Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Angolan counterpart Tete Antonio, held a sordid diplomatic meeting for a few hours on October 13 at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This was earlier during the month, preceded by a similar meeting with Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Vincent Biruta.
Lavrov described the relationship with Angola as characterized by a high level of trust and spirit of friendship. The two presidents, Vladimir Putin and João Lourenço, set the striking tone when they previously reached fundamental agreements on the key areas of partnership during two meetings in Moscow and in Sochi in 2019.
The Angolan leader said that political and diplomatic relations with Russia were “excellent and privileged” but asked for more Russian private investments. In his objective assessment about economic engagement by foreign players, only a few Russian companies were operating in the Angolan market. He said he was interested in public-private partnerships and a focus on the manufacturing industry.
With Rwanda, Lavrov stressed the mutual resolve to consistently improve relations based on the decisions reached during the meetings between the Russian and Rwandan presidents in Moscow in 2018 and in Sochi in 2019.
“We are looking forward to the opportunity we have today to hold a detailed discussion on our bilateral relations and cooperation in international arena in keeping with the agreements reached in principle during the meetings between President Vladimir Putin and President of the Republic of Rwanda Paul Kagame,” he said at the joint media conference.
Besides these, just the coronavirus pandemic subsided leading to the opening of air space and borders, African foreign ministers, including Djibouti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone came for political consultations and dialogue. The significance of diplomatic meetings and most possibly those to follow preceding the next Russia-Africa summit slated for 2022, Lavrov has always indicated in his introductory speeches to review the status of the bilateral relations and prospects for their further development.
Russians like historical references. As always expected, they have nostalgic interest towards Africa, relying on the traditions of friendship and cooperation established back to the days of the political liberation struggle for freedom and independence and eager to use that as unifying factor. Soviet Union, in many respects, supported most of the countries during the decolonization of Africa.
The question being asked three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is: What has noticeably changed between Russia and Africa? In answering this basic question, Lavrov acknowledged talking to students and staff at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO): “Africa is one of our priorities. Our political ties in particular are developing dynamically. But economic cooperation is not as far advanced as our political ties.”
According to Lavrov, a process of change has been ongoing for the past 15 years. The return is now taking the form of resuming a very close political dialogue, which has always been at a strategic and friendly level, and now moving to a vigorous economic cooperation. To reflect and consolidate these trends and in order to draw up plans for expanding consolidated partnerships with the African countries.
Russia has intensified efforts to strengthen political dialogue, including the exchange of visits at the top levels. Interaction between foreign ministries is expanding. During the year prior to the first Russia-African summit, 21 African foreign ministers visited Russia. According to the calculation with information made available officially at the website, Lavrov and his deputy Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, have held talks with nearly 100 African politicians including ministers, deputies between January and September 2019. Bogdanov interacted with all African ambassadors in the Russian Federation.
Russian and African experts have expressed their concern about mutual official visits proliferating both ways, with little impact on the sustainable development needed by the majority of African countries. While some see official visits as diplomatic tourism, a number of the African leaders keep in mind key questions such as rising unemployment, healthcare problems and poor infrastructure and industrial development—how to turn Russia’s focus on measures toward realizing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Russia has shown strength in Africa in niche sectors such as nuclear power development, launching African satellites, and energy and mining projects. It has been seeking to exploit conventional gas and oil fields in Africa; part of its long-term energy strategy is to use Russian companies to create new streams of energy supply.
In terms of a strategic outlook and action on economic engagement, the country is seriously lagging behind. Russia has long ago cut the “red-ribbon” marking the completion of an infrastructure in Africa. With regard to other economic areas, it may have to identify a wide range of sectors as with members of the European Union, China, the United States, India, the Gulf States and others.
Nevertheless, within the framework of the African Continental Free Trade (AfCFTA) that promises creating a single borderless market, it offers opportunities for localization, production and marketing of consumables throughout Africa. This should, perhaps, be the strongest dimension of Russia’s dealings in Africa.
Currently, Russian trade is heavily concentrated in North Africa, especially with Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Noticeably, the 2019 trade chart from Russian Export Centre shows that Russia’s relationship with North Africa is the most significant, US$ 17 billion of the aggregate total US$20 for the whole of Africa. President Vladimir Putin has, however, asked that the trade figure be doubled, up to US$ 40 billion before the next summit.
In an interview to IDN, George Nyongesa, a Senior Associate at the Africa Policy Institute in Nairobi (Kenya) reminded that Africa is headed for its defining moments. By 2050, a quarter of the world’s population especially its young people and thus the largest labour force will be in Africa.
Human capital is definitely an important feature of Africa’s global profile besides its natural resources. Thus, it is no wonder that global players like the United States, Europeans and Asians are competing for influence, simultaneously investing and focusing on the youth, on the African continent. The competition for the control of the continent by global players is a geopolitical reality and by nature multidimensional: military, economic, education and training, and social; and brings to memory the rivalry of the Cold War era when the United States often treated African states as pawns or prizes rather than partners, according to Nyongesa.
