By 2020, Jack Ma, China’s Business guru, was Asia’s richest man, worth more than $61.7 billion, and his companies, Alibaba and Ant Group collectively were worth more than $1.5 trillion. He went about with some air of importance. He was the face of China’s new economic power and was invited to speak all over the world on economic and business issues. Then, in October 2020, he made what he thought was a non-political and harmless criticism of China’s financial regulatory system, saying it was stifling innovation and needed reforms to fuel growth. He claimed the banks operated with a ‘pawnshop’ mentality.
Of course, the ‘harmless’ remarks stung Chinese regulators and Communist party officials who immediately began reigning in Ma’s vast business and financial empire. First, regulators cancelled Ant Group’s IPO, then so-called charges of infractions were brought against both Alibaba and Ant Group; and then Ma was forced out of public view into seclusion, some say, in Japan and/or Thailand. By the time they were done, Alibaba and Ant Group had seen a collective wipeout of over $850 in valuation and Ma’s net worth had crashed from $61 billion to $34 billion. He’s now been taught how to keep his mouth shut.
*Putin plays hardball over grain export to Africa*
Despite seven African leaders practically going to beg; despite knowing the devastating effects of the stoppage of Ukrainian grain exports in Africa, President Putin nixes the grain deal. Why? If we listen to the Ukrainians, it is because Putin wants to use “grain as a weapon of war against Europe. As the story goes, Putin understands that immigration terrifies Europe more than anything else and he is trying to engineer a massive food crisis, which will in turn open the floodgates of migration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to Europe.
Russia however, denied that charge and said the main objective of the deal – supplying grains to countries in need – “has not been realised” and that while it allowed Ukrainian export, obstacles around its own export of foods and fertilisers are yet to be eased. In a televised interview last week, Putin noted: “not a single point related to the fact that there are interests of the Russian Federation have not been fulfilled. Despite this, we voluntarily extended this deal many times. Well, listen, that’s enough in the end.”
But all hope is not lost for Africa. African leaders will shamelessly head to St Petersburg later this month for the Russia-Africa Summit – the shameless parading of 54 African leaders by countries with enough economic and geopolitical power to shepherd them to their capitals. African leaders, especially ones that depend on Ukrainian grain export, will surely be there again to beg Putin to allow the exports to continue.
Meanwhile, there are yet no plans or even discussions about Africa growing its own grains and food, even though it is perfectly capable of doing so.
*Nigeria does not have reliable import figures*
Many had asked me specifically why Nigeria was not on the list of African countries heavily dependent on grain imports from Russia and Ukraine. There are two reasons. The first is that Nigeria has a more diversified import base. Nigeria imports more wheat from Lithuania, Latvia, and the United States than it imports from Russia and Ukraine.
Second, Nigeria has no reliable import data. Due to excessive rates, corruption, and extreme bottlenecks at the ports, most imports meant for Nigeria go to Benin Republic, Togo, and Cameroun and are later trucked/smuggled into Nigeria using the vast and unpoliceable land borders with its neighbours. Let me give a quick example.
In 2015, the Nigerian government effectively banned the importation of rice, placing a discouraging 70 percent tariff. The reality though was that as legal importation to Nigeria drops drastically, neighbouring countries such as Benin, Cameroun, Niger, and others have seen their parboiled rice imports increase exponentially. Ironically, these countries mostly consume white rice (another variant of the staple), whereas they import more parboiled rice (which Nigerians consume) and, which, considering their population, could last them for decades. However, they continue to import parboiled rice every year while legal imports continue to decline in Nigeria as smuggling increases exponentially.
*Wagner Group in Africa*
At last, the secrecy and official deniability that shrouded the activities of the Wagner group in Africa is over. Following the June drama (we really don’t know what it is yet) where the Wagner mercenaries purported to march on Moscow, Putin has ended the secrecy. He stated quite clearly that the Wagner (headed by his former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin) was funded exclusively by the Russian state, to the tune of nearly $1 billion in the last year alone.
The group has been active in Africa – Central African Republic, Mali, Sudan, and Libya – for some time now and Russia has maintained, until now, that it was a private military group unrelated to the Russian state. In 2021, Mali expelled the French military from its territory with great fanfare and struck a deal with Wagner to help it in its fight against Salafi-jihadist groups in the north of the country.
With the Wagner revolt in Russia and its unclear status presently, the Kremlin is signalling that African states must decide what to do with the group. The Central African Republic, where Wagner has been the most active and where it has been accused of a raft of war crimes and crimes against humanity, shot back at the Kremlin that it signed “a defence deal with Russia and not Wagner” and expects the pact to be honoured by Russia regardless of what happens to Wagner.
As President Faustin-Archange Touadera’s hold on power becomes tenuous, he has come to rely on the Wagner group for security and protection, especially in fighting a constellation of rebel groups. Consequently, the group has tightened its grip on the country’s security architecture and economic resources, constructing a vast transnational Gold-mining network” stretching from Madagascar, Cameroon, and Sudan all the way back to Moscow.”
It didn’t take long for a deal to be struck, however. According to Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s chief diplomat, at the request of Mali and CAR, the designation of Wagner groups in both countries has now changed to “military instructors”. Their work, meanwhile, “will continue”. Finito!
Chris Akor, associate fellow of the Brian Reuben Policy Group is a Political Analyst.