A decade and half ago, precisely in May 2004, this opinion article has since remained unpublished by the local Russian and foreign media. But, this time when Sochi is preparing to host the first historic Russia-Africa Summit, some aspects are still important for enriching public knowledge about the Russia-African relationship.
Understandably, in 2004 the theme “Russia and Africa at the Crossroad” formed the basis for the scientific conference that forms an integral but the most significant part of the “Africa Week” was celebrated in Moscow. Soon after the academic conference and to an extent, the theme has generated diverse views and debatable opinions, even until the present day. What is the importance of “Russia and Africa at the Crossroad” today?
Even though Russia shows a growing interest and opening up relations with African countries, there still exist bewilderingly large number of knowledgeable Africans (including politicians, business people and high-ranking diplomats) who have refused to face the bitter truth and recognize facts posed by the present-day political and economic factors shaping Russia’s policy toward African countries after the Soviet collapse.
Driven by real curiosity to ascertain how African and Russian academics and experts think about Russia-African ties, I willingly accepted an invitation to attend the above-mentioned African conference. The half-empty hall was the first sign of declining interest in the continent’s affairs, even by the Africans including diplomats themselves. For me and for a few of my colleagues, the most striking question, among others, till day is whether Russia really needs Africa or vice versa.
Thereafter, the ninth Africanist conference held at the Institute for African Studies drew more than 150 academics and experts from different countries. The conference exhaustively debated this controversial topic of Africa’s relations with Russia, or Russia’s relations with Africa, within the context of globalization and development.
By and large, time has distinctly changed and there are signs of hope for better ties and energized friendship with African countries. Important to say that Russia’s internal policies have ushered in more opportunities than there were in the Soviet era and therefore it would be shortsightedness to say that Russia has ignored Africa in its foreign policy activities as many Africans have already thought.
In the present situation, the problem of Russia-African relations under President Vladimir Putin is increasingly becoming re-activated compared to Boris Yeltsin’s days popularly referred to as “the Lost Decade” on Africa.
It’s, however, true that the most important factors are the revision of the policy concept which has manifested itself in a drastic change of preferences in favor of cooperation with Southeast Asian region, Europe and Western countries. On the other hand, African countries, too, have to demonstrate their interests especially in the economic spheres with Russia.
It is completely absurd to think that Russia has to adopt a universal approach to the whole continent. This is practically unacceptable, impossible and an unprofitable venture. In this setting, Russia can only apply its “selective diplomacy” which it always does, by trying to preserve high-level trade and economic relations with a few priority African countries.
Many western countries are helping Africa to develop. Apparently, Russia has also realized that many foreign players are supporting Africa’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) simply because it has seen it as an opportunity and conduit pipe to develop businesses, for example, huge infrastructural projects that are being built across the continent. Russia has only indicated its support, in principle, without watching what’s far beyond, but the United States, Europe and Asian countries have already done its own calculations, estimated economic and business returns.
Some global leaders have been craftily treading by visiting the continent and sending high-level trade and investment delegations promising to help integrate into the globalization and development process. The U.S. trade policy, for example, Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) is one major step forward to penetrate and deepen business roots into Africa – offer U.S. industries and companies to manufacture goods in African countries. African exporters have been granted with trade preferences and flexible customs rules and regulations but strict on products quality.
Of course, Russia has made some efforts in the past, investing in Africa and training African specialists and the African Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences has also made research contributions to the Africa studies in Russia but, to a large extent, failed in turning the research efforts or results into profitable undertaking. The Institute remains cash-strapped and most of the hardworking researchers have left for alternative gainful employment elsewhere and/or abroad. What is worse within the context, Russian enterprises and business, in practice, offer little support to academic studies and research.
Globalization is as irresistible as it is inescapable. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world is rapidly globalizing, Africa has been left behind due to “Afro-pessimism” and “Afrocentric” attitudes. Changing the negative perceptions of Africa must be a challenge for African leadership in politics, business, academia and civil society. Africa really need to properly position itself as a key player in global economic sectors if it wants to improve the living standards for the 1.2 billion population.
