Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov has planned two African tours during the first quarter 2023, diplomatic rhetoric and anti-Western slogans, often unremittingly smearing and attacking other countries especially the United States and France, have overshadowed Russia’s achievements in Africa. At least, Lavrov should focus on Russia’s concrete plans to engage in economic sectors and talk more about achievements since the first African leaders summit held in October 2019.
Russia hardly delivers on its commitments but speaks very loud on unimaginable resonating Soviet assistance during the colonial days for which collective African leaders showed highest gratitude and appreciation, and at least honoured invitations to join Russian political and corporate business establishment during the summit in Sochi, southern coastal city of Russia.
Historically, Africa has long passed its colonial era. In 1960, Africa was declared as absolutely liberated from its colonial administration and rule. An Africa tour full of lectures on neo-colonialism and anti-Western confrontation brings little to the entire continent. Russia is interested in strengthening political dialogue but not successful in transforming this into business. In practical terms, Africa currently needs external investors and development partners to transform its resources, build infrastructure, create employment and thus raise living standards of the 1.3 billion population.
Western countries and Europe have well-structured institutions and mechanisms for influencing politics, economy and even cultural dimensions. Working consistently with the youth, women and civil society, and some extent non-state organizations is one way for building perceptions and socially oriented segment of the population into the future. Of course, Russia could choose to maintain its state-centric approach since it is also an admirable foreign policy instrument to push for influence in Africa.
The system of governance and individual state policies, to some extent, gave birth to the current development status despite the fact that Africa has vast resources and opportunities. Playing by the traditional rule “African problems, African solutions” means that Russia has to take into cognizance the development needs of African countries.
While currently, Russia seems to be soliciting the support of Africa to lead the emerging new multipolar world, Russia does not still recognize that it needs to adopt more public outreach policies to win the minds and hearts of Africans. Its economic footprint on the continent is comparatively weak. Instead of addressing its own policy weaknesses and investment agenda, it has consistently been criticising other foreign players, especially the United States and European countries that are active in Africa.
For example, China practices what it preaches. According to a Eurasia Group analysis China’s economic influence in Africa is undeniable. It remains the region’s largest bilateral investor, and noticeable infrastructures such as Chinese-built hospitals, highways, airports and stadiums are “everywhere” in Africa. Beijing uses its enlarged economic presence to gain influence with Africa. China, Japan, India, the United States, the European Union and other players are progressively implementing their African strategies and undertaking development projects there.
That compared, Russia’s economic presence seems only marginal, absolutely playing quite negligible investment roles in building critical infrastructures and participating in the industrial sector in Africa. Now, Africa is creating a continental market which requires cutting-edge technological innovation and entrepreneurship, and ultimately entails improving such sectors as manufacturing (intended to add value to raw materials) in the region.
Within the emerging global order, Russia’s contribution will equally be important for Africa’s development. It will compliment the continent’s development status, and this is far from charity.
Back in September 2019, Lavrov acknowledged at the start of the academic year talking to students and staff at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO): “Africa is one of our priorities. Our political ties in particular are developing dynamically. But economic cooperation is not as far advanced as our political ties.”
According to Lavrov, a process of change has been ongoing for the past 15 years. The return is now taking the form of resuming a very close political dialogue, which has always been at a strategic and friendly level, and now moving to a vigorous economic cooperation. To reflect and consolidate these trends and in order to draw up plans for expanding consolidated partnerships with the African countries.
With high optimism and a high desire to strengthen its geopolitical influence, Russia has engaged in trading slogans, and many of its signed agreements have not been implemented. Unfortunately, Russia has been stacked due to its “special military operations” it began late February in the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. There are thousands of decade-old undelivered pledges. In practical assessment, it has achieved very little these few years after the symbolic summit held in 2019.
The summit factfile says there were approximately 3,000 attendees, and in total 268 speakers participated in various discussions of several topical issues. Obviously, 92 agreements and contracts worth a total of $12.5 billion were signed at the summit.
