Russia’s Summit on Africa: Challenges, Implications and Beyond

By Kester Kenn Klomegah

Putin and African leaders at the 2019 summit in Sochi, Russia. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

With highly expected symbolism, Russia’s primary focus at the forthcoming November summit in St. Petersburg with African leaders, corporate business directors, representatives from the academic community, civil society organizations and media will largely be renewing most of its unfulfilled bilateral agreements, and making new pledges that will, as usual, be incorporated into a second joint declaration.

Brilliant speeches reminded of long-standing traditions of friendship and solidarity, how Soviets assisted African countries in their struggle to attain independence and established statehood, and further highlighted neo-colonialism tendencies wide spreading on the continent. That Russia stands with Africa on matters of strengthening peace and stability on the continent and ensuring regional security. Next is absolute readiness to engage in broadening vibrant cooperation in all economic sectors.

While the first summit was described as highly successful due to its spectacular blistering symbolism and has offered the necessary solid impetus for raising to qualitative level the multifaceted relations, especially in the economic spheres with Africa, much has still not been pursued as expected. Behind the shadows of the bilateral agreements, some of the projects were simultaneously assigned to either Western or European investors.

Long before the historic summit, African foreign ministers and delegations had lined up visiting Moscow. Those frequent official visits were intended to show off that Russia is high demand as indicated in a 150-paged new policy released last November by a group of 25 leading experts headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

The report vividly highlighted some pitfalls and shortcomings in Russia’s approach towards Africa. It further pointed to Russia’s consistent failure in honoring its several agreements and pledges over the years. It decried the increased number of bilateral and high-level meetings that yield little or bring to the fore no definitive results. In addition, insufficient and disorganized Russian African lobbying combined with a lack of “information hygiene” at all levels of public speaking, says the policy report.

There are, indeed, to demonstrate “demand for Russia” in the non-Western world; the formation of ad hoc political alliances with African countries geared towards competition with the collective West. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

Despite the growth of external player’s influence and presence in Africa, Russia has to intensify and redefine its parameters. Russia’s foreign policy strategy regarding Africa has to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries. Unlike most competitors, Russia has to promote an understandable agenda for Africa: working more on sovereignty, continental integration, infrastructure development, human development (education and medicine), security (including the fight against hunger and epidemics), normal universal human values, the idea that people should live with dignity and feel protected.

Nearly all the Russian experts who participated in putting the report together unreservedly agreed with this view. The main advantage of such an agenda is that it may be more oriented to the needs of Africans than those of its Western and European competitors. It is advisable to present such a strategy already at the second Russia-Africa summit, and discuss and coordinate it with African partners before that. Along with the strategy, it is advisable to adopt an Action Plan – a practical document that would fill cooperation with substance between summits.

Vsevolod Tkachenko, the Director of the Africa Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, stated during one of the preparatory meetings, “the African partners expect concrete deeds, maximum substantive ideas and useful proposals.” The current task is to demonstrate results and highlight achievements to the African side. Over the past years, African countries have witnessed many bilateral agreements, memoranda of understanding and pledges.

Russia has to set different narratives about its aspirations and intentions of returning to Africa. The approach has to move from rhetoric and mere declarations of interests. Since the basis of the summit remains the economic interaction between Russia and Africa, “the ideas currently being worked out on new possible instruments to encourage Russian exports to Africa, Russian investments to the continent, such as a fund to support direct investment in Africa, all these deserve special attention,” Tkachenko says.

According to an official report posted on the website, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, during the “Government Hour” in the State Duma on January 26, stated that the “cooperation with African countries has expanded to reach new frontiers. Together with African friends, we are working on preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled to be held this year.” Previously, for instance, Lavrov explicitly indicated: “Russia’s political ties, in particular, are developing dynamically. But economic cooperation is not as far advanced as political ties.”

Many experts have expressed concern about the relationship between Russia and Africa, most often comparing it with other foreign players on the continent within the framework of sustainable development there in Africa. It is about time to make meaningful efforts to implement tons of bilateral agreements already signed with Africa countries.

“Russia, of course, is not satisfied with this state of affairs. At present diplomacy dominates its approach: plethora of agreements were signed with many African countries, official visits proliferate apace, but the outcomes remain hardly discernible,” Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria in South Africa and a former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote in an emailed conversation.

“While, given its global status, Russia ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role. Be that as it may, the Kremlin has revived its interest in the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results,” Olivier added.

Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Russia, Brigadier General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, who has been in his post since July 2015, expresses his views on the relations between Africa and the Russian Federation. While Russia has traditional ties with Africa, its economic footprints are not growing as expected. It has however attempting to transform the much boasted political relations into a more comprehensive and broad economic cooperation, he noted in his conversation with me.

He pointed to the disparity in the level of development, the diversity of cultures and aspirations of the peoples of the two regions, there is growing realization that Africa is an important partner in the “emerging and sustainable polycentric architecture of the world order” as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has aptly asserted. But in fact, Africa’s critical mass can only be ignored at great risk therefore.