Many Asian countries such as India, China and Singapore have benefited from globalization, while retaining certain key aspects of their local character and culture. Africa needs to do the same through good leadership, governance and well thought out policies and strategies that fit into the changing dynamics of a globalizing world.
It is a well-known fact that Africa largely has untapped natural resources and the market is potentially wide. Africa has the third largest oil reserves after Middle East and Latin America. Five countries account for 85% of the continent’s oil production – Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Angola and Algeria. The remaining 15% produced in Gabon, Congo, Cameroon, Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Cote d’Ivoire.
But one more fact about Africa is that it is composed of a multiplicity of social and ethnic groups. Many African countries have had varying degrees of endless conflicts, these have negative effects on relations with external countries including Russia. It seems a “new development thinking” and a “bottom-up development strategy” are necessary – primarily to improve infrastructure, modernize agriculture and focus on manufacturing, employment generating sectors as well as health and education – that could help minimize all kinds of conflicts there.
Sadly enough, forging progressively ahead with good policies that can ensure economic stability and prosperity as dictated by the global changes seemed completely out of sight for many African leaders. After the Soviet collapse, Russia has significantly changed making foreign investments and trade priority. Africans have the same chances as well. Looking at Russia’s market and the economic scene, only a few African countries are indisputably playing active role in Russia’s competitive economy.
Africa’s overall involvement in Russia is extremely negligible due to obvious factors. Most feared to tread the path of Egypt, Morocco, Kenya and South Africa, their products are gradually gaining foothold on the market. If Africans are seeking genuine development of mutually bilateral relationships with Russia, they must on their part, therefore to demonstrate bravery and establish the needed presence in Russia rather than perch on the sidelines. An increased involvement will help to perpetuate the expected economic cooperation they dream to achieve.
Africa could benefit substantially from well-functioning Russia-African relations, but again there are no organized non-government agencies committed to see such relations established and perfectly managed. The African business community is grossly absent in Moscow. Back in Africa, doing business presents real problems: poor business culture, poor infrastructure and technology. Above all, there is deep-seated corruption among the political elites and graft has become an accepted order of the day.
In an interview, Professor Vladimir Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, reiterated: “Russia is not doing enough to communicate to the broad public, particularly in Africa, true information about its domestic and foreign policies as well as the accomplishments of Russian culture, the economy, science and technology in order to form a positive perception of Russia abroad and a friendly attitude towards it as stated by the new Concept of the Foreign Policy.”
Unfortunately, effective means of influencing public opinion in Africa, as such as broadcasting and publishing have been lost in the Yeltsin’s era and have to be developed again. It must form one of the key foreign policy tasks of the state, according to Professor Shubin. In addition, Sergey Karaganov, Chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and his colleagues might have shared the same thoughts with Professor Shubin.
In April 2004, more than 100 members of the political and business elites who gathered at the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy annual retreat, drummed home preliminary plans to create an NGO something parallel to the Alliance Francais or the British Council as a way to promote better understanding of Russia abroad. That resulted into the creation of Russkiy Mir, but Russkiy Mir is still extremely weak on the African side. Soft Power is currently softer in the Russia-African relations.
The dark rainy clouds over Africa have long descended and the skies are getting brighter than before, Africans can still see far beyond their narrow self-centered interest, now that they have the African Union, – an important continental force to reckon with. The African Union, as a powerful instrument could broadly be used to solve the continent’s concrete multiple problems especially pushing the African Industrial Revolution in addition to the Continental Trade. There must be clear perspectives and this ought to be, however, for Africans themselves to provide legitimacy to whatever they want especially towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
It is time for African governments to review, set priority to removing obstacles and working productively so that the real benefits impact on the lives of the people and society. Africans should explicitly understand that the Russian government has made a complete turnabout from the communist past, now is briskly doing business with foreign countries and further looking to trade favorably with the international community, share its scientific and industrial achievements.
President Vladimir Putin could, indeed, give a strong and fresh impetus, not only in strengthening the existing relations, but also open entirely a new chapter with multiple and broad business opportunities that will boost the economy of Russia and Africa.