CAMEROON is the latest African country to ink a strategic military deal with Russia. The deal, signed on April 12 but revealed last week, covers the sale of weapons and armoured trucks, as well as intelligence gathering and training and an agreement to engage in peace support operations under the United Nations, according to a report by Foreign Policy.
The deal may not come as a surprise to foreign-policy observers because it is largely a revision of a 2015 agreement between Moscow and Yaoundé. Yet the timing of the agreement—amid Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and reports of war crimes there as well as in the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali—has been criticised by Cameroonians, according to Foreign Policy.
Former colonial power France had historically been Cameroon’s main military backer, but as in other Francophone African countries, Paris appears to be losing clout to Russia. Moscow has been exploiting African governments’ diplomatic disputes with France—which has the largest military presence of any former colonial power in Africa—as a springboard for its own interests.
The deal fits squarely with Russia’s playbook of exploiting acute security crises in African countries to secure either private military consignments through the Wagner Group or arms sales—often with minerals concessions added to the mix. This has been the case in the Sahel and Libya.
But unlike CAR and Mali, Cameroon doesn’t seem to be rejecting French support; instead, President Paul Biya is seeking a full range of security allies. Indeed, the military deal with Russia comes on the back of previous military hardware purchases from China and— up until recently—training support from the United States.
There are two major conflicts in the country: In the Anglophone regions, where around 4 million people are in need of humanitarian aid this year, separatists have waged war against the Biya administration since it cracked down on demonstrations protesting the judicial and educational system, which is largely conducted in French—marginalizing the 20 percent of the population that is English-speaking. And in a conflict that has spread from neighboring Nigeria, Boko Haram has escalated its attacks in the far north.
While Cameroonians may not necessarily welcome Russian military support, in some parts of the Sahel there is simmering pro-Russian sentiment partly due to dissatisfaction with French military interventions and state failure to curb jihadi insurgencies. There is also a big gap between how ordinary Africans perceive Russia and how African or Western leaders perceive it.
In CAR, there is growing civilian anger over killings by federal troops and Russian mercenaries. And in Sudan, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s close ties to the Kremlin are not supported by the local population, who feel that Moscow is helping coup leaders to stay in power.
Russia has primarily worked to secure African leaders in government, rather than supporting democracy or responding to regional public opinion. In other words, it works for the state, not the people.
There have been six military coups in Africa since 2021, and rising frustration against central governments means that some leaders are politically weaker. Following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, the Kremlin signed military cooperation and arms deals with more than 30 African countries estimated to be worth around $12.2bn. Not all of these deals are active, however. For example, in countries with robust governments, such as Botswana and Ghana, there seems to be less need for or reliance on Russian assistance.
There are countries where Russia has tried and failed to get a foothold using its strategy of presenting itself as an alternative to France. In 2019, Wagner forces were deployed to Mozambique to combat Islamist insurgencies in the northern Cabo Delgado province, where the French oil giant TotalEnergies operates. Wagner was forced to withdraw after humiliating defeats, leaving the door open for Rwandan troops to move in with French support.
A refrain among some observers is that the debate surrounding Russia’s presence in Africa has been similar to the US preoccupation with China in Africa, leading to unhelpful rhetoric that does not seek to understand on a deeper level why some African countries would pivot to Russia.
A common grievance is that Western powers do not consistently apply a mandate of democracy and transparency. And for some African leaders, the purely military relationship that the Kremlin offers is appealing because it does not require any compromise with secessionists or rebels or the upholding of human rights, which the Biya administration has repeatedly been accused of violating.