Despite its highly praised global status, experts and researchers have said Russia has still lagged far behind economic engagement, compared to key foreign players, in Africa since Soviet’s collapse in 1