Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia-African diplomacy has been marked by several bilateral agreements that have yet to be implemented. According to official documents, 92 agreements worth a total of $12.5 billion were signed during the symbolic African leaders’ gathering in late October 2019, and Russia has done little to implement them since then.
Furthermore, the joint declaration is a comprehensive document that outlines the key objectives and tasks required to elevate the entire relationship to a new qualitative level. Long before the summit, there were mountains of promises and pledges that were never fulfilled. Several meetings of various bilateral intergovernmental commissions have taken place in both Moscow and Africa. According to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 170 Russian companies and organizations submitted 280 proposals to do projects and business in Africa.
As Russia prepares for the next summit, which will be held in St. Petersburg in July 2023, African leaders have indicated their willingness to actively participate, at the very least to listen to rousing speeches, sign more new agreements, and finally pose for group photos. However, many experts and top African diplomats question the substance of discussing additional opportunities and effective efforts to build and strengthen Russia-African relations.
The revival of Russia-African relations must address existing challenges while also taking a results-oriented approach to pressing African issues. Taking into account the views and opinions expressed by African politicians, businesspeople, experts, and diplomats about the situation in Africa is one of them. In practice, while Russia reaffirms its desire to return to Africa, it has yet to demonstrate a visible long-term commitment to collaborating with appropriate institutions to advance sustainable development across the continent.
Professor Abdullahi Shehu, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Russian Federation with concurrent accreditation to the Republic of Belarus, delivered a lecture on “Africa-Russian Relations: Past, Present, and Future” to young diplomats and students of the Diplomatic Academy of the Russian Federation in mid-October.
Ambassador Shehu talked a lot about African history. He focused on the effects of the times before, during, and after contact with European powers, as well as the neo-colonization of African states that happened after that. He also discussed Africa’s relations with the Soviet Union, which began in large part after the independence of several African states in the 1960s. He emphasized the contributions to Africa’s decolonization struggle, as well as the numerous areas of cooperation that have existed between Africa and Russia over the years.
Professor Shehu emphasized the existence of several bilateral agreements with African countries. Between 2015 and 2019, Russia and African countries signed a total of 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements. Many Russian companies, including Lukoil, Gasprom, Rosatom, and Rostec, are in Nigeria, Egypt, Angola, Algeria, and Ethiopia’s energy and power industries.
But, Russia has performed dismally in Africa’s energy sector and many other important economic spheres over the years. “Unfortunately, due to Rosneft’s lack of interest in doing business in Africa, these agreements have not materialized. Furthermore, Russia’s Rosatom has signed nuclear energy agreements with 18 African countries, including Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Rwanda, to meet those countries’ power needs but only little has been achieved till today.
Despite the tidal wave of new Africa-Russian relations, there are still obstacles, as well as new economic and geopolitical realities. Acceptance of these new realities is critical in order to properly manage Africa’s expectations from Russia, at least in the short term.
On the indiscriminate export of arms and military equipment, Ambassador Shehu stated, “However, Russia’s increasing export of arms to the African continent may exacerbate insecurity and instability, as well as increase the level of crime and criminal proclivity. So, it is in Russia’s strategic interest to be very picky about which African countries it sells weapons to. The deployment of private Russian mercenary groups and other private military groups in African countries is of particular concern and strategic importance to Africa.”
Support for Africa’s democratic institutions and agencies will lead to a more stable Africa, which is in Russia’s overall long-term interest and positive image rather than immediate short-term economic and financial gain, he said in his lecture, adding that Russia contributes approximately 35% of global arms export to the African region.
Given the difficulties that most African countries face in providing adequate power and energy, the number of Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) signed by Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power company, with at least fourteen African countries is encouraging. What will be more significant, however, is the extent to which the MOUs are implemented, because, by definition, the construction and operation of nuclear plants are ventures with the potential for deepening long-term relationships, according to Nigeria’s top diplomat.
Brigadier General Nicholas Mike Sango, Zimbabwe’s ambassador to the Russian Federation, told me in an interview in August just before his final departure from Moscow that there are several issues that could strengthen the relationship. Economic cooperation is an important direction. During these past two years, African diplomats have consistently persuaded Russian companies to use the Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) as an opportunity for Russian companies to establish footprints on the continent. This viewpoint has not found favor with them, and it is hoped that it will, at least, in the future.
Despite the government’s lack of pronounced incentives for businesses to set their sights on Africa, Russian businesses generally regard Africa as too risky for investment. He stated that Russia must establish a presence on the continent by exporting its competitive advantages in infrastructure, engineering and technological advancement in order to bridge the gap that is impeding Africa’s industrialization and development.
“Worse, there are too many initiatives by too many quasi-state institutions promoting economic cooperation with Africa, saying the same things in different ways, but doing nothing tangible,” he explained during our lengthy pre-departure interview. From July 2015 to August 2022, he represented the Republic of Zimbabwe in the Russian Federation. He previously served as a military adviser in Zimbabwe’s Permanent Mission to the UN and as an international instructor in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Former ambassadors have made several similar criticisms. According to former South African Ambassador Mandisi Mpahlwa, Sub-Saharan Africa has understandably been low on post-Soviet Russia’s priority list, given that Russia is not as reliant on Africa’s natural resources as other major economies. The reason for this was that Soviet-African relations, based on the fight to push back the borders of colonialism, did not always translate into trade, investment, and economic ties that would have continued seamlessly with post-Soviet Russia.
“Russia’s goal of elevating its bilateral relationship with Africa cannot be realized without close collaboration with the private sector. Africa and Russia are politically close but geographically separated, and people-to-people ties remain underdeveloped. This translates into a lack of understanding on both sides of what the other has to offer. In both countries, there may be a fear of the unknown,” Mpahlawa stated in an interview with me after completing his ambassadorial duties in Russia.
