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'New Cold War': Russia, West Vie for Africa

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni walk during their meeting in Entebbe, Uganda. Taken 7.26.2022

Russian, French and American leaders are traveling throughout Africa to win support for their positions on the war in Ukraine, waging what some say is the most intense competition for influence on the continent since the Cold War.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron visited several African countries this week. Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, went to Kenya and Somalia last week. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, will go to Ghana and Uganda next week.

“It's like a new Cold War is playing out in Africa, where the rival sides are trying to gain influence,” said William Gumede, director of Democracy Works, a foundation promoting good governance.

In his travels across the continent, Lavrov sought to portray the West as the villain, blaming it for rising food prices, while the Western leaders have accused the Kremlin of cynically using food as a weapon and waging an imperial-style war — words calculated to appeal to listeners in post-colonial Africa.

Russia has been working to win support in Africa for several years, reinvigorating friendships that date back a half-century, when the Soviet Union backed many African movements fighting to end colonial rule.

"Now that campaign has gone into high gear,” Gumede said.

Moscow's influence in Africa was apparent in March during the U.N. vote to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. While 28 African nations voted in favor of the resolution, 25 either voted to abstain or did not vote at all.

Lavrov was warmly received in Uganda by President Yoweri Museveni, who for years has been a U.S. ally but has refused to criticize Russia over the invasion. Museveni had even suggested previously that Putin’s actions might be understandable because Ukraine is in Russia's sphere of influence.

Lavrov voiced support for reform of the U.N. Security Council to give African countries permanent seats and greater influence.

Russia is also courting African public opinion through its state television network, RT, formerly known as Russia Today. RT has announced that it will open a new bureau in Johannesburg.

RT was abruptly removed from Africa's biggest pay-TV platform in Africa, Johannesburg-based Multichoice, in March after the European Union and Britain imposed sanctions against Russia. It is not clear whether establishing the new bureau will enable RT to resume broadcasts to Africa.

On his tour of Africa, France's Macron accused the Kremlin of using TV channels like RT to spread propaganda in support of the war. And he charged the Kremlin with blackmailing the world by thwarting the export of grain from Ukraine.

"They are blackmailing because they are the ones who blocked cereals in Ukraine. They are the ones who regulate their cereals,” he said in Benin. His itinerary also included Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau.

Macron appealed to Africans to side against Russia.

“I’m telling you here in Africa, a continent that has suffered from colonial imperialism: Russia is one of the last colonial, imperial powers. She decides to invade a neighboring country to defend her interests,” he said. “That’s the reality.”

Power, the top U.S. AID official, was in East Africa to pledge aid to help the region's fight against hunger amid a devastating multi-year drought. She did not hold back in criticizing Russia.

Speaking in Nairobi, Power said Russia's blockade of Ukrainian grain exports have cause "pain on the people of Kenya and on other countries throughout the world."