Over the years, African Union officials have repeatedly urged African leaders to prioritise Africa’s Agenda 2063 – a strategic framework for delivering on Africa’s goal for inclusive and sustainable development – and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The 15-member UN Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution welcoming AU initiatives for infrastructure development and pledging support for “African solutions to African problems” in an attempt to achieve the SDGs.
UN officials note that many African countries have failed to substantially reduce abject poverty, rising unemployment, marginalisation of social groups and widening inequality – which constitute the primary root causes of conflicts – in many regions of Africa.
Africa’s economy, they argue, has remained largely based on subsistence agriculture with little development of the industrial or service sectors, while the continent’s huge infrastructure deficit could be business for foreign investors.
At a recent forum in Nairobi, Raila Odinga, AU high representative for infrastructure development in Africa, urged African leaders to redirect adequate funds from their financial budgets into infrastructure in attempt to stimulate growth on the continent.
“Africa continues to be characterised by an infrastructural deficit, a situation that remains critical, with an average gap standing at 170 billion dollars,” Odinga said. He called on infrastructure stakeholders inside Africa and interested foreign partners to develop a more comprehensive set of instruments and service delivery mechanisms to enhance implementation of major infrastructure projects.
“African leaders have to create more dynamic mobilisation strategies and explore domestic borrowing to accelerate the project implementation process. To enable Africa to compete adequately, we must redirect more financial resources towards completion of projects that form major connectivity to the world,” Odinga said.
He called for the completion of major development projects such as the Tran-Saharan Highway from Algiers in Algeria to Lagos in Nigeria, an intercontinental railway for fast trains, the Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bridge, and the Lagos-Abidjan-Dakar Highway, all key links for connecting Africa and creating jobs for young people from member states.
Odinga also called for a more united Africa, arguing that by uniting the continent would increase its bargaining power. “A united Africa will be able to pool its investment resources to ensure it has enough resources to invest in large-scale projects,” he said.
Many foreign players have been very active in supporting the building of infrastructure in Africa. While visiting Moscow, Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Executive Secretary Stergomena Lawrence Tax told IDN that “Russia and Africa have been partners for many years, and have expressed a desire to achieve a new level in their relations.”
She observed that Russia has not been as visible in the region as China, India or Brazil, but said it is encouraging that Russia has recently repositioned itself to become a major partner with Southern Africa. Russia’s interest is in line with SADC priorities as highlighted by the following priorities of foreign economic strategy in the region:
- Prospecting, mining, oil, construction, mining, purchase of 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);
- Creation of 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); and
- Participation of Russian companies in the privatisation of industrial assets, including those created with technical assistance from the former Soviet Union (Angola).
Ten SADC member countries have diplomatic offices in the Russian Federation: Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
The Southern African region is the integrated market resulting from a combined population of approximately 327 million people, and a collective GDP of 600 billion dollars (2016), which is supported by generally favourable weather conditions in most parts of the region.
The goal of SADC, an inter-governmental organisation headquartered in Gaborone, Botswana, is to further socioeconomic cooperation and integration as well as political and security cooperation among 16 Southern African states.
Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, and Deputy Foreign Minister, has urged the global community to go beyond military cooperation to assist African countries that are still facing a number of serious development problems particularly in terms of infrastructure, social inequality, healthcare and education.
According to Bogdanov, transnational problems, the issues of arms smuggling, drug trafficking, illegal migration and even slavery continue to escalate on the African continent. “The joint efforts of the whole global community are required for meeting those challenges. I am confident that the aid to African states should go beyond military components,” the Russian diplomat stressed.
“It is necessary to fortify public institutions, engage in economic and humanitarian fields, construct infrastructure facilities, and create new jobs,” Bogdanov said, adding that “those are the ways of solving such problem as migration, for example, to Europe.”
Bogdanov was contributing to discussions on “Engaging Africa in Dialogue: Towards a Harmonious Development of the Continent” at the 2018 Dialogue of Civilisations Forum held in Rhodes, Greece. Plenary discussion aimed at identifying the priorities for and issues specifically holding African countries back, and whether competition between the West and Asia could benefit Africa, or whether a more collaborative effort was needed.
Bogdanov’s advice to the global community to go “beyond military cooperation” came at a crucial time in which, as part of the foreign policy, Russia has increasingly stepped up exports of military equipment through its “military-technical cooperation” instead of assisting with needed investment in economic sectors in African countries.
In March 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of the Commission for Military-Technical Cooperation with Foreign States and Kremlin’s website transcript pointed to the geographic reach of military-technical cooperation as constantly expanding, with the number of partners already in more than 100 countries worldwide.
“Russia has revived its contacts with its African comrades that used to be the traditional buyers of Soviet weaponry. It is a similar policy, in the sense, that they are using military diplomacy once again in order to gain stature and influence in certain countries,” Scott Firsing, a visiting Bradlow fellow at the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA), wrote in an e-mailed discussion.
Shaabani Nzori, a Moscow-based foreign policy expert, arguably believes that Russia’s military-technical cooperation with African countries is appropriate in Russia’s foreign policy but African leaders should also have to make rational choices, allocating enough money to spend on priority development projects in Africa.
“It shows clearly Russia’s business engagement direction with Africa,” Shaabani said in an interview. “Until now, we can’t point to completed Russian infrastructure projects in Africa. There are many investment areas. What is important these days is that Russia must go beyond selling arms to Africa! Still, Russia has the chance to transfer its technology to agriculture and industries in Africa.”
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided huge deliveries of arms to a number of African governments such as Angola, Algeria, Namibia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. That Soviet-era form of diplomatic engagement left many African countries indebted to the tune of 20 billion dollars.
Anna Borshchevskaya, an Ira Weiner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explicitly observes that the military has been part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, and Russian authorities have been strengthening military-technical cooperation with a number of African countries.
“A major driver for Moscow’s push into Africa is military cooperation more broadly. These often include officer training and the sale of military equipment, though the details are rarely publicly available,” Borshchevskaya said.
Russian President Putin has said that a major part of Russia’s weapons business includes new equipment supplies, upgrades, and refurbishment of Soviet-era technology and hardware. “Russia places special emphasis on developing countries that gradually increase military procurement. We understand that competition in this sector of the international economy is very high and very serious,” he noted.
According to the Kremlin website, Russia targeted global export contracts worth 50 billion dollars in 2018. Russia’s export priority is to expand its scope and strengthen its position on the market. Last year’s results indicated that Russia has been keeping its standards high, confirming its status as one of the leading suppliers on the global arms market. The portfolio for Russian arms and military equipment stands at 45 billion dollars.
Russia plans “to enhance multifaceted interaction with African states on a bilateral and multilateral basis with a focus on promoting mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation”.