By Gerard Boyce
Ongoing events in Ukraine and anxiety over whether Russia will invade its smaller neighbour continued to dominate global news headlines this week. Despite close international media attention and the involvement of fellow BRICS member Russia, relatively little attention appears to have been paid to this story in South African media circles. Local media oversight of this story belies the far-reaching consequences that heightened tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine are likely to have for South Africa and the African continent as a whole.
To get an inkling of these consequences, one invites the reader to observe a few trends that have come into sharper focus during the standoff over Ukraine and will likely accelerate regardless of whether Russia invades Ukraine in the coming weeks or not. Most prominent of these trends is European countries’ desire to wean themselves off their dependence on Russian gas for their energy needs and diversify their sources of supply. This desire will likely have grown stronger after the energy crunch experienced in Europe recently and the expectation that prices will rise and energy supplies from Russia to the rest of the continent be disrupted should tensions escalate into open conflict. Also on the energy demand side, Western publics are pushing policymakers to diversify away from fossil fuels. Cognisant of these trends and the threat of further sanctions in the event of war, Russian policymakers are likely to reorient their strategy of energy diplomacy toward the search for new markets in which to sell their energy resources in order to minimise the anticipated loss of revenue from traditional markets. As a result, we are likely to see a renewed push by Russia to enlarge its footprint in African energy markets and enter into partnerships with local actors.
Speculatively, these effects are likely to be most pronounced in the nuclear sector, where Russian state company Rosatom has already reached agreement for the building of nuclear reactors and/or exchange of nuclear technology with continental heavyweights like Kenya and Egypt and has displayed tenacity in its efforts to woo South Africa as it attempts to expand its nuclear energy generation capacity. The effect that shifting demand patterns and Russian responses thereto will have in the market for natural gas is likely to be less pronounced, in the short to medium term at least, even though natural gas is touted as a transition fuel to help economies move away from fossil fuels and although Russia has abundant supplies thereof. This is because of the limited infrastructure that exists at African port terminals to handle this type of cargo in large volumes and the vast distances over which it would have to be transported from Russia to African markets. The investment needed to build this infrastructure and the cost incurred in transporting natural gas over these long distances would probably make it prohibitively expensive for Russian suppliers to supply natural gas to African markets in amounts large enough to replace the business lost in European markets. Due to these constraints, it would make far more sense for Russian businessman to focus on expanding access to markets for natural gas in Eurasia and to concentrate on the sale and provision of scientific and technical services to this sector of the African energy market. Areas in which Russia’s undisputed knowledge and expertise can be drawn upon encompass training and education services for young professionals and, more controversially following reports of the presence of Russian mercenaries in African conflict zones, the provision of guard or protection services to secure energy facilities and cyber security services.
The upshot of this increased activity in the African energy market is likely to be twofold. Firstly, it will create greater incentives for countries to exploit their uranium resources and establish domestic nuclear programmes. This would likely translate into more African countries expressing an interest in establishing nuclear programmes and eventually doing so. The expansion of the nuclear sector in these countries has several implications. Chief of these is that, owing to the sizeable upfront investment required to establish a nuclear programme and the considerable duration of time needed to recoup these investments, countries that ultimately decide to embark on a nuclear programme will effectively become locked into the use of this technology for the foreseeable future. Locking their countries into a nuclear developmental path will make it difficult, or even render them unable, for their countries to exploit the competitive advantages in emerging energy technologies which they should have compared to countries that have more established energy industries and thence a greater number of assets at risk of becoming obsolete in the face of technological change. By ceding their advantage in these areas, the ‘green transition’ on which the world is reportedly poised will result in little by way of transformation in the global pecking order of nations.
The second major set of effects is likely to occur in the political sphere. Many countries to which Russia will make overtures are nascent democracies where democratic institutions are relatively weak and democratic traditions are yet to take root. Given these characteristics, the raft of tighter regulations and additional legislation that policymakers will deem to be necessary to protect the nation’s vital nuclear infrastructure and safeguard the populace should things go wrong will lead to governments and states amassing more power. Increased centralisation of power and enhanced state capacity for control is likely to affect political dynamics within these countries and ultimately the nature of these emerging democracies. Consequently, the hard-fought political victories which many Africans fought and died for during colonialism and the era of dictatorships into which numerous African countries sunk following the overthrow of their colonial masters are likely to be reversed for the sake of what incumbent leaders will vaguely label the ‘national interest’.
It is possible for African countries to avoid these scenarios by clearly articulating the vision of the societies they wish to create in future and the developmental paths they wish to follow to realise this vision. Doing so will mean clarifying concepts now taken as self-evident (e.g. just transition) and interrogating what leaders mean precisely by the terms to which they routinely pay lip service yet seem to care little about in practice (e.g. individual freedoms). It would also require leaders to be forthright about the difficult tradeoffs their countries would need to make when they choose to pursue this rather than some other development path. Crucially, this exercise must not only entail informing citizens of the stakes involved but also gauging whether citizens would be willing to make these sacrifices to realise this vision. This is likely to be a tough ask given the history of vanity projects that have become white elephants that bear testament to post-colonial African ruling elites’ apparent preference for engaging in top-down decision-making for the benefit of the few and impoverishment of the many. Sadly, it is a system to which many Africans have grown accustomed.
Should they succeed in doing so, however, Africa will ensure that it will not be swept along by current events taking place in Ukraine. At a much deeper level, preventing this from happening may just be what is needed to inculcate the belief that Africans can successfully chart their own destinies even amidst the turbulent swells of geopolitical rivalries, a right that has long been denied African countries by powerful countries. If for no other reason, events unfolding in Ukraine deserve to be paid greater attention by ordinary Africans.
* Gerard Boyce is an Economist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.