Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, touched down in South Africa last week for the first stop of his second tour of Africa in less than a year. The visit generated considerable controversy due to an announcement of joint military drills involving Russia, China, and South Africa in February – the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. But Lavrov is not in Africa merely to indulge in provocative symbolism. The true objective of his visit is to promote the Russia-Africa summit later this year.
Lavrov’s previous trip, in July 2022, saw him weave a common thread by visiting African countries on the outs with Europe and the United States. He exploited the tensions as a foil to Russia’s approach, sending the reassuring message that Russia offered an alternative partnership model: one that accepted them as they were, with no Western conditionality on democracy or human rights and no demands to ‘pick sides’.
Indeed, European and US representatives lobbied hard for Africa’s 54 votes at the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia’s aggression. But significant numbers of African leaders pushed back. They adopted an updated version of the cold-war era non-alignment argument, buttressing the argument of principle with an existential one: given Africa’s vulnerability to global shocks and its economic development needs, it would be a case study in self harm to alienate one partner to curry favour with another – so prudence dictated keeping all options open. Lavrov managed to frame last year’s trip as a vehicle for Africans to assert those principles.
This time, however, Moscow’s most senior diplomat may not find things quite as easy.
Since his last tour, Europe and the US have raised the stakes – and Russia has not followed suit. African leaders have long requested G20 membership and a permanent seat or seats for Africa on the UN Security Council (UNSC). US president Joe Biden endorsed these requests in September, closely followed by UNSC members at a landmark meeting in October, and then the French and German foreign ministers on a recent trip to Ethiopia.
This growing momentum towards greater African representation is a blow to Russian (and Chinese) arguments that the global order is inequitable. Moreover, it calls their bluff. Russia and China had constructed an effective narrative of rhetorical support for the enfranchisement of the global south, while accusing Europe and the US of obstructing the same. This whittled away at the legitimacy of the global order and opened up space for them to promote an alternative: a Russia and China-driven BRICS format.
But the Western shift to endorsement of an African UNSC seat or seats reveals the emptiness of that rhetoric. At the October UNSC meeting, Russia and China were the odd ones out in refusing to explicitly endorse African representation. And, during the visit of China’s new foreign minister Qin Gang to Africa this month, his concluding press statement again missed the opportunity to endorse an African seat or seats. Instead, he kept to the generalised principle of a more equitable global order with a greater role for Africa.
Support for permanent African UNSC representation will likely become the litmus test for partnerships on the continent – and this casts a shadow over the Russia-Africa summit in July. Russia’s trifecta of offers for partnerships in Africa generally comprises: agricultural commodities, weapons and Wagner, and carte blanche veto deployment at the UNSC. Clearly, Russia’s lack of commitment on the UNSC seat or seats calls into question its true valuing of African partnerships. But even without that, these offers either work against Africa’s progress or fill a need that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine created in the first place. The provision of badly needed wheat, fertiliser, and cooking oil are a case of the arsonist showing up to put out its own fire. The shadowy services of private military contractor Wagner appeal only to Africa’s backsliding autocrats not its forward-looking leaders. And Russian intimations to wield its veto to help allies in Africa lose their value if those same allies have their own seat or seats at the table.
African leaders justify their non-position on Ukraine by pointing to the devastation the cold war wrought on their continent. But the progress on the G20 and permanent UNSC representation suggests today’s bout of great power competition is not all bad for Africa.
Still, the way African leaders are navigating that competition raises a question that is relevant to the final decision on UNSC representation: will Africa complement a greater role in a reformed global order with greater African responsibility for maintaining that order? Indeed, African leaders invite accusations of ‘cakeism’ with their continued refusals to condemn Russia’s violations. To rebut this charge, they could take a position on global order at the Russia-Africa summit. They could also press Russia to support their bid for permanent UNSC representation.
Some African states, however, are in a position of greater vulnerability to Russia than others – which makes it more difficult for their leaders to rock the boat. So, African states that are both influential and less reliant on Russia could spearhead the initiative by advancing the agenda within the African Union (AU). The framing as an AU position would confer Africa-wide official endorsement and strengthen the AU as a pan-African representative body, while its collective nature would protect the more exposed states. Moreover, the principles of the AU dovetail with the principles of global order at stake over Ukraine. An AU position at the summit would affirm the centrality of these principles to Africa while underlining its readiness for greater global responsibility.
Advocates of African representation need to engage in consensus-building to shore up support among like-minded countries – and, within Africa, on who will represent the continent at the UNSC. They should then move towards formalised negotiations. Europeans and Americans should seek out every opportunity to advance this issue. If they do not, they risk a resurgence of China’s and Russia’s narrative of an inequitable Western global order.
An earlier (German) version of this article appeared in Tagesspiegel.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.