Is Russia gaining influence in Africa at the expense of Europe and can we change it?

Blogs   |  26.09. 2023

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), One of the manifestations of the current changing world is the growing importance of relatively poor and seemingly insignificant countries that most people in Europe would have a hard time finding on a map. The fact that most people hear about some of these countries only sporadically does not diminish their real significance. 

For example, take Niger, which could be easily confused with its much more populous southern neighbour, Nigeria, due to the similarity of their names. Until recently, this Sahelian state had one of the few pro-Western governments in the region. However, the situation changed with a coup at the end of July, which overthrew the democratic government and brought a junta to power that openly favoured Russia.

Two years ago we witnessed a similar military coup in neighbouring Mali, which also meant a 180-degree foreign policy shift toward Russia. Mali has been in the spotlight recently in connection with the activities of the Russian paramilitary group, the Wagner Group. They were supposed to provide security, but in reality, their inhumane practices forced local residents into the arms of Islamist terrorist groups and facilitated illegal migration to Europe. Last March, the Wagner Group, together with Malian government forces, participated in the massacre of civilians in the town of Moura, where between 350 and 380 civilians were killed in just four days!

To close the circle of military coups in the region it is worth mentioning that the recent coup in the former French colony, Gabon, was not good news, especially for France. The pro-French-oriented President Ali Bongo was ousted, and a military junta took power there as well. 

A Shortage of Uranium Is Not Imminent, but… 
But let’s get back to Niger. Why should Europe be interested in what’s happening in this country? Although it is one of the poorest countries in the world, like many other African states, it has significant importance due to its mineral wealth. In particular, its gold and uranium deposits are worth mentioning. 

Niger has gained importance, especially as a supplier of uranium to France, which needs this material for its nuclear power plants that produce the majority of the country’s electricity. Since uranium mining in the Czech Republic and Romania was terminated a few years ago, Europe (excluding Russia and Ukraine) hardly mines any uranium at all. EU countries that generate electricity from nuclear power must import it from elsewhere, which could pose a huge problem not only for France but also for the entire Europe, given the interdependence of the European energy system.

Fortunately, the situation is not so alarming yet. The good news is that uranium prices have not risen significantly so far. Most nuclear power plants have built up sufficient reserves for at least two years, which is a long enough period to make adjustments. Moreover, Niger is far from being the only uranium producer in the world. 

Other uranium-rich countries include Kazakhstan, Namibia, Canada, and Australia. At least the latter two countries can be considered much more favourable towards France or Europe in general. But luckily, Kazakhstan, with its more than 40% share, and the title of the world’s largest uranium producer, has already expressed a willingness to supply uranium to EU countries and replace any uranium shortfalls from Niger. This illustrates the importance of developing cooperation with Central Asian post-Soviet states, which were part of Russia’s sphere of influence until recently. 

In contrast, Niger may harm itself by not lifting its embargo on uranium exports, especially since its weak economy depends on its exports. However, this doesn’t mean that Europe can ignore Africa and take these events lightly. In Africa itself, Europe is losing ground.

Europe is Missing its chance 
Of course, notably, France was affected by this situation, as it still considered this former colony as its sphere of influence. Undoubtedly, it is a huge humiliation for Paris, weakening its position in the region and reducing its overall prestige. But it’s not just about France. The entire Europe should be concerned as the recent events in Niger are part of a long-term rivalry for influence over sub-Saharan Africa, which is gaining importance due to its vast wealth in natural resources. 

The current situation does not look good for Europe. As the developments in the three mentioned states – Niger, Mali, and Gabon – show, European countries are gradually relinquishing their positions in Africa, losing influence, while China and Russia are stepping in. 

Especially the Kremlin, much like in Soviet times, often uses anti-colonial rhetoric in its efforts to win the favour of African countries. European countries and the EU as a whole face another significant challenge: They must find a way to halt the decline of their influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Recent military coups in Niger and Gabon should serve as a wake-up call for Europe.

Source: Brussels Morning