Africa: Russia Follows Old Path in New Scramble for a Piece of the Continent

Russian president Vladimir Putin is this week set to host dozens of African leaders in the scenic city of Sochi at a summit that marks the erstwhile global power's biggest foray into the continent since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

More than 50 African heads of state have been invited to the two-day forum, which is seen as Russia's counter to Chinese, US, Europe and Japanese influence on the continent.

Mr Putin, who has been Moscow's power centre for more than two decades--during which he once swapped roles with his Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev--will be eyeing military and trade deals to power Russia's economy in the coming years.

"Russian companies are ready to offer our African partners their scientific and technological developments and experience in modernising energy, transport, and communication infrastructure," President Putin said in a pre-summit statement that points to Moscow's business interests on the continent.

After exerting influence in his backyard through active involvement in regional diplomatic and territorial conquests, Russia's hosting of the inaugural summit with Africa on October 23 and 24 signals Moscow's determination to get a piece of the continental pie in the post-Cold War era.

The inaugural summit is seen as a counter to Washington's US-Africa Summit, China's Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and Japan's Ticad conferences as well as EU's Europe-Africa meetings.

Russia's trade with Africa stands at $20 billion, about a tenth of China's, which exchanged goods worth $204.19 billion with the continent as per the latest available data.

Historical ties card

China's conquest of Africa is cemented by the advance of multibillion-dollar worth of loans, which has won it access to vast raw materials and a ready market for its exports.

The US, on the other hand, traded $39 billion worth of goods with sub-Sahara Africa in 2017, according to US data.

Between 2009 and 2013, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported a Russian sale of $1.051 billion worth of military equipment to Africa. The value dropped to $784 million between 2014 and 2018, although there are scanty details of the nature of weapons traded.

"As you could guess, in Kenya and Africa as a whole, we target those areas in which we have experience and expertise. It is sustainable energy, environmentally safe extraction of minerals, housing construction, transport, railways, motor roads, power transmission, infrastructure in general," said the Russian ambassador to Kenya, Mr Dmitry Maksimychev, in an interview.

Shrinking options

The calculated focus on Africa, observers point, is also greatly influenced by Russia's shrinking options.

"The Russian Federation, while exploiting its historical ties with African liberations struggle, wants to create a niche for itself and does not want to be left out in the new scramble for Africa's extractive mineral resources and markets," said Ibrahim Khamis Adan, a retired diplomat who was deputy head of Mission for the Kenyan embassy in Italy and accredited to Poland.

The influence, he argues, originates from the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and eastern Donetsk regions of Ukraine.

The US and some of its Nato allies imposed a range of economic sanctions on Russia, forcing it to look for markets in Central Asian Republics, China, India and lately African countries.

"Russia does not have the economic muscle to help the African countries economically, but will make promises and sign sweet deals on the same. African countries are focused on economic diplomacy. And debt relief from Russia will certainly excite some debt-ridden African countries," Mr Adan told The EastAfrican.

In his statement ahead of the meeting, which more than 30 heads of state have confirmed attending, President Putin offered the agenda of the Summit, departing from the old Soviet view of Africa and suggesting, instead, that business should be central to ties.

Positive trends, Putin said, have been seen in trade turnover numbers, investment flows, and joint projects being developed in the extractive industry, agriculture, healthcare, and education.

The proposal seems to target Africa's most needed interventions. Poor on infrastructure and technology, the continent recently launched the Africa Continental Free Trade Area which seeks to raise intra-Africa trade threefold, from the current 15 per cent.

That improvement is going to require better laws, better infrastructure and industrial development, according to documents for the AfCFTA.

Business deals

The Russians have been categorical that they will borrow a leaf from the Chinese entry into Africa, where they will seek business deals, finance their companies and take part in projects in extractive industries, energy and technology.

"It might be reasonable to look at the experience of China, where companies receive state guarantees and subsidies, which allows them to operate consistently and on a long-term basis," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a forum in Moscow in June this year.

"We also consider it necessary to assess the possibility of attracting small and medium-sized businesses to Africa. So far, they account for a minor part of our collaboration.

Yet Russia was not always interested. Then known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Russia, during the Cold War enjoyed scattered ideological ties across the continent, often supporting liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola and the Congo wars among other countries.

When the Cold War ended, it sustained ties in Sudan, propping up the regime of Omar al-Bashir, enhancing military co-operation in Central Africa Republic and selling undetermined military equipment and weapons to countries like Rwanda, Chad, Kenya, South Sudan, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Ghana and Guinea.

Scholarships

In the Cold War, Moscow strengthened ties by granting scholarships to students from Africa, especially those who followed socialist ideologies and who later become key political leaders in their countries.

In Moscow, they named a university after Patrice Lumumba, assassinated by in early 60s. In the post-Cold War era, those ambitions became too expensive to keep.

Mr James Shikwati, an economist and director of Inter Region Economic Network Kenya thinks Russia could take advantage of rivals' inconsistency, but must first remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union made the Russian brand difficult to sell in Africa.

"Russia's active re-entry to Africa is likely premised on the continent's interest to embrace multiple development partners and to the increasingly unpredictable Western-led peace, security and development architecture," he said.

While Russians have said they borrow a leaf from the Chinese, Mr Shikwati warn that their ways risk failure should they become captives of local politics.

"The Russian approach may not work if it falls in the trap of nation-State nationalism and the now discredited debt-diplomacy that has come to characterise Chinese presence on the continent."

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