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Russia-US-Africa Geopolitical Triangular Games – OpEd

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Instead of concentrating on developing its newly-established strategy for Africa, Russia has locked horns with United States over its funding for educational programmes, media and NGOs.

Russia has also accused foreign players of adopting neocolonial tendencies and approaches in dealing with Africa, according to analytical reviews and observations by diplomats, policy experts and researchers.

While acknowledging that Russia has increased interest in Africa, they explained to IDN that Russia’s consistent confrontation with the United States in particular and other Western players, in general, would only infuriate African leaders whose economically stricken countries are largely benefiting from Western support. Worse, unlimited blatant criticisms would rather create an atmosphere resembling the Soviet-era Cold War and strain Russia’s image in Africa. 

In the wake of changing conditions and challenges in Africa, foreign partners are constantly reviewing their economic prospects and robustly investing in order tackle long-term sustainable development goals, while African countries are making their choices based on their development needs. The result is that observers and opinion-makers struggle to understand the nitty-gritty of who is playing at what, where and how.

“The idealism, high hopes and eternal vision of Russians for Africa, completely free from neocolonial tendencies by Western powers, mainly the United States and some countries of the European Union (EU), only drives competition. Russia, perhaps, has to accept and join such competition and make the difference by delivering on its pledges,” a senior policy commissioner at the African Union who requested anonymity told IDN.

He pointed out that it is the policy of African Union to encourage external countries, irrespective of the geographical region, be it former colonial masters from Europe or Gulf and the Asian States, like the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which has implemented corporate projects including the new headquarters of the African Union in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

In her weekly media briefing on July 23, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, criticised United States support for educational programmes, media and NGOs in Africa saying that “under the pretext of increasing the transparency of state institutions and boosting the stability of the judicial system on the African continent, they are financing efforts to search for the ‘Kremlin’s hand’ in the spirit of a real ‘witch hunt’.

“The current situation in the United States is not the best moment for establishing order on the African continent. The United States should better start with itself, and it has a lot of work to do.

“We have no choice but to comment and explain why we perceive this as Washington’s striving to eliminate the favourable regional socio-political background with regard to Russia that became particularly obvious following the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019.

“It appears that the United States is deliberately encouraging anti-Russia publications in some African media outlets and is trying to portray Russia as a destabilising force. We are confident that such methods of unfair competition and misinformation show that there is no hard evidence confirming the so-called Russian policy of propaganda and misinformation, and this is also the consequence of weak US approaches in the field of public diplomacy.

“The allocation of grants fits into the White House’s efforts to promote the idea that there is no alternative to Western concepts regarding state governance and the imposition of alien values on sovereign states.

We see that as yet another manifestation of neo-colonialism and an element of covertly formalising inequality in the overall system of international ties. In the context of the 60th anniversary of passing the UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, due to be marked in December, we urge our US colleagues to follow the spirit of this highly important historical document and to completely renounce their mentor-like attitude towards developing countries.”

With regard to Russia-US disagreements raised by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, David Shinn, a former US Ambassador to Ethiopia and Burkina Faso, offered some insights, observations and independent thoughts.

Shinn, who is currently an Adjunct Professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, explained in an email to IDN: “In spite of efforts to revive relations with Africa following the Russia-Africa summit, it still seems like Russia is trying to make a lot out of little. I seriously doubt American grants are intended specifically to counter alleged Russian propaganda although they are likely intended to encourage transparency in state institutions and boost an independent judiciary in Africa. These are long-standing United States policies.

“Frankly, I am not speaking for the Trump administration’s policy in Africa. I cannot imagine that the US public outreach policy in Africa focused on Russia, which has cut back significantly its programmes and activities throughout the continent. Russia’s public relations efforts in Africa today just do not merit a great deal of attention by the United States. Considering the fact Africa now attracts many external countries, Russia would be better advised to improve its own outreach to Africa rather than spend time criticising alleged American policies,” Shinn suggested.

While the United States does support and sponsor some programmes in Africa aimed at African media and NGOs, it is a relatively small effort. The goal, over the years, has been to extol the benefits of Western ideas and philosophy such as the free press, according to the former US diplomat.

“During the Cold War, there was a strong anti-Soviet content to American public diplomacy; I doubt that today there is strong anti-Russia content. The overwhelming majority of American media coverage that reaches Africa is controlled by the private sector, not the US government. The only government mechanism of any significance is the Voice of America and even it operates with a considerable amount of independence. To quote Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” wrote Shinn. 

Punsara Amarasinghe, a former Research Fellow at the Faculty of Law, Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and now a PhD candidate in International Law at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, thinks Russia should desist from raising criticisms against competitive foreign players, and make more efforts to show substantially what it has on offer for Africa.

He noted in an email to IDN that Russia’s lacuna of utilising its larger resources and playing a bigger role in the global political realm is mainly grounded on the consequences Russia faced in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR followed by huge political chaos and the instability of its socio-economic space. However, he said, this has started to decline under the leadership of President Putin as Russia directly participates in the global political arena. As an example, he noted that when the USA and the West moved away from the Syrian problem, Russia clung to it as the new game changer.

“Yet, in my opinion,” continued Amarasinghe, “Russia needs to make great efforts to revive its old ties in African countries. Now Russia has been involving in defence sector in African countries, but it needs to be improved on a large scale, covering investments and energy. The lack of Russian soft power in African states is another major problem that continues to hinder Russia’s realisation of its global governing project, compared with how Britain, France and even China and India are performing their soft power in Africa. All in all, Moscow needs to address African states beyond arms and trade in weaponry, encompassing issues such as media, education and NGOs in Africa.”