Worse, Russia’s African policy is riddled with flaws and inconsistencies. According to reports, more than 90 agreements were signed at the conclusion of the first Russia-Africa summit. Thousands of bilateral agreements are still in the works, and century-old promises and pledges to support sustainable development with African countries are authoritatively renewed. Russia is flashing its geopolitical headlights in all directions on Africa, like a polar deer waking up from its deep slumber.
According to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, several top-level bilateral meetings, memorandums of understanding, and bilateral agreements have occurred in recent years. In November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the TASS News Agency’s headquarters was harshly critical of Russia’s current African policy.
While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the proportion of substantive issues and concrete outcomes on the agenda has remained small. It explicitly highlights the inconsistency of approaches in dealing with many critical development issues in Africa. Russia, on the other hand, lacks public outreach policies for Africa. Aside from the lack of a public strategy for the continent, there is a lack of coordination among the various state and non-state institutions that work with Africa.
In this interview, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, the Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration, explains to this author that Russia’s relations have been developed over these years, precisely more than 30 years. Russian Federation started in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet era. Although, for a relationship lasting this long, one would have expected it to move past where it is now. It is necessary to foster particularly stronger economic ties with African countries.
In short, there is still room for improvement, and to catch up in the coming years. Emphasis should also be placed on developing ‘people-to-people’ relations to have better understanding of each other. Cultural cooperation, tourism, dissemination of information of each other’s customs and practices should be prioritized in bringing the people together for their mutual benefit.
Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova of Ural Federal University’s Department of International Relations recognizes significant existing challenges and possibly difficult conditions in Africa-Russia economic cooperation. The establishment of an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for the economic development of Africa. This is unique in terms of exploring and becoming acquainted with the opportunities for business collaboration it provides. But there are doubts if potential Russian investors studied its benefits that are emerging there in the continent.
She maintains, however, that successful implementation necessitates a sufficiently high level of economic development in the participating countries, logistical accessibility, and developed industry with the potential to introduce new technologies. This means that in order for the African Continental Free Trade Area to be effective, it must enlist the provision of long-term investment flows from outside. These funds should be used to build industrial plants and transportation corridors.
Tabarintseva-Romanova stated in our discussions that Russia already has extensive experience with the African continent, making it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible for both the Russian Federation and African countries. Potential African investors and exporters may also look into business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.
However, Russia must find effective exit strategies, abandon loud diplomatic rhetoric, and take the first steps toward strengthening economic engagement with Africa. It must go beyond the traditional rhetoric of Soviet-era assistance to Africa. Professor Shehu’s mid-October lecture at the Russian Diplomacy Academy suggested that Russia preferably considers the following.
He proposed that, as a viable alternative and long-term option, Russia invests directly in Africa’s extractive and manufacturing sectors. As evidenced by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and Europe, Africa holds a promising future for the viability and profitability of Russian manufacturing companies interested in relocating to Africa to take advantage of cheap African labor.
The establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the world’s largest of its kind, provides Africa with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for intra-African trade, thereby empowering Africa’s own capacities and investments. Russia must broaden its view of the investment opportunities presented by this single continental market of 55 African countries with a combined population of approximately 1.3 billion people.
In further related developments, Professor Shehu also cited Joseph Siegle, the Director of Research for the African Centre for Strategic Studies, to back up his arguments – “Developing more mutually beneficial Africa relations necessitates changes in both substance and process. Such a shift would necessitate Russia establishing more traditional bilateral engagements with African institutions rather than individuals. These initiatives would prioritize trade, investment, technology transfer, and educational exchanges. Many Africans would welcome such Russian initiatives if they were transparently negotiated and implemented equitably.”
Despite setbacks in recent years, the search for effective project and business financing is still ongoing, according to official reports. “There is a lot of demanding work ahead,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a meeting of the Ministry’s Collegium. “Perhaps there is a need to pay attention to China’s experience, which provides its enterprises with state guarantees and subsidies, thus ensuring the ability of companies to work on a systematic and long-term basis.”
Previous meetings were a marketplace for fantastic ideas. Business leaders frequently discussed the lack of credit lines and guarantees as barriers, as well as a lack of knowledge of the business environment as a challenge. Lavrov stated in a message sent in mid-June 2022 at the height of Russia’s “special military operation” in neighboring Ukraine that “In these difficult and critical times, Russia’s foreign policy has prioritized strategic partnership with Africa. Russia is encouraged by Africans’ willingness to expand economic cooperation.”
That is why Lavrov’s earlier suggestion back in 2019, of writing a chapter on China’s approach and methods in Africa is arguably important, particularly when discussing the issue of relationship-building in the context of the current global changes of the twenty-first century. Russia could follow China’s lead in financing various infrastructure and construction projects in Africa. Within the context of the emerging multipolar world and growing opposition to Western hegemony and neocolonialism, Russia must consider a broad-based approach to strengthening and sustaining result-oriented impactful multifaceted relations with Africa.
Nevertheless in a stark contrast to key global players such as the United States, China, the European Union and many others, reviewing basic research findings vividly show that Russia’s policies have little impact on African development paradigms. While largely engaged in sloganeering of neo-colonialism and multipolar, Russia’s policies have completely ignored Africa’s long-term sustainable development concerns. Russia must adopt an action plan as a practical document that outlines concrete, transparent and substantive cooperation between summits. Finally, Russians must keep in mind that Africa’s road map is the incorporated African Union Agenda 2063.