa through disinformation campaigns, electoral interference and support for coups and anti-democratic movements.
The irony is that BRIC was actually invented in that citadel of western capitalism Goldman Sachs. One of Goldman’s senior economists, Jim O’Neil, now Lord O’Neil, declared in 2001 that Brazil, Russia, India and China (BRIC) had the potential to become significant players in the global economy. China added South Africa to become the ‘S’ in BRICS ten years later in its desire to forge a gateway into the lucrative African market.
Lord O’Neil was making an economic point but his clever four-letter acronym has taken on a political dimension with sixty-seven leaders from the so-called global south taking part in the Summit in Johannesburg this week. Many may seek to join the BRICS as a means of boosting their economies in a growing trading block – but for Russia and China, BRICS’ two authoritarian states, it’s also a means to creating what President Putin calls “a new world order’ and a large anti-western alliance.
A new scramble for Africa is underway – the difference from the 19th Century colonial scramble between the great European powers is that this time African leaders themselves are at the table and will have a say on whether to embrace democracy or to adopt an authoritarian model.
The stakes are high and that’s why this week’s BRICS Summit will resonate far beyond Africa.