While preparations are underway for the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled for 2022, African leaders, politicians, academics and experts discussed several aspects of the current state of Russian-African relations. They most often compare it to a number of foreign countries including China, the United States, the European Union, India, France, Turkey, Japan and South Korea which have organized such gatherings in this format with Africa.
Some have argued convincingly that Russia has moved from a low-key strategy to a vigorous relationship, as demonstrated by the first symbolic Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea city of Sochi in October 2019. Russia and the Africa adopted a Joint Declaration, a document that outlines key objectives and necessary tasks that aim to confidently elevate the whole relationship to a new level.
Long before the summit, at least over the past decade, several bilateral agreements between Russia and some African countries were signed. Moreover, memoranda of understanding, declarations of interests, commitments and promises dominated official discourse. On the other hand, Russia is simply invisible in economic sectors in Africa, despite strong decades-old relations with the continent.
Without a doubt, Africa opens up new fields of opportunity. The creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers businesses a unique and valuable opportunity to access an integrated African market of over 1.3 billion people with a GDP of over 2.5 trillion. U.S. dollars. It aspires to connect all regions of Africa, deepen economic integration, and boost intra-African trade and investment.
Despite the existing risks, challenges and threats, a number of external countries continue to strengthen their economic foothold in Africa and contribute enormously to the continent’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Russia must improve or intensify its engagement of collaboration with Africa. It should seriously consider launching more public awareness programs, especially working with civil society to change public perceptions and the private sector to strengthen its partnership with Africa. To achieve this, it must overcome challenges, gain courage and work coherently with the private and public sectors and with an effective action plan.
In this exclusive interview with Steven Gruzd, Head of the African Governance and Diplomacy Program at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), addresses some questions, sheds light on existing challenges and passionately offers some progressive suggestions regarding Russian-African relations.
Steven Gruzd also heads the Russia-Africa research program launched this year at SAIIA, South Africa’s leading research institute on international issues. It is an independent, non-governmental think tank with a long and proud history of thought leadership in Africa. Here are the extracts from the interviews:
What are your appreciations and your fears for Russia’s return to Africa?
Africa is becoming overcrowded, with many old and new actors actively involved on the continent. Besides EU countries China and USA, we have players like Iran, Turkey, Israel, UAE, Japan and others. Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is therefore not happening in isolation. He of course seeks to build on Soviet-era ties, and several African leaders today have studied in the USSR or in the Soviet sphere of influence. Russia has tended to focus on niches such as arms sales, nuclear power, and resource extraction, on a much smaller scale than China. Many leaders welcome Russia’s attention, but some remain suspicious of Russia’s hidden motives and intentions. Russia’s relations are not transparent and open to China. The dark world of private military companies like the Russian group Wagner worries unstable countries like CAR, Libya and Mali. So, in fact, there is kind of a mixed picture, feelings and interpretations are also varied here.
How would you say that Russia fairly engages in “competition for cooperation” in Africa?
Africa is a busy geopolitical arena, with many active players. Russia must compete with them and remain distinctly focused on its efforts. Russia welcomes diplomatic support from African countries and, unlike the West, it does not demand good governance or advocate for human rights reforms. Russia likes to portray itself as not interfering in local politics or judging African countries, although there is growing evidence that it has been implicated in interference in elections in Africa by the through disinformation, fake news and attempting to exploit the fault lines in societies through social media.
Do you think that, to some extent, Russia is fighting neocolonial tendencies, as shown by Guinea, Mali, CAR and Sudan? Does this imply that Russia is supporting the military leaders in Africa?
Russia uses the rhetoric of anti-colonialism in its engagement with Africa, and that it fights the neocolonialism of the West, especially in its relations with their former colonies. He considers France as a threat to his interests, particularly in French-speaking West Africa, the Maghreb and the Sahel. Russia has invested resources in the development of news media in French and is engaging in anti-French media activities, notably through social media. I think Russia has its own economic and political interests in countries like Guinea, Mali, CAR and Sudan, even though it uses the language of the struggle against neocolonialism. It appears explicitly that Russia supports several undemocratic African leaders and their regimes.
Some experts have argued that Russian diplomacy is teeming with bilateral agreements, largely unimplemented, and a range of commitments and promises. What is your opinion on this?
I would largely agree that there is a gap between what has been promised and promised at high-level meetings and summits, and what has actually happened on the ground. There is more talk than action, and in most cases, over the years, mere intentions and ideas have been officially presented as initiatives already underway. It will be interesting to see what has been concretely achieved in the reports of the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled for the end of 2022.
Based on the above discussions so far, what do you see as Russia’s challenges and setbacks in Africa?
Africa is a crowded playground. Russia does not have the same resources and approaches as China, France, UK or US, so its impact is limited. The language barrier could be used as an excuse, but Russia has a great opportunity to take advantage of the diaspora formed by the Soviets and Russians. On the other hand, Russia feels that it is being portrayed unfairly in the Western media, so this is another perception that it seeks to change. It can change perception by supporting public awareness programs. Working closely with the academic community, such as the South African Institute of International Affairs and others like it across Africa, is a potential instrument to enhance its public image. In places like Mozambique and CAR, the Wagner group left after suffering casualties – does Russia have the power to stay?
As it prepares to hold the second Russia-Africa summit in 2022, what could Africa’s expectations be? What to do with the first joint declaration of Sochi?
As already mentioned, there has to be a lot of tangible progress on the ground for the second summit to show an impact. It is worth reiterating here that African countries will expect more debt relief and solid investment from Russian companies. In terms of political support for places like the UN Security Council, there is close interaction between Russia and African states, but as recent SAIIA research shows, not as much as is assumed. Check it out. The relationship must however deliver, and move from words to deeds. In conclusion, I would suggest that Russia needs to address both unique challenges and opportunities, and attempt to increase its influence by working coherently on practical, multi-faceted sustainable development issues and maintaining meaningful relations with the world. ‘Africa. And African countries must also devise viable strategies for engaging with Russia.