By Sitati Wasilwa
The first ever Russia-Africa Summit was held on October 23rd and 24th, 2019 in the city of Sochi. This was Moscow’s outward projection intending to be a major player in global geopolitics.
The primary goal of the Summit is to counter the influence of the United States of America, China, the European Union, Japan and other foreign powers in Africa through partnerships touted to promote social, economic and political development.
However, it is important to consider that the partnership for development between the Russian Federation and African states is underpinned on the latter’s resources and its potency as a captive market and a polity with visible fault lines that could be exploited for the former’s benefit.
According to the Declaration of the First Russia-Africa Summit, the Russian Federation and African states seek to enhance political cooperation; security cooperation; trade and economic cooperation; legal cooperation; scientific, technical, humanitarian, and information cooperation; and cooperation in environmental protection.
Brief History of Russia’s Interest & Involvement in Africa
Arnaud Kalika documents that Moscow’s interest in Africa has its origins in the late nineteenth century following the Congress of Berlin held in 1885 when European powers divided Africa into colonial combs. With Russia’s exclusion from the annexation process, Moscow never colonized any African territory.
Following the establishment of the United Soviets Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922 and the convention of the fourth Congress of the Communist International, Kalika notes that Moscow set grounds to wrestle with the capitalist world with discussions on three fundamental issues: “the African question”, slavery, and the responsibility of the United States of America. This marked Moscow’s formal intentions to be a major player in global geopolitics.
During the Cold War, Moscow forged alliances with a number of African states based on both hard power and soft power. Hard power entails the use of military means to spread an entity’s influence. As documented by Jack Griffiths, the Soviet Union increased its supply of arms in countries around the world including Africa. In particular, countries that the Soviet Union supplied arms include Ethiopia, Angola, Algeria, present day Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Morocco and South Africa.
Guinea and Egypt were also beneficiaries of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy during the Cold War. Newly independent Guinea (then under the leadership of Sekou Toure) in particular had pronounced relations with the Soviet Union as noted by History.com:
“More troubling for U.S. officials, however, was Guinea’s open courting of Soviet aid and money and signing of a military assistance agreement with the Soviet Union. By 1960, nearly half of Guinea’s exports were going to eastern bloc nations and the Soviets had committed millions of dollars of aid to the African republic. Toure was also intrigued by Mao’s communist experiments in China…”
Moscow’s global ambitions and footprints in Africa were also advanced through soft power. This was primarily done through the People’s Friendship University of Russia located in Moscow. An article titled “History of Russia-Africa links” indicates that the goal of the Friendship University was to educate young people from Africa, Asia and Latin America with some of Africa’s former presidents such as Thabo Mbeki and Jose Eduardo dos Santos having studied at the institution.
Post-Cold War Russia-Africa Relations
The end of the Cold War and disintegration of the Soviet Union into fifteen states including Russia thawed Moscow’s relations with Africa. Collapse of the Russian economy was marked by massive GDP contraction, huge budget deficits, food scarcity, a dysfunctional tax system, a totally weakened currency, and over-the-roof corruption.
Collapse of the Russian economy between 1991 and 1999 affected Moscow’s geopolitical ambitions in Africa. It is documented that the Russian government closed down nine embassies and three consulates, massively cut down the number staff in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and also did away with aid programmes.
Russia’s economic recovery from 2000 with Vladmir Putin as president renewed her global geopolitical interests. Jakob Hedenskog notes that since 2000, Russia has played an integral role regarding UN peacekeeping operations in Africa by sending troops, expertise and military observers. Russia’s economic recovery post-2000 is also characterized by an increase in the volume of arms and military equipment exported to Africa.
Moscow’s post-Cold War relations with Africa lean toward military support and arms trade. Analysis by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that between 2014 and 2018, Russia accounted for 49% of arms imports to North Africa and 28% to Sub-Saharan Africa. These figures for the two regions were higher than that for the United States of America and China.
For instance, USA arms imports to North Africa between 2014 and 2018 was 15% and 7.1% for Sub-Saharan Africa. China’s arms imports over the same period of time was 10% for North Africa and 24% for Sub-Saharan Africa.
Russia’s foray into Africa is underpinned on fundamental interests ranging from natural resources to military strategy among others. Such interests inform key considerations for the future or success and/or failure of Russia’s renewed interest in Africa.
A report by the Swedish Defence Research Agency indicates that Russia has a shortage of natural resources such as titanium, chrome, mercury and manganese and coltan among others. The report cites Russia’s presence in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where it is involved in extraction of coltan, cobalt, gold and diamonds. Russia is also present in Central African Republic (CAR) busy extracting uranium and diamonds. Russia also benefits from Africa’s agricultural produce with one-third of its African imports being agricultural mainly cocoa, coffee, potatoes and fruits. Regarding natural resources, Russia largely benefits and is set to benefit more from its relations with Africa.
It is estimated that trade between Russia and Africa amounted to about $20 billion in 2018. Of this, Africa imported products estimated to be worth $17.4 billion while it exported commodities worth approximately $3 billion with Russia benefiting to a tune of $14.5 billion. However, analysis by BBC indicates that Russia’s trading relationship with Africa is dwarfed by Africa’s volume of trade with China, India, USA, Japan and the European Union.
Military Cooperation and Strategic Interests
Johan Burger’s article details crucial information in relation to Russia’s military and strategic interests in Africa. Russia has established or intends to establish military bases in Sudan along the Red Sea Coast, Somaliland, and Egypt. Another publication highlights Russia’s military bases in Madagascar, Mozambique, and Guinea. Lately, the Central African Republic intends to host a Russian military base.
Russia’s strategic interests also include establishment (completed or planned) of nuclear plants in Sudan, Ethiopia, and most recently Rwanda.
Africa was greatly affected by the debt crisis of the 1980s and 90s. Currently, concerns have been raised about China’s debt-trap diplomacy (read here, here and here). Russia could avoid similar criticism by fashioning deals that do not overburden African countries with debts. The Russian government may also learn from Africa’s recent economic relations with the Chinese government. African governments could also avoid loans from Russia due to unpopular opinion among Africans against external borrowing. During the Russia-Africa Summit, the Russian government wrote-off more than $20 billion in debt accumulated by African countries in the Soviet era.
Shrinking Democratic Space?
Moscow has made clear its intentions in Africa; to be of economic and military in nature. However, Russia could as well jeopardize the growth and development of democratic institutions in Africa. Though its post-Cold War relations with Africa are not hinged on communism, certainly Russia could negatively influence Africa’s elections or engender political stability.
Sitati Wasilwa is a political economist and an analyst/commentator on public policy, governance, geopolitics and geoeconomics.