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Dhaka Tribune

Do Russian grains feed Africa or fuel influence?

  • Russia has donated grain to Zimbabwe to help the country weather its devastating drought
  • Millions face hunger but observers doubt that the aid is purely humanitarian
Update : 25 Mar 2024, 08:00 PM

Zimbabwe has received a timely donation of 25,000 metric tons of wheat and 23,000 tons of fertilizer from Russia as a humanitarian response to the southern African nation's devastating drought.

Most crops planted during the 2023-2024 farming season have failed because of the El Nino climate phenomenon, leaving more than 3 million people at risk of hunger.

Seventy-nine-year-old Enny Nyashanu, one of the victims of failed crop harvests, told DW that the situation is dire.

"I had high expectations from this crop," Nyashanu said. "I was certain we would survive from our harvest. But there is no hope nor anywhere to run to. The whole country is like this."

Across Zimbabwe, particularly in Manicaland province's Buhera district, crops have withered and died.

"There is nothing in the fields. We are desperate for rains," one resident said at a food distribution center. "We have lost hope to harvest anything from the fields."

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) has been struggling to keep up with the demand for food assistance.

"Funding has been a challenge, and it will continue to be a challenge," said Sherita Manyika, from WFP Zimbabwe.

The WFP is funded entirely by voluntary donations, and Manyika said there was a huge financial shortfall.

Russia to the rescue?

Russia's donation — part of a larger pledge of 200,000 tons of grain made by the Kremlin to African countries during the 2023 Russia-Africa summit — could, therefore, be timely succor for Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe is one of six African nations — including Burkina Faso, Mali, Eritrea, Central African Republic and Somalia — to receive grain from Russia.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa expressed heartfelt appreciation for the donation, extending gratitude to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"On behalf of the people and government of Zimbabwe ... I express my deep gratitude to my dear brother, the president of the Russian Federation," Mnangagwa remarked during the official handover ceremony.

For many Zimbabweans, the hope is that such help can be long term, to ensure their survival.

"We are hoping these food handouts will continue for our families to survive. We have no other means to source for food," a woman at the food distribution center told DW.

Russia's motives questioned

While the grain donation is a welcome relief for Zimbabwe, some experts question Russia's motives in Africa.

Alex Vines, director of the Africa Program at Chatham House, a think tank headquartered in London, told DW that Russia's donation could be more about political strategy than pure humanitarianism.

"This is not tightening Russian diplomacy in Africa," Vines said. "It is rewarding the best allies of Russia, or countries that Russia wants to increase its engagements with."

Vines said other African countries — even some that are arguably in greater need — were not included in the grain deal, "so this is a political statement rather than a humanitarian one."

Moreover, Zimbabwe's strained relationship with Western powers makes it an attractive partner for Russia to showcase its influence.

"Zimbabwe is a country that has a poor relationship with the West,"Vines said. It is a political statement to show that they have other partners," he added, "and Russia is one of those."

By providing essential resources, Russia is positioning itself as a dependable ally, filling a void left by strained Western relations.

Russia overstretched by Ukraine war

As the aid deliveries continue, questions have arisen about the long-term implications of Russia's engagement with Africa, particularly under Putin's continued leadership.

Despite the prospect of more grain deals and strengthened ties, Vines said Russia's capacity for sustained involvement in Africa could be limited by its ongoing commitments elsewhere, notably the invasion of Ukraine.

"While Russian strategy is to engage the African continent ... the reality is that Russia is overstretched," Vines said. With resources diverted to other priorities, including military efforts, Russia's ability to maintain its foothold in Africa may face challenges.

For Zimbabwe's government the focus is on assuring citizens that no one will starve.

"The registration of food-insecure people and the distribution of grain has commenced in all areas across the country's eight rural provinces. The registration of beneficiaries and distribution of grain will continue unabated during the El Nino-induced drought period," Zimbabwean Information Minister Jenfan Muswere said.

Future of Russia-Africa relations

As Putin secured a fifth term as Russia's president, it remained uncertain if more grain deals and stronger relations between Moscow and Africa were on the horizon.

Vines believes Russia's resources are stretched thin by the war in Ukraine.

"We see a significant decline in defense aid to African countries, because of the redirection of military equipment for the war efforts that Russia is engaged in," he said.

The implication, Vines said, is that this potentially opens doors for other countries, such as China, to increase their influence in Africa.

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