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Franco-Russian Rivalry in Africa: A case study of Cameroon

Franco-Russian Rivalry in Africa: A case study of Cameroon

This post is by Nelson A. Agbor. Nelson is a Doctoral Research Student in International Human Rights Law under the guidance of Dr Patrick Holden at the University of Plymouth. Here, Nelson writes about the consequences in international relations of Franco-Russian rivalry in the West African state of Cameroon. 

Cameroon's strategic importance

Cameroon, also known as the Republic of Cameroon, is a country located in West Africa. It is bounded by Nigeria to the West and North, Chad to the Northeast, the Central African Republic to the East, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo to the South. The country is sometimes identified as West Africa and other times as Central Africa, due to its strategic position at the crossroads between West and Central Africa. The country has an estimated population of about 27,853, 385 people who speak over 250 native languages.1

In international relations, Cameroon and France share historical, linguistic, and cultural ties. Cameroon is France’s largest recipient of foreign assistance and one of its biggest trading partners in Sub Saharan Africa, with French companies maintaining a strong presence in the Cameroonian economy.2

However, in 2015, the country decided to shift from France in favour of Russia by signing a military agreement with the Kremlin. This agreement was further renewed last April 12, 2022, putting France’s position in the country in peril for another four years.

This article seeks to understand the stakes involved in the renewed military agreement, its consequences on the ongoing Anglophone humanitarian crisis, and its consequences in international relations, especially in the present context with the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Before we explore the details of the Russia/Cameroon arms agreement, it will be important to highlight that since 2014, the Russian government has signed over 20 military corporation deals with most governments in sub-Saharan Africa.3

These increases in arms agreements by the Russian Federation with African countries became evident when Russia came under sanctions from the west for illegally annexing Crimea.4

Russia, therefore, decided to diversify and step up its economic and diplomatic partnership by multiplying deals of this nature with African countries.5

Most of these agreements were valid for five years renewable and consist of Russian promises of hardware and training as well as coordination in domains such as counterterrorism and piracy.6

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The Cameroon government in April 2015 signed one of such deals to cover military and technical corporations between the two countries.7

The agreement at the time of its signing did not raise any eyebrows as it was considered a trend in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, the renewal of the deal last April 12 by the Central African country without prior approval by the country’s parliament, has raised tension and criticism both at home where there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis and in the international landscape.

On April 12, 2022, Cameroon’s minister of defence Beti Assomo, standing in for the government of Cameroon signed the agreement to continue military ties with the Russian Federation in a revision of the deal originally signed in 2015.8

According to the 13-page document, both countries agreed to exchange opinions on information on defence policies and international security, and the development of relations in areas of joint training, medicine, and military hydrography.9 They equally agreed to share knowledge in peace support operations under the aegis of the United Nations.

The implication of the Arms Agreement on the Human Challenges in Cameroon

There have been human rights challenges ongoing in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions since November 2016 with the anglophone crisis where government forces have been fighting with secessionist who seeks the independence of these two regions due to marginalisation and ill-treatment.10

The implications of such an arms deal abound, especially, since Russia had made its position clear in 2020 against any humanitarian intervention in Cameroon by the UN to end the crisis.11

This position was made clear in May 2020 by the Russian ambassador to Cameroon, in an audience at Cameroon’s ministry of external relations.12 This arms deal, therefore, coupled with the Russian anti-intervention position has sparked fresh tensions between Cameroon’s military and separatist fighters who now see Russia as an enabler of the human rights violations and war crimes perpetrated in the Northwest and Southwest regions of the country.

The implication of the Arms Agreement in International Relations

Generally, agreements of this nature always have implications both for the parties concerned and for other friendly countries who will either feel betrayed or overshadowed. One of the key implications of the several arms agreements signed in Africa recently by Russia is the fact that the country is trying to gain influence in Africa via subversion and disinformation tactics.

Under Putin’s rule, Russia has increased its interference in Africa by sending mercenaries to demonstrate power as opposed to making direct security interventions. This was the case with Mali where recently the country ousted its long-time friend and former colonial master France, in favour of Russia.