Besides that there was a political declaration which offers a comprehensive roadmap, there were also two key agreements that include: (i) Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Russian Federation and the African Union on basic principles of relations and cooperation was adopted at the Summit in the presence of Vladimir Putin and Abdelfattah El-Sisi. (ii) a Memorandum of Understanding between the Eurasian Economic Commission and the African Union on economic cooperation was signed by Tigran Sargsyan, the Chairman of the EEC Board, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.
Many of these bilateral agreements enshrined in documents mentioned above, have still not been implemented. A lot more important issues, including those grand gestures and skylined promises have received little attention since the first African leaders summit held in Sochi. Nevertheless, Russia is shooting at regaining part of its Soviet-era influence in the region. And African leaders will be getting ready for the next grand photo opps, witness the delivery of those sparkling high-powerful speeches and finally sign series of new bilateral agreements during the upcoming second Russia-Africa summit scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Professor David H. Shinn at the Eliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University and previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia (1996 – 99) and Burkina Faso (1987 – 90), thinks that China’s leader Xi Jinping has something of an idea how he wants China to become not just a global power but at some point to lead the global community, replacing the US and Western powers. In pursuit of the goal, China has indeed achieved a lot worldwide, and particularly take seriously the importance of investing in long-term relations across Africa.
Professor Shinn made quick references to the fact that Beijing has already built the headquarters of the African Union (AU) and several institutional buildings across Africa, including the parliament building in Harare, Zimbabwe. In January 2012, African heads of state and governments met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to commission a new $200 million 12-storey Secretariat donated by China to the to serve as the organization’s headquarters.
According to him, China will soon begin building the headquarters of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abuja, Nigeria to the tune of $32 million, setting a trend where Beijing has influential fingerprints over regional blocs on the continent. The Chinese have already broken ground for the head offices of the Secretariat, which it says is a donation of friendship which is similar to the African Union.
He explains further that China now has economic footprints in nearly every African country and has grown to be Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, to the tune of $254 billion – nearly four times the value of U.S.-Africa trade. Russia’s trade profile is much smaller and primarily supplies weaponry, often fueling local warfare through mercenary forces. Many in Africa, however, resent being a seen as a proxy battlefield for the world’s major conflicts, a legacy due in part to centuries of colonial control over African countries and their people.
That compared, the problem President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin administration have not yet gotten near the generalities such as community of shared future and China’s dream. Russia’s hard part of forging a genuine economic cooperation is yet to begin in Africa.
President Vladimir Putin has not even gotten to the point where he has identified the generalities and embarrassing distractions such as his war in former Soviet republic of Ukraine will leave no room to lead the global community. Many external countries have called for diplomatic solutions to the crisis. With focus on war in the neighbourhood and with end-in-sight, African leaders should perhaps expect little from the Russian Federation.
Reports have shown that Russia sees itself collaborating with China to lead the multipolar world. Africa is an important part of that world. But Russia has important gaps in its relations with African countries and does not approach the leverage that China has in Africa. At least, China has provided infrastructure, invested practically in various economic sectors to the admiration of Africans.
In an article published in Foreign Affairs, Wake Forest University Professor Lina Benabdallah, also noted that Beijing began to invest in Africa as part of a project called the Belt and Road Initiative or BRI. By 2021, 39 African countries had joined the BRI. Their primary investment in the region is centered around infrastructure as well as in joint business ventures with African companies. That China takes a variety of factors into consideration. First, African markets are huge. Then, the middle class in many African countries is expanding, consumer goods, urbanization, technology products, and so on are all interesting avenues to expand operations in the continent.
According to Professor Benabdallah, when Beijing approaches negotiations with African countries, it is looking to them as partners with whom it can expand business opportunities, rather than as charity cases. A variety of things. With China’s evolving influence in Africa through the BRI, European and American actors are also starting to see African countries as potential strategic partners. This, of course, can be good if African actors can leverage these various partnerships to negotiate better deals for their citizens. Yet, it can also be tricky if African actors find themselves stuck again in a scenario where two superpowers fight over influence and hegemony without much regard for the autonomy or sovereignty of Africans.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies published on 11 May a study titled “Massacres, Executions, and Falsified Graves: The Wagner Group’s Mounting Humanitarian Cost in Mali” by Catrina Doxsee and Jared Thompson. Their report indicated that between 800 and 1,000 Russian mercenaries with the Wagner group are active in Mali. Russia’s mercenary Wagner group staged evidence in Mali of alleged French atrocities. In fact, it is the Wagner group that often conducts indiscriminate killing in the country.