However, 21st century Africa is different in the sense that African leaders seem aware of their windfall potential in human capital and resources and are no longer interested in patrons or protector and this new attitude has opened wide a range of partners necessary for the achievement of security and prosperity they seek.
In the IDN interview, he further pointed out that “the continent is enjoying enviable attention as key global players from the United States, Europe and Asia continue to outfox each other. This can be seen from the fact that US’s retreat from its fight against violent extremism in Africa, allows Russia to fill military and security gaps; hence the growing Russian military influence on the continent. At the same time, the United States expansion of trade and business in the continent is proving a constructive counter Chinese ever-increasing economic influence.”
There are still some challenges and persistent problems with perceptions. With economic engagement, Russia often interprets the influence of foreign players as neo-colonizers. In order to make successful economic inroads into Africa, Russia is signing agreements exchanging military weapons for mining concessions. It finds it expedient to militarize and deal with its competitor, as exemplified in Central African Republic, Guinea and Mali and in the Sahel-5 region.
Lipton Matthews, an American researcher and business analyst in recent discussions with IDN correspondent about foreign players and the “scramble” for resources, he explained that the weak governance structures in Africa, the perception that China is colonizing Africa is a consequence of Africa’s history of defective governance. Though China through its infrastructural projects is presiding over the modernization of Africa, similar to what Europeans and Americans did in the developing world years ago.
On the other hand, he argued: “We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that colonialism is inherently exploitative. Most people would prefer sovereignty to colonial rule, but the truth is that colonial status does not impede economic growth and some colonies in Africa experienced faster growth during the colonial era. We should give greater priority to good governance than national sovereignty. It is better to be under the rule of benevolent colonizers than to be the subject of a dictator.”
In order to aid Africa, Russia should assist Africa in transitioning to a knowledge-based economy by promoting technology transfer agreements. Russians must also invest in more R&D collaborations with their African partners. This agreement will revolutionize Africa’s economy and a richer Africa is a positive for Russian investors. If Africa is properly managed, the continent should succeed with sustainable development and, to a considerable extent, attain its economic independence.
In October 2018, before the start of the first Russia-SADC business forum, Stergomena Lawrence Tax, then Executive Secretary of SADC, explained an exclusive interview that Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries, which constitute the Southern African Development Community.
On the other hand, for the past several years, it has not been that visible in the region as compared to China, India or Brazil. It is encouraging that, of late, Russia has positioned itself to be a major partner with Southern Africa and being part of the BRICS promotes engagement with the region. It has to move away from rhetoric and promises, and instead with concrete steps into such areas like agriculture, industrial production, high technology and transport.
In the interview, Stergomena shortlisted some of the southern Africa priorities that are also in line with SADC as indicated below:
- Prospecting, mining, oil, construction and mining, purchasing gas, oil, uranium, and bauxite assets (Angola, Namibia and South Africa);
- Construction of power facilities—hydroelectric power plants on the River Congo (Angola, Namibia and Zambia,) and nuclear power plants (South Africa);
- Creating a floating nuclear power plant, and South African participation in the international project to build a nuclear enrichment centre in Russia;
- Railway Construction (Angola);
- Creation of Russian trade houses for the promotion and maintenance of Russian engineering products (South Africa).
- Participation of Russian companies in the privatization of industrial assets, including those created with technical assistance from the former Soviet Union (Angola).
Stergomena further discussed questions relating to public diplomacy. Russia has all but overlooked or underestimated many aspects of it. These include cultural exchanges, scholarly visitor programmes, and of course, the use of media to cover and project issues on Africa from a Russian perspective.
These are all instruments and forms of public diplomacy, which would have the effect of reaching audiences on our continent and beyond and impacting positively on what Russia has to offer the world. In the same vein, this can be seen as a form of “soft power” as its aim is to appeal and attract partners rather than coerce them into a relationship of one form or the other, she in an emailed interview in October 2018.
There are the Intergovernmental Commissions on Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation and Trade fixed with African countries. There is the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Trade, the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Trade. The Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African States was established as far back in 2009.
According to historical documents, the Coordinating Committee for Economic Cooperation with African States was created at the initiative of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation and Vnesheconombank with the support of the Federation Council and the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation. It has the support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economy and Trade, the Ministry of Natural Resources, as well as the Ministry of Higher Education and Science.
Within the framework of the joint declaration adopted at the first Russia-Africa Summit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation established the Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum. The Secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum also moved to create an Association of Economic Cooperation with African States (AECAS).
The Association is a useful structure, and its primary task is to find real opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation and joint implementation of projects between Russian and African entrepreneurs. There are coordination, public and scientific councils operating under it, the Secretariat coordinates and supports initiatives from the civil society.
It is a well-known and irreversible fact that Russia’s economic presence in Africa today is significantly inferior in comparison to the top-ten key global players. It is time to overcome this yawning gap, use the existing structures to expeditiously operationalize the set goals and accelerate the economic return the continent.
Indeed, judging from the above discussions about the changing geopolitical relations, there are well-functioning mechanisms to reap the benefits of a fully-fledged economic partnership and to achieve a more practical and comprehensive results from the new multifaceted relations between Russia and Africa.