Russia overtakes China in race to supply arms to sub-Saharan Africa
Sunday March 19 2023
Moscow is now sub-Saharan Africa’s leading supplier of firearms, beating China in exports to the region over the last five years, an indication of its growing influence on the continent.
Data by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a global arms trade tracker, shows that Russia supplied 26 percent of the artillery imported by sub-Saharan African countries in the five years to 2022, up from 21 percent in 2017.
Beijing, which has for long been the region’s largest seller of weapons, saw its share of the market drop to 18 percent from the 29 percent it supplied in the five years to 2017, as its total arms exports globally dipped by 23 percent.
According to Sipri, “several arms-exporting states are competing for influence in sub-Saharan Africa,” and Russia has emerged the biggest winner over the last five years, even as its war in Ukraine dipped its global share of the arms market.
Overall, Moscow’s arms exports dropped by 31 percent in the five years to December 2022, causing its global share of exports to plunge to 16 percent from the 22 percent at the end of 2017, as the United States and France raised their share to 40 percent and 11 percent respectively.
On the continent, arms imports saw a general slump of 40 percent, while the sub-Saharan Africa firearm imports dropped by 23 percent, although some countries such as Mali – that have had coups and political unrest in the period – increased their imports. This comes against the backdrop of a heightened jostle between Russia and China for influence in Africa, which has seen the two countries deploy their top diplomatic officers on the continent like never before.
At the Russia-Africa summit in 2019, Moscow announced that it will be selling weapons worth at least $14 billion to Africa annually, and this is expected to grow as its relations with Africa improves against the backdrop of increasing instability in many of its friendly countries on the continent.
But it’s not just trade in weapons between Russia and sub-Saharan Africa that has improved over the last five years. Generally, Moscow’s relations with the continent took a different turn after the 2019 summit that brought together leaders from both sides, and experts say its invasion of Ukraine has only improved its ties with the continent.
According to data by the International Monetary Fund, Russia’s total trade with Africa has risen from just over $12 billion in 2018, before the leaders’ summit, to $15.6 billion in 2021, a 25 percent increase.
Kirill Babaev, acting director of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences said both Russia’s war with Ukraine – which has practically isolated it from the rest of Europe and the west – and recent developments on the continent will bolster Moscow’s relations with Africa.
“After the fall of another Iron Curtain between Russia and Europe and the emergence of energy and food crises in the global economy, the export flows of Russian companies may well be redirected not only to Asia, but also to Africa,” he wrote in a column on Valdai, the Kremlin’s foreign policy think tank.
Eleonora Tafuro, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, last month told Financial Times that Russia’s expansion of its diplomatic and trade relations with Africa is essential to the Kremlin’s narrative that Moscow has “alternatives.”
Trips to Africa
Since last year, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has ramped up his trips to Africa in the recent past. In the last one year that the Ukraine war has been waged, Lavrov has been to South Africa, Mali, Mauritania, Angola, Uganda, Gabon and Sudan.
After his visit to Sudan last month, Lavrov was quoted saying: “We can affirm that the West's plans to isolate Russia by surrounding us with a sanitary cordon have been a fiasco.”
Meanwhile, experts gathered at the fifth Least Developed Countries Conference last week warned that the continued jostling between Russia and China for influence on the continent has only one loser: Africa.
The analysts said China and Russia are bolstering their presence in Africa to tap its rich natural resources, despite warnings from the UN the world’s poorest countries face accumulating crippling debts.