Many foreign media monitor Wagner’s engagement across Africa, and further allegedly report illuminating its nefarious practices, including opaque and manipulative contracts, disinformation campaigns, election meddling, and human rights abuses. Mercenaries employed by the Russian Wagner Group have been implicated in a mass killing in Mali. Russia and China blocked a vote of the UN Security Council on an independent investigation.
Pan African Visions published in May a commentary titled “What Could Take Russia Forward in Africa” noted that Russia is stepping up its efforts to seek influence in Africa as Western sanctions increasingly impact on Moscow. But Russia has limited economic interaction with Africa and needs to face new practical realities if its efforts are to succeed. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only increased the obstacles. Interestingly, Russia is only discussed in the context of how its invasion of Ukraine disrupted global food supplies.
Currently, Russia is actively laying the groundwork for its second summit meeting with African countries in July 2023. It has little to show as achievements, perhaps only success story is it’s private military company known as the Wagner group that has become increasingly active in Africa.
Foreign Policy published on 30 May a commentary titled “Putin’s World Order Would Be Devastating for Africa” by Joseph Siegle and Jeffrey Smith. Putin is taking a sledgehammer to the foundation of the once stable post-World War II order by normalizing geographic expansionism. Would be tsars in Africa are watching to see if Putin gets away with this brazen overreach and violation of established borders.
The US Institute of Peace published on 17 May a commentary titled “On Ukraine, Africa Needs a Clearer U.S. Message” by Heather Ashby and Joseph Sany suggested that the United States must focus its message on Ukrainian self-determination and on building the fairer international system that is sought by the Global South. This means involving these countries more in the decision-making apparatus of multilateral institutions.
The South African Institute of International Affairs published on 18 May a commentary titled “The Charm of Anti-Westernism: Russia’s Soft Power in Africa” by Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti also suggested that Russia’s anti-Western policies and rhetoric appeal to some African leaders. Others find Russia an attractive provider of political and security services. But the second Russia-Africa summit – if it indeed goes ahead in 2023 – will be an ideal platform to reflect on progress and to test of Russian appeal to African countries.
The war in Ukraine has elevated the level of scrutiny of Russia’s actions both in Europe and elsewhere in the world, including in Africa. Moscow is simply not address sustainable developments questions especially in critical sectors in Africa. It important to assess its contributions to and impact on the economy over the past several years. With the war ongoing, Moscow is only wooing African elites to serve its interests. Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, however, warns against over-generalizing the unique features of bilateral ties.
In these difficult and crucial times, the strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority of Russia’s foreign policy, declared Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister. Russia has to design and focus on its priority interests, and most importantly complement in providing support for development needs in Africa. Regrettably, much has been lost over these three decades. But with high hopes of raising its geopolitical influence, Russia’s diplomacy can aptly be summarized as “great expectations – broken promises” as presently seen across Africa.
According to our research findings, in stark contrast to key global players including the United States, China, the European Union and many others, Russia’s challenge is to live up to the values of diplomacy, change to be worthy of the responsibility and be given that sacred trust. Undeniable fact that it’s post-Soviet policies have little impact on Africa’s development paradigms, in other words non-result oriented to drive forward Africa’s sustainable development questions.
In November 2021, 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, released the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ that vividly highlighted some spectacular pitfalls and shortcomings in Russia’s approach towards Africa. The report noted Russia’s consistent failure in honouring its bilateral agreements and several 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.
The report recommended Russia adopt an Action Plan – a practical document that would fill in aspects of strategic cooperation with result-oriented substance between summits. In conclusion, Russians have to face the new geopolitical realities and its practical existing challenges during these changing times, and while designing policy strategies and action plan must strongly remember that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.