The first Russia-Africa summit which held in Sochi, Russia, from October 23 – 25 2019, has put Russia- Africa relations on the spot. During the summit, Russia welcomed 43 heads of state or government, along with dozens of business and community leaders. The Summit ended with the usual optics: it spawned $12.5 billion in business deals, largely in arms and grains, Kremlin unveiled plans to double trade with African countries to $40 billion per annum; African leaders had loads of photo-ops with Russian President Vladimir Putin and as part of the razzmatazz, there were reminders in some media that Russia never colonized any part of Africa and that it was the Soviet leader Khrushchev, who, at the XV General Assembly of the United Nations, moved a motion for African countries under colonialism to be granted independence by 1960.
Another reportage that fitted the mood of the moment during the summit was the highlighting of the narrative that Russia emphasizes collaboration over aid in its relations with Africa, and by implication, respects Africans more than the continent’s traditional allies, who are often criticized for being patronizing or condescending towards the continent. For instance at June’s U.S.-Africa Business Summit in Mozambique, (daubed Prosper Africa), a US initiative attended by 11 African Heads of State, many Africans felt disrespected that the US was unable to send even the equivalent of a cabinet rank Minister.
However beyond the splashy show of unity and camaraderie of newly-found love at Sochi, the summit also raised a number of speculations and very interesting questions:
One, what does Russia really want in Africa? Some have dismissed the Russia-Africa summit as just another ‘me-tooism’ – a number of countries in recent years seem to be caught in the competition to organize and institutionalize Africa summits and Russia does not want to be left behind. China, India, France, Japan and America all have Africa summits that enable them to gather several African leaders in one place. However the fact that the meeting in Sochi was called First Russia-Africa summit should not deceive anyone into believing that Russia is only just waking up to the possibilities in Africa. Though with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia, which inherited the assets and liabilities of the former Soviet Union, had to re-order its priorities and consequently scaled down relations with Africa, it can be argued that since Putin’s emergence as the Prime Minister of Russia in 2008, Russia has been trying to re-assert itself on the global stage.
In Africa, Russia’s interest seems to be driven by three ambitions: it wants to project its power on the global stage and needs the support of African countries which constitute the largest voting bloc in the United Nations. Putin places a high premium on geopolitical relations. Russia is also interested in Africa’s natural resources. Though it has its own fair share of abundant natural resources, Russia is active in the extraction of mineral resources in several African countries. In Zimbabwe for instance, Russia is developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metal. It has also re-established links with Angola, where Alrosa, the Russian giant, mines diamonds. Russia is also in discussion with both Angola and Namibia for the production of hydrocarbon and uranium respectively. A third major objective of Russia in Africa is arms export. Already the country is a major arms exporter to the continent and is in fact quite entrenched in the security architecture of a number of African countries such as Sudan, Eritrea and Central African Republic. Remarkably a Russian is the national security adviser for CAR.
Russia is also an important player in oil and gas resources as well as electricity markets. For instance its state-owned companies such as Lukoil, Rostec, Rostatom and Gazprom are active in several African countries – from Algeria and Uganda to Egypt where negotiations have already been finalized for Moscow to build the country’s first nuclear plant.
In essence, a focus on the media reportage of the first Russia-Africa Summit will suppress or overlook the fact that Russia never really left Africa (except for a brief period after the collapse of the Soviet Union). As a matter of fact, between 2005 and 2015, Africa’s trade with Russia grew by 185 per cent.
Two, another fundamental issue raised by the Russia-Africa Summit is how Africa’s traditional allies, especially the United States will respond to Russia’s ‘new found’ love for the continent. The concern of some Africanists here is with what is often called the ‘Truman Doctrine’. This was a pronouncement by President Harry S. Truman on March 12, 1947, offering immediate economic and military aid to the governments of Greece, (which was threatened by communist insurrection), and Turkey, (which was under pressure from Soviet expansion in the Mediterranean area). This speech, which is often used by historians to date the beginning of the Cold War, means essentially that whenever Russia moves in, America’s interest is awakened to contain it. The big question therefore is whether, with the media glare of the Russia-Africa Summit, America will, in a knee-jerk manner, activate the Truman doctrine. Though the Cold War is all over now, however with Russia beginning to re-assert itself globally, (and even being a big issue in the last Presidential election in the USA), America may be forced to take more than a passing notice of its seemingly new love overtures to the continent. America and its allies may try to surreptitiously undermine any Russia-Africa initiative they perceive as a threat (as some claimed they did with the Ajaokuta steel mills), Nigeria and other Africa countries will also have the opportunity to play the two powers against each other for her own benefit – as they did during the Cold War. For instance when America was dilly-dallying about selling arms to the country to fight Boko Haram, the country turned to a willing Russia and was able to place order for attack helicopters.
Three, what was in the Russia-Africa summit for Nigeria? Garba Shehu, President Buhari’s Senior Special Assistant on Media, gave a long list of takeaways from Buhari’s attendance of the summit including: the Russians agreed to a government-to-government understanding that would see them return to complete the Ajaokuta Steel Rolling Mill, (which was abandoned after it had gulped over USD 5 billion without it coming to fruition); the Russian railway giant, MEDPROM indicated interest in undertaking the 1,400-kilometre Lagos-Calabar rail track that will pass through all the states in the South-South sub-region and an MOU was signed between the NNPC and Russia’s oil giant Lukoil to upgrade their commercial relationship to a government-to-government backed partnership to enable them work together in upstream operations and in revamping Nigeria’s ill-functioning refineries. Buhari, said Garba Shehu, also assured Putin, that the protracted issue of the Aluminium Smelter Company of Nigeria, ALSCON at Ikot-Abasi, Akwa-Ibom State, (which is owned by the Russian company AC RUSA but dogged by many problems including protracted legal challenges) would be resolved.
Reading the press on Buhari’s ‘mission accomplished’ visit to Sochi, one would get a wrong impression that Buhari came back with a bagful of investments. The truth is that an MOU is no guarantee that an investment will happen. In fact most of the promises in the various Africa Summits, (including the one organized by President Obama in the USA in 2014) hardly deliver on their promises and appear to be geared more towards optics than anything else. Let us not forget that in 2009, the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited Nigeria and signed what became known as the Abuja Accord. It may be tempting to pose the question of what really became of that Accord.