For a long time, Russia’s foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms as evidenced by the countable forays into Africa by Russian officials. The Russian Federation has shied away from economic cooperation with Africa, making forays into the few countries that it has engaged in the last few years. African leaders hold Russia in high esteem as evidenced by the large number of African embassies in Moscow. Furthermore, Russia has no colonial legacy in Africa, according to the Zimbabwean diplomat.

Ambassador Sango, who previously held various high-level posts such as military adviser in Zimbabwe’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and as international instructor in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), also said that “Russia has not responded in the manner expected by Africa, as has China, India and South Korea, to name a few. Africa’s expectation is that Russia, while largely in the extractive industry, will steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.”

While Russia and Africa have common positions on the global platform, the need to recognize and appreciate the aspirations of the common man cannot be overstated. Africa desires economic upliftment, human security in the form of education, health, shelter as well as security from transnational terrorism among many challenges afflicting Africa. The Russian Federation has the capacity and ability to assist Africa overcome these challenges leveraging on Africa’s vast resources, Ambassador Sango concluded.

For more than three decades after Soviet collapse in 1991, Russia has had different degrees of political relations and currently looking forward to build stronger economic cooperation. During these years, the relations have also transited through distinctive phases taking cognizance of challenges and fast changing global politics.

In an interview discussion for this story, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration of Ghana, explains to this research writer that “Although, for a relationship lasting this long with Africa, one would have expected it to move past where it is now. In short, there is still room for improvement, in fostering particularly stronger economic ties.”

It is hoped that Russia continues consistently to catch up with other active foreign competitors, makes attempts to transform the well-developed political relations with broader economic cooperation the coming years. Ultimately, emphasis should also be placed on developing ‘people-to-people’ relations, whereby the peoples of both countries would have better understanding of each other.

Critically not much has been achieved, looking at the Russia-Africa relations from the perspective of regional organizations – especially Southern African Development Community (SADC), when it was headed by Lawrence Stergomena. Regrettably, she explained during discussions with me that like most of the developing countries, Southern African countries have largely relied on multilateral and regional development financial institutions to fund their development projects.

In this regard, SADC welcomes investors from all over the world. In reality, Russia has not been that visible in the region as compared to China, India or Brazil. On the other hand, it is encouraging that Russia is currently attempting to position itself to be a major partner with Southern Africa, underlined Stergomena, and further explained that the SADC is an inter-governmental organization with its primary goal of deepening socio-economic cooperation and integration in the southern region.

Dr. Babafemi A. Badejo, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Chrisland University, Abeokuta, Nigeria, argues that many foreign players and investors are now looking forward to exploring several opportunities in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which provides a unique and valuable access to an integrated African market of over 1.2 billion people. In practical reality, it aims at creating a continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business people and investments in Africa.

Badejo argues further that Russia’s gradual engagement can be boosted by African media popularizing and boosting knowledge on such engagements by Russia. Hosting the next summit would feed very well into popularizing Russia’s efforts at engagement with African leaders. However, promoting relations with the continent of Africa would require more than a one-off event with African leaders who have varying levels of legitimacy from performance or lack of it in their respective countries.

Interestingly, and at the current moment, not much of Russia’s image is promoted by the media in Africa. African media should have the opportunity to report more about Russian corporate presence in Africa and their added value to the realization of the sustainable development goals in Africa. This corporate presence can support the building of the media image of Russia in Africa through involvements with people-at-large oriented activities.

In this final analysis, Russia has to make consistent efforts in building its media network that could further play key role in strengthening relations with Africa, the academic professor noted in his lengthy discussions on Russia-Africa, and concluded that it is Western perception and narrative of Russia that pervades the African media. Russia needs to do more in using media to tell its own story and interest in Africa.

President Vladimir Putin noted at the VTB Capital’s Russia Calling Forum, that many countries had been “stepping up their activities on the African continent” but added that Russia could not cooperate with Africa “as it was in the Soviet period, for political reasons.” In his opinion, cooperation with African countries could be developed on a bilateral basis as well as on a multilateral basis, through the framework of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Reports say Moscow has repeatedly promised to provide genuine cooperation but all these seems illusive over these years. Russia’s involvement in infrastructure development has been extremely low on the continent. Despite its frequently boasted impressive relations, Russia has not pledged publicly concrete funds toward implementing its policy objectives in Africa. Its investment efforts have been limited thus far which some experts attributed to lack of a mechanism or structured system of financing. While Russians are very cautious about making financial commitments, the financial institutions are not closely involved in foreign policy initiatives in Africa.

In addition, experts have identified lack of effective coordination and follow-ups combined with inconsistent approach as fundamental factors affecting the entire relations with Africa. While the first summit is still considered as the largest symbolic event in history, many significant issues in the joint declaration have not been pursued and that could lay down a comprehensive strategic roadmap for building the future Russia-African relations.

As publicly known, China, Japan and India have committed funds publicly during their summits, while large investment funds have also come from the United States and European Union, all towards realizing various economic and infrastructure projects and further collaborating in new interesting areas as greater significant part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.

 

 

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