US’s controversial Africa-Russia bill is a red herring – congressional aides
The Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Bill never stood a chance. So, why is Cyril Ramaphosa making such a fuss about it?
A controversial US bill that could have punished Africans for doing business with Russia – and about which President Cyril Ramaphosa complained to US President Joe Biden at their White House meeting in September – is extremely unlikely to become law.
There are even some suggestions that the government is using the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Bill for political effect, posturing that it is taking on mighty America over the bill, perhaps with the intention of claiming victory when it eventually dies. Or perhaps to leverage concessions from the US.
Yet US congressional aides told DM168 that the bill never had a chance in the Senate from the start. Ramaphosa was told this when he was in Washington and met members of Congress – but he never let on.
Ramaphosa and International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor seem to have whipped up a political storm in a teacup about the bill, possibly also to divert attention from South Africa’s controversial “non-aligned” position on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Pandor had also raised it with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he visited South Africa in August. She and Ramaphosa complained that the legislation would force Africans to take sides between the West and Russia in doing business. They also said they believed the bill had been designed to punish Africa because many of its states had not voted on 2 March for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
The legislation passed the US House of Representatives in April this year by a huge majority of 415-9 votes, which seemed to suggest to South African officials that it would also sail through the Senate and become law.
But that showed ignorance of how Congress works, a Congressional aide told DM168. In fact, the Senate declined from the start to take up the bill, which it considered to be “half-baked”, “not well thought out” and “problematic”. The aide noted that the Senate often rejected bills proposed by the House when it regarded them as being ill-considered.
“There are no plans for it to be introduced in the Senate,” the aide said. “The [foreign relations] committee is not picking it up. In fact, committee staff have explicitly said they don’t plan to pick it up. And we don’t have any more time based on our current Senate schedule to deal with it, even if it were to come into the committee.”
This referred to the fact that Congress will soon recess for midterm elections, taking place in early November.
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According to the aide, the Senate believes that “in its current shape, there is no way we should move it forward. It’s too problematic and it will require significant changes in order for it to pass the Senate, which would then require it to go back to the House to be repassed.”
Even if the legislation resurfaced in the new Congress next year, it would be part of a wider bill covering all regions of the world and not just Africa.
The main problem with the bill was that it tarred all African countries with the same brush, the aide indicated. It was part of a flurry of bills the House had written and passed to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The bill ordered the secretary of state to draft a strategy and implementation plan “to counter the malign influence and activities of the Russian Federation and its proxies in Africa”. This would include monitoring Russian political influence and disinformation operations and the activities of Russian, Russia-connected or Russian-funded private military contractors in Africa.
The bill was clearly inspired particularly by the growing footprint in Africa of the Wagner Group of private military companies. They are regarded as deniable proxies for President Vladimir Putin and his government’s efforts to exert influence and counter Western interests in countries like Libya, the Central African Republic and Mali.
Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is close to Putin, publicly admitted for the first time this week that he runs Wagner. He was recently filmed in a Russian prison recruiting convicts to bolster his country’s faltering forces in Ukraine.
The bill would have authorised the US government to take action, including withdrawal of foreign aid, against African governments, officials and other entities doing business with sanctioned Russian entities. It aimed to “strengthen democratic institutions, improve government transparency and accountability, improve standards related to human rights, labour, anti-corruption initiatives, fiscal transparency, monitor natural resources and extractive industries, and other tenets of good governance”.
The aide said the main problem the Senate had identified with the bill was that it suggested all Russian activities in all African states were malign operations run by proxies like Wagner, and that this activity was always inimical to the good governance of natural resources, transparency and democratic institutions.
“And I think whether they meant to or not, having the report and the assessment written as it is directly implies that Russia is involved in all these activities across Africa, which is more or less true for some countries but not others.”
So, the US needed to be “a little more careful about how we’re talking about Russia manipulating African governments. That is not a line we would ever use in legislation. So that is problematic…
“I don’t think that was the intention, but I think it very much implies that all these African nations are very much complicit in one way or another and being manipulated by the Russians.”
The aide said senators were quite shocked to hear how concerned Ramaphosa was about the bill and that he had even mentioned that the AU was having an entire session on this bill. The aide could not believe that US presidents would waste time on such a “silly” bill.
Senators and their staff were also surprised to hear Ramaphosa connect the passage of the bill to the way Africans had voted on the UN General Assembly resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Quite honestly, I highly doubt that 99% of the House members [who] supported that bill and voted for it were even tracking that UN vote or had any clue that it had taken place,” the aide said, adding that Congress was considering several ways of addressing malign Russian activities.
“But not specific to Africa. I think that applies to the globe. It’s also an issue in the western hemisphere. It’s even an issue in Europe and parts of Asia.”
This included the activities of Wagner, which is also active in places outside Africa such as Syria and Ukraine.
“So, there is absolutely an effort to look specifically at how the US can improve its strategic communications to address Russian-influence operations and try to counter and address some of the malign Russian activity around the world.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.