Amarasinghe went on to note that as the global situation has changed, many countries, especially in the West and in Europe, have created more study and research opportunities run by NGOs and supported by the media than there are in Russia and the Eurasian region and central Asia.

He said that it is still a nostalgic memory how Soviet Union and entire Eastern European block supported the cause of academic equality by providing dozens of scholarships for young students in Asia, Latin America and Africa during the Cold War. However, the disintegration of USSR and the socio-political turmoil that followed in Eastern Europe severely curtailed such educational and research opportunities.

In another interview, Dr Byelongo Elisee Isheloke, currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, argued that instead of criticising US policy in Africa, Russia should help in the continent’s development endeavour, talking less and acting more.

He said that Africa needs partners that support democratic institutions on the continent and provide an example in their own countries. “It is time that colonial master loyalty comes to a halt in the name of pan-Africanism. Russians have to take concrete practical steps towards effective cooperation. This time, most especially in the scramble for resources, I am a bit pessimistic about Russia changing things or winning expected influence across Africa.

“To fight neo-colonialism means halting the politics of hegemony. Just like China and the Western countries, Russia wants a piece of the cake abroad. To win on social, political or economic issues, one has to work with both the state and private sectors inside Africa, with NGOs and civil society organisations in building a positive image and in strengthening diplomacy. Reports indicate Russia is hard on the opposition leaders inside the country.

“As far as Russia is concerned, I think it is time for Africa to wake up and work towards win-win cooperation. Africa will not allow any power to revive the wounds of the past, the hardships of colonialism. The search for new forms of relations with Africa requires different approaches as there are many competitive potential investors. Strategies are not enough, what is need is prompt delivery of action. China always deliver on its pledges, despite criticisms of aspects of its economic cooperation. Therefore, Russia should not think it should be the one to cooperate with Africa, there is much more investment and cooperation between African and Western countries than there are with Russia.”

Dr. Gideon Shoo, media business consultant and policy expert based in Kilimanjaro Region in Tanzania, recently argued that Moscow has to adopt a more flexible approach to working with civil society and private sectors, offering incentives in the face of competition. Instead of creating disagreement with other foreign players, Moscow needs to compare its own foothold with the level of the United States and European countries as well of countries from the Asian region such as China.

In response to an IDN question, he wrote: “Let me declare from the very beginning with confidence since I have been following the development of post-Soviet bilateral relations all along. There has been very little of Russia’s economic presence in Africa for decades now. Of course, Russians have been trying to return there over the past few years, which is a very commendable step forward. There are prospects for broader foreign players, including Russia. In a practical sense, it requires moving beyond the mere expression of interests, it needs strategic focus and a pragmatic approach from both Russians and African governments.

“It is worth pointing out that as far as the United States, the EU and Asia are concerned, there is no comparison at all. If you talk about education and health infrastructure, those countries are there, and they have had programmes running for decades inside Africa. There are numerous non-governmental organisations working together with the above-mentioned countries as partners in various areas of interest and these are beneficial to the people. I suggest that if one is to advise Russian authorities regarding strengthening relations with the people of Africa, then we propose a total re-think. Indeed, there is no sin in copying the good deeds of their adversaries,” Shoo suggested.

In this new era of cooperation, Dr. Anicet Gabriel Kotchofa, former Ambassador of the Republic of Benin to the Russian Federation (2012-16), and currently an Assistant Professor at Moscow State University, reiterated that Africa is the fastest-growing region in the world, and offers enormous potential for foreign investment, noting that investing in Africa is a popular trend and offers obvious advantages.

Referring to the development of democratic processes, a growing population and cheap labour attracting investors to the continent, Kotchofa noted that African markets today are focused on extensive cooperation with European and Asian partners, unlike the days when Africa was used by the former colonial powers. He said that the arrival of new players in Africa provides an opportunity for the continent to choose the best partners, taking into account its own interests. Now, the largest foreign investors are China, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, while direct investment from Europe is declining.

Of course, he added, there are problems. Major difficulties are related to deficiencies in infrastructure, logistics and energy, but high economic growth continues, which indicates the possibility of economic development.

Kotchofa also recalled that “the history of cooperation between Russia and Africa spans several decades. It has deep historical roots. The large-scale, multifaceted nature of these relations was formed in the days of the Soviet Union. Thanks to the USSR, many African states gained independence. The Soviet Union still maintains close ties with many African states.”

Today, he said, Russia has to design a middle-way strategy that is more effective and appealing, striking and business-like rather than based on confrontation. This will effectively work for its image in the world. Moscow should take steps to explore a wide range of ways of promoting its social and cultural interests (soft power diplomacy) with Africa.

“We must not forget the role of social projects in mass perception, in promoting the brand of Russia,” Kotchofa stressed. “It is necessary to finance social initiatives in Africa and thereby draw attention to the partnership with Russia. Therefore, Russia’s strategy in Africa today must include cooperation in the field of media, education and NGOs as these could play a big role in supporting efforts in strengthening relations.”

Nearly all experts acknowledge that Africa as a continent is the continent of the future. Africa is open to diverse forms of cooperation, but given the fact that there is intense competition among investors, Moscow has to step up relations in the social sphere, consistently implementing more initiatives in Africa. They agree that with a more forceful approach, Russia has to begin systematically changing its image, perceptions and the old narratives. This will boost its presence, support expected trade and investment, and raise overall influence in the coming years.

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester Kenn Klomegah

Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and a policy consultant on African affairs in the Russian Federation and Eurasian Union. He has won media awards for highlighting economic diplomacy in the region with Africa. Currently, Klomegah is a Special Representative for Africa on the Board of the Russian Trade and Economic Development Council. He enjoys travelling and visiting historical places in Eastern and Central Europe. Klomegah is a frequent and passionate contributor to Eurasia Review.

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