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The road to Sochi 2019: Russia’s influence in Africa

By Ejeviome Eloho Otobo
02 October 2019   |   3:18 am
Sochi, the Black Sea resort in the Russian Federation, has hosted many international events. Sochi 2019 refers to the first Russia-Africa Summit to be held on 23-24 October 2019 in that city.

Sochi, the Black Sea resort in the Russian Federation, has hosted many international events. Sochi 2019 refers to the first Russia-Africa Summit to be held on 23-24 October 2019 in that city. My article titled “China, America and Russia’s Game of Influence in Africa”, published on this page on 10 July 2019, painted a broad picture of these three big powers’ relations with Africa. This article is a continuation of that series with a focus on Russia-Africa relations.

The relations between Africa and Russia, including its predecessor –the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (also known as the Soviet Union) –can be divided into three phases: 1960-1991; 1991-2000; and 2000 to the present. The first phase coincided with the first three decades of post-independence Africa and with the height of the Cold War era marked by intense rivalry between the then two superpowers: The United States and the Soviet Union. That rivalry had a huge ideological fervour with each superpower pressuring African and other developing countries to take its side. There were four distinctive features of the Soviet Union’s relations Africa during this phase.

The first was Soviet Union’s significant assistance for the anti-colonial, anti-apartheid and nationalist struggles in Africa. The symbolic high point of that effort was the diplomatic, military and technical support that the Soviet Union extended to countries in Southern Africa, especially Angola, Mozambique and liberation movements in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. The high watermark of that period was the visit of President Nikolai Podgorny in April 1977 to Somalia, Tanzania, and Zambia as well as Mozambique, with which it signed a Friendship and Military Defence Treaty.

A similar treaty had been with Angola soon after that country gained independence in 1975. The second feature was the Soviet Union’s economic and technical assistance to several countries including Ethiopia, which it embraced after dumping Somalia; Egypt in building the High Aswan Dam which was completed in 1970; and Nigeria in building the Ajaokuta Steel Mill, although that project remains inchoate.

Soviet Union signed technical-economic cooperation agreements with 37, and trade agreements with 42 African countries during this period. Third, in addition to its support for the liberation movements in Southern Africa, Soviet Union offered significant military assistance to Nigeria during the country’s civil war from 1967-1970; to Ethiopia, Egypt, and Algeria.

The fourth was the training opportunities and scholarships offered to African students to study in the Soviet Union and the re-naming of the Peoples Friendship University of Russia as the Patrice Lumumba University –in honour of the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo who was assassinated in 1961. The university reverted to its original name in 1992.

In the second phase, which began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and more broadly the end of the Cold War, Russia’s foreign policy abandoned the socialist ideological fervor and became preoccupied with major domestic reforms.

Russia’s relations with Africa were marked by a reduction in the number of Russia’s embassies in Africa—it closed nine embassies and three consulates in Africa in 1992; halting of aid to African countries, and the insistence by the Yeltsin administration for African countries to repay their debts to Russia. A 1993 Russia Foreign Policy Concept, classifying the regions of the world in terms of their significance to Russia interests, ranked Africa ninth out of ten in the world. This was a period of retrenchment in Russia’s relations with Africa.

The third phase began in 2000 with Russia’s renewed engagement with Africa and coincided with the first-term election of President Putin. The impetus for Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is generally seen as coming from three sources: joining in the growing international interest in exploring and benefiting from the economic opportunities in Africa; developing new partnerships with African countries; and, by implication, participating in the “new scramble” for Africa by other major powers. As the third phase began, several Russian foreign policy analysts urged that Russia’s renewed engagement in Africa should be marked “not by ideology-based and romantic relations but by economic interest-based and realist relations”.

The heeding of that counsel is reflected in the scope of Russian firms’ engagement in Africa. These include Alrosa (diamond and hydro-electric);Gazprom (natural gas);Lukoil (oil exploration); Norlisk(nickel); Renaissance Capital (finance); Rosatom (nuclear power); Rosneft (oil); Rusal (aluminum); Severstal (iron ore); and Sintez (oil and gas).

A map of Russia’s interests in Africa — published on 23 January 2019 by the Financial Times under the story titled Putin’s Pivot to Africa —showed the scope of its involvement in various sectors: oil projects in Algeria, Angola, Egypt, Ghana, Nigeria, and Mozambique; Platinum in Zimbabwe; Nickel in South Africa; Diamond in Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe; Bauxite in Guinea; and nuclear research projects in Rwanda, Sudan and Zambia. Russia canceled $16billion worth of debt to several African countries in 2008 and $20 billion in 2012.

Russia has signed military cooperation agreements with 15 countries in the past three years, including with Central African Republic (CAR), where it established a military outpost in 2019. The activities of Wagner Group – a paramilitary Russian firm – in CAR have been thrown into the spotlight, as a result of the death of three Russian journalists who were investigating the activities of that company in 2018. Being the only major power that has no base in Djibouti, Russia aims to establish a “logistics centre” at a port in nearby Eritrea.

The upcoming Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi will create huge expectations on both sides. Russia will hope that the Summit will rekindle the memories of the Soviet Union’s historic support for Africa and enhance Russia’s influence in Africa.

African countries will most likely use three criteria to assess the success of the summit: The amount of financial support that Russia is likely to pledge for Africa’s development, bearing in mind that China pledged $60bn each atFOCAC-2015 and 2018, while Japan pledged US$ 32bnat TICAD-5 in 2013, $30bn at TICAD-6 in 2016, and US$20 bn at TICAD-7in 2019; the frequency of the Africa-Russia Summit; and the scope of technological support to Africa. African countries will do well to recognise that Russia may not have the financial resources on the scale of China or Japan to support them.

Consequently, Africa’s emphasis should be tapping on Russia’s science and technological knowledge, especially in areas of engineering and agriculture as well as energy-in which has substantive expertise and is a major global player. African countries should seize the opportunity of Russia’s renewed engagement to advance their economic transformation rather than playing pawns in the chess game of the big-powers’ rivalry.

Otobo is author of Africa in Transition: A New Way of Looking at Progress in the Region-which was nominated for the Grand Prix of Literary Associations Award 2018.