Wavel Ramkalawan’s recent visit to the United States for President Biden’s US-Africa Leaders Summit last week left people with more questions than answers. Although ostensibly joining other leaders from across the African continent for a summit meant to focus on civil society, business, diaspora and youth leadership, one could not help but wonder whether or not the administration had other hopes for the visit.
Seychelles, as is the case with quite a few other African nations, has been falling victim to Russian influence. The ongoing war in Ukraine has seen the Russian Federation increasingly isolated globally and looking for allies across the world susceptible to their narrative. Seychelles, under the leadership of Ramkalawan, is a particularly ripe potential ally, considering the central role that Seychelles has played and continues to play in providing offshore accounts to circumvent tax or sanctions, laundering money and facilitating extensive illicit activities.
Ramkalawan has understood the potential niche role that his country can play providing a safe haven for the finances and interests of the world’s most corrupt individuals and pariah states. This is far from speculation, and was covered extensively in a report published by the reputable International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). It is doubtful if senior diplomats at the State Department did not take the opportunity to discuss their concerns with Ramkalawan in person, who with the right amount of pressure just might be swayed to abandon his policy of working with Russian money and actively allowing Russian influence in the Seychelles.
Indeed, such summits are often an excellent opportunity to be able to convey such concerns to developing world governments. Such was certainly the case with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who according to public reports received messages from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the potential for bloodshed in the DRC, and the need to have a positive impact through his country’s network of support for M23 rebels.
Another issue which Ramkalawan may have been dismayed to receive warnings about has been the pattern of democratic backsliding that has been evident in his nation over the course of the past year. This has included everything from exerting control over the press at the expense of freedom of expression, the passing of legislation aimed at empowering the military to act at the President’s will in times of peace as well as the locking up of political enemies. The US which has traditionally been concerned over instances of authoritarianism rearing its ugly head, is certainly concerned about this pattern of troubling domestic developments in the Seychelles.
If however, after receiving such warnings no concrete change is effected on the ground, it would be time to consider alternative options. While it is doubtful if this would include sanctions, certainly international aid conditionally is a tool which the US has in the past used in cases such as these. As the US is the most significant single contributor to organizations like the IMF and World Bank, it would not be outside the remit of the United States to demand comprehensive democratic reform in the Seychelles if international aid was to be continued. Such a scenario would see Ramkalawan and his government pushed into a corner and required to alter their course immediately to avoid financial bankruptcy and isolation.
With authoritarian regimes like Ramkalawan’s, it is difficult to know if such a course of action would be successful or alternatively, if it might just push him and his government further into the hands of Russia and other anti-democratic actors. However, one thing to certain: The United States must continue to be active along the lines it sees fit to ensure the Seychelles don’t move further into Russia’s sphere of influence and the fragile cornerstones of democracy are not uprooted by Ramkalawan.