Although so far, Russia’s current involvement has been limited to conflict areas and nations trying to transition from autocratic regimes and/or international sanctions, its involvement in Africa is a major concern, nonetheless. This is because many of these west African countries where Russia is involved are experiencing military coups and in most cases with Russian support of the junta.

It is now clear that with being isolated by the West, Africa remains one of the regions where Russia is attempting to consolidate its influence and hegemony despite visible confrontation with various other countries such as the United States, China, France, and Turkey.

This Russia’s position could also be justified if we consider Dr Alina Polyakova’s submission before the US Senate on March 5th, 2020. The president of the European Centre for Policy Analysis argued that Russia aims to gain more influence on the international stage by using low-cost warfare tactics without considering the deployment of full military force.13

She is quoted to have said, “Russia has been particularly adept at using asymmetric tools of political warfare. Information operations and cyberattacks project power, undermine democratic institutions and influence public opinion. In brief, Russia’s great power ambitions supersede its capacity to act as a great power militarily, economically, and politically.”14

The arms agreement may not constitute a surprise to policy observers and critics because it was mainly a revision of the 2015 agreement signed by both countries. However, the timing of the deal amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the numerous reports of war crimes committed there so far15 , as well as in the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali has been greatly unpopular and criticised by Cameroonians and other international relations experts.

Moscow has therefore been exploiting the African government's diplomatic disputes with France, which has been the largest military presence of any former colonial power in Africa as a springboard for its own interest.

Conclusion

Russia’s preponderance in Africa has been of less impact despite the hype that has been made by the Kremlin. Moscow’s deployment of mercenaries and the use of disinformation tactics did not keep President Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in power nor make General Khalifa Haftar an unchallenged leader in Libya.

Africa must expect more of such Russian involvement in its internal affairs, and leaders in the continent will undoubtedly request Moscow’s assistance in their quest to stay in power unchecked. The Kremlin will happily provide cheap and unrestricted services in the form of mercenaries and disinformation campaigns.

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References

1 Cameroon Population estimated by worldometer, online at; Cameroon Population (2022) - Worldometer (worldometers.info). Accessed 18 May 2022

2 Takaugang, J., 1993. Continuity and change in Cameroon's Foreign Policy in the Post-Ahidjo Era. The African Review: A Journal of African Politics, Development and International Affairs, pp.135-153.

3 Giles, K., 2013. Russian Interests in Sub-Saharan Africa. Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press.

4 Biersack, J. and O’lear, S., 2014. The geopolitics of Russia's annexation of Crimea: narratives, identity, silences, and energy. Eurasian geography and economics, 55(3), pp.247-269.

5 Giles, K., 2013. Russian Interests in Sub-Saharan Africa. Strategic Studies Institute and US Army War College Press.

6 Russian military cooperation deals with African countries, online at Factbox: Russian military cooperation deals with African countries | Reuters. Accessed May 10, 2022

7 Gelin, K.J.C., 2017. Cameroon fighting Boko Haram. Вестник Российского университета дружбы народов. Серия: Международные отношения, 17(4), pp.727-737.

8 Cameroon signs Russian military deal, online at; Cameroon signs Russian military deal | Africanews. Accessed May 13, 2022.

9 Ibid

10 Agwanda, B., Nyadera, I.N. and Asal, U.Y., 2020. Cameroon and the anglophone crisis. The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Peace and Conflict Studies, pp.1-11.

11 Russia against any humanitarian intervention in Cameroon, online at; Just in : Russia against any humanitarian intervention in Cameroon (lebledparle.com). Accessed May 13, 2022.

12 Ibid

13 Lyammouri, R. and Eddazi, Y., 2020. Russian Interference in Africa: Disinformation and Mercenaries.

14 Dr Alina Polyakova. (2020, March 5). Hearing on “The Global Engagement Center: Leading the United States Government’s Fight Against Global Disinformation Threat”. United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/ doc/030520_Polyakova_Testimony.pdf

15 Coleman, L.E.S., 2022. Official response to the Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Curator: The Museum Journal, 65, pp.15-16.

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