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Mills Soko: How Russia's pursuit of African allies will test the continent

Oct 23 2019 06:02
Mills Soko

The inaugural Russia-Africa summit, set to take place from October 23-24 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, represents Russia’s re-emergence as a significant player on the African continent. How African countries respond will determine whether Moscow’s overtures constitute a force for good or a malign influence on the continent.

Russia had not identified Africa as a significant part of its foreign policy strategy ever since the end of the Cold War, during which the United States (US) and the Soviet Union competed for favour and influence on the continent. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union cultivated deep relationships across Africa and, as part of its ideological tussle with the West, supported national liberation movements while also exploiting the colonial legacy to dent Western influence.

Not only did the Soviet Union provide substantial economic assistance to African countries, it also extended security assistance to post-independence militaries and sponsored cultural and educational exchanges. Several African leaders either studied or received military training in Moscow, including former South African presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, ex-Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba, former Chadian prime minister Youssouf Saleh Abbas, and the erstwhile president of the Central African Republic (CAR) Michel Djotodia.

The end of the Cold War and implosion of the Soviet Union brought to a sudden halt the country’s relationships in Africa. Russia’s re-entry into Africa is calculated to revive its historical ties with the continent. This policy intention was outlined in 2013 when the Russian government published its Foreign Policy Concept, which stated: "Russia will enhance multifaceted action with African states on a bilateral and multilateral basis with a focus on improving political dialogue and promoting mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation and contribute to settling and preventing regional conflicts and crises in Africa."

Russia's ties with Africa

In strategic terms, Russia sees its relations with Africa as crucial to its desire to promote a multipolar world order and to ensuring that the country is not isolated internationally. To this end, the country has sought the backing of African countries for its positions in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, African Union (AU) and Organisation of Islamic Conference as a way of weakening the power of the US and its allies.

Moscow enjoys diplomatic relations with all African countries. It has representatives to the AU as well as to the regional communities of the Southern African Development Community, East African Community and the Economic Community of West African States. It has participated in peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia and Sudan. Russia also contributes to the AU Fund.

It has, in terms of debt relief and development assistance, alleviated nearly $20 billion of African debt in recent years and concluded a number of agreements on the utilisation of remaining debts to finance development projects. The country has also implemented a preferential system for certain African export commodities.

Moscow’s diplomatic ambitions in Africa have been evidenced by the number of African visits undertaken by the country’s leaders. In 2018 alone, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov undertook seven visits to Africa. President Vladimir Putin has also visited several countries, including Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Morocco and Libya. Twelve African heads of state have visited Russia since 2015.

Commercial ties have been an important driver of Russia’s foray into Africa. In 2018, total bilateral trade amounted to $4.1 billion, with Algeria, South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea accounting for 80% of Africa’s exports to Russia. Arms trade has been at the core of the two-way relationship, with 13% of Russia’s total arms exports in 2017 going to Africa.

Moscow’s focus has mostly been confined to tapping into markets within Africa’s minerals and energy sectors. In this context, the country’s state-owned firms such as Alrosa, the world’s biggest diamond mining firm, oil behemoth Rosfnet, nuclear power giant Rosatom, manganese ore producer Renova Group, and nickel miner Norilsk Nickel have played an increasingly forceful role in Russian foreign policy. Russia has identified opportunities to move up the energy value chain by selling its technical expertise to African nations.

Scope for expansion

Russian companies have broken into such markets as science and engineering, and Russia boasts considerable scientific and technical expertise from which Africa can benefit. There is also scope to expand two-way trade in agriculture, where there are complementarities.

The BRICS Development Bank represents a crucial strategic lever for Russia in Africa. Moscow is keen, for example, to use the conclusion of co-operation agreements to encourage collaboration between Russian and African companies as well as research institutions.

Even so, it is worth noting that Russia’s economic footprint in Africa has not been as ambitious as those of other great powers such as the US, China, Japan and the European Union. Compared, for example, with China, whose total trade with Africa in 2018 stood at $204 billion, trade levels between Russia and the continent are very low. This is partly a function of the reality that Russia has been constrained by a stagnant economy, in addition to having miniscule commercial links with the African continent since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

Russia’s resurgence in Africa presents the continent with an opportunity to use its growing international bargaining power, buttressed by its increasing economic appeal and diplomatic strength, to extract optimal benefits from its relations with Moscow and diversify its strategic engagements with other external powers. 

Risks

But Russia also presents challenges and threats.

The arms trade, in particular, has been a source of controversy in relations between Russia and Africa.

The CAR is a case in point. Concerns have been raised about the military and security role Russia has played there since 2018, especially the implications of using of private military companies to deal with security problems in the country. The CAR government has reportedly been selling mining rights for gold and diamonds at significantly reduced prices to hire trainers and purchase arms from Moscow.

Prior to his ouster from office, Sudan’s president Omar Hassan al-Bashir enlisted Russian mercenaries to prop up his rule against countrywide protests. And five countries – Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania — have also previously called on Moscow to help their militaries to fight the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

Russia’s growing geo-political and security clout in Africa is likely to test African governments and non-state actors.  

How African countries respond will determine whether Moscow’s advances foster continental progress or harm their interests.  

Mills Soko is a professor of International Business and Strategy at Wits Business School. Views expressed are his own. 

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