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A response to Vladimir Shubin

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Egypt's President Abdelfattah Alsisi and Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L-R) pose for a family photo with heads of countries taking part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency

The 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi may have been the first of its kind, but it was a result of intensified efforts by President Vladimir Putin’s administration to forge strong ties with Africa. A year after he fully assumed the presidency, Putin met several African leaders in 2001, among them Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, Lansana Conte of Guinea, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria, Omar Bongo of Gabon and Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria. This was seen as an important development because during the decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, there were less diplomatic relations between Africa and Russia. Yet the event in Sochi was different in that it was attended by representatives from the entire African continent. Its modus operandi of “Africa-Plus-One” was, however, similar to other summits between Africa and foreign powers in recent years. This is an arrangement where a foreign leader “summons” African leaders to discuss matters of interest between their country and Africa.

Muhidin Shangwe is Lecturer of International Relations in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This article is a response to Vladimir Shubin’s comments on the summit.

This approach has been criticized even within the African Union (AU), where it is seen as patronizing and thus unfruitful. In 2006, the AU adopted the Banjul Formula—whereby the AU itself would choose 15 African leaders, including the heads of the continent’s five regions, to attend such summits. The Sochi Summit is said to have ignored this arrangement by extending invitations to all African countries, thanks to President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi of Egypt, then AU Chair and a close ally of Putin. Nevertheless, the Sochi Summit can be seen as a success for two reasons: first, the large number of high-level African delegates who attended, and second, for the numerous deals signed between Moscow and African countries. Critics, however, are wary of Russian’s recent inroad into Africa. Questions have been asked as to what Putin’s real motives are.

The Sochi Summit by its very nature may not offer direct answers to such questions, but it gives an impression of issues of interest not just for Russia but for African countries as well. I want to stress this point because the relationship between Russia and Africa is usually framed in a way that depicts the latter as a passive recipient of whatever Russia is offering, not having an agenda of its own. Similar characterization is also seen in the continent’s relationship with other global powers. It is in light of this depiction that Jideofor Adibe states that Russia has four major goals in its new expansive Africa policy. These are: projecting power on the global stage, accessing raw materials and natural resources, exporting arms and security services, and supporting energy and power development in Africa through Russian companies. In the text by Vladimir Shubin, the second and fourth goals are correctly explained as important aspects of current relations between Africa and Russia. The other two goals did not get the attention they deserved.

Regarding the first goal, it is not a coincidence that the intensification of efforts to deepen the partnership with Africa has come at a time when Western powers are exerting pressure on Moscow especially after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The European Union, the United States, Canada and their allies have all imposed concerted sanctions on Russia since then. At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward leaves Moscow with fewer allies in the region. It is logical that Russia would look for partners elsewhere. Africa, with a total number of 54 countries, is an attractive bloc. Its political alliance is strategically seen as crucial in challenging the hegemony of the West in global power configurations. Meanwhile, Africa has its own grievances against the world order dominated by the Western powers. The 2005 Ezulwini Consensus, for instance, is an AU position articulating the demand for a more democratic and representative United Nations by granting Africa at least two permanent and five non-permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Russia, a permanent member of the UNSC, is thus of strategic importance to Africa.

Regarding the third goal, Russia has become Africa’s largest arms supplier in recent years, accounting for 13 percent of arms export to the region. This is happening at a time when African economies have experienced steady growth and are now capable of raising their military expenditures in the last decade. Moscow’s track record in the production of advanced military hardware makes it an attractive partner for such economies. Political instability in countries such as the Central African Republic has also contributed to the demand for armament.

It is important to note that African international relations have undergone significant changes since the end of the Cold War. One of these changes is the increasing involvement of “new players” on the continent. These are countries such as China, India, Turkey, and Brazil. This development has presented African countries with breathing space in their relations with the outside world, taking into account that Africa’s so-called traditional partners (Western countries) are still active in the continent. Nearly twenty years ago, the Look East Policy became a buzzword in the African international relations as countries sought to strengthen ties with alternative development partners. This was a result of severed relations with Western countries and/or “development fatigue” African countries experienced after decades of following economic prescriptions administered by Western countries and their institutions. Zimbabwe is a good example here. In 2005, then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe declared that, “we have turned east where the sun rises, and given our back to the west, where the sun sets”. Although there has been great emphasis in describing the Look East Policy as an attempt by African countries to strengthen ties with countries in Asia such as Singapore, China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia, practically, the policy also includes reaching out to countries like Russia.

It is, however, challenging to talk of Russia’s soft power in Africa given the historical mixed role of the Soviet Union in the continent. As one observer pointed out, the collapse of the Soviet Union has made the Russian brand difficult to sell in Africa. Yet Moscow has always had something to offer Africans. The Soviet Union’s role in supporting Africa’s liberation is well documented and earned it admiration among African nationalists then. But that interventionist role was not always in the interests of Africans. In some cases, it was destructive in the sense of contradicting Africa’s own agency in the liberation struggle and the national building project that followed. Reference can be made to Moscow’s interference in, for example, Somalia and Ethiopia, which put puppet regimes in power resulting in internal political strife with devastating consequences. Lately, Russia’s interference in countries such as Sudan and Guinea has been criticized. A recently leaked UN report shows the existence of Russian mercenaries in Libya. Although the Russian government has denied any support to the group whose existence has also been spotted in Madagascar and the Central African Republic, there is evidence that the group has strong links to Kremlin.

However, strong historical ties between Africa and the Soviet Union may give Moscow an advantage over some of the “new players” in the continent—especially on past personal connections between African elites and their counterparts in Russia. Still other observers are of the view that Russia has failed to make the most of such connections. Yet, an interrogation into, say, the nuclear deal between South Africa and Russia reveals signs of personal connections between elites from both sides. The deal was signed during the reign of former South African president Jacob Zuma, previously an African National Congress operative who was trained in Russia. Zuma was not alone as many other fellow comrades received similar trainings in Moscow. The deal has since been cancelled following a huge corruption scandal surrounding it. It is difficult to rule out the possibility of the role of personal relationships behind. Nonetheless, such historical elements in the Africa-Russia relationship face challenges as African elites familiar with Moscow have aged and been replaced by younger ones who do not have the Soviet nostalgia nor any personal linkage to Russia.

The challenge facing Russia in Africa begins with the fundamental question of what Moscow can offer—that others cannot, if I may add. Certainly, it has no financial muscle to challenge China, the US, or the EU. However, what we learn from the Sochi Summit is Moscow’s strength in sectors such as energy and defence. It was reported that in Sochi, “Russia offered nuclear power plants, fighter jets and missile defence systems to African countries”. It was also reported that Russian oil company Lukoil and energy firm Rosatom signed deals with a number of African countries. At a time when Africa’s development discourse is dominated by the industrialization agenda, Russian expertise and investment in the energy sector could be crucial.

Another area of critical importance that poses challenge to Africa-Russia cooperation is the misinformation on both sides, resulting in stereotypes that may hinder mutual trust. I argue that this can be mitigated through increased people-to-people interactions in the form of cultural exchanges, sports, educational exchanges, and joint-research programs. I am a little critical of Shubin’s insinuation that the stereotypes that exist are imposed from outside. He himself has in the past written about the tendency by Russian media to use Africa as a “zero baseline” for comparing countries, depicting Africa negatively and pejoratively. It needs to be established whether that tendency continues to shape perceptions about Africa in Russia. This suggests that some of these problems exist from within. Africans and Russians need to be sincere to each other and promote an honest conversation that will cultivate seeds of mutual trust and friendship. This is important in asserting both African and Russian agencies in the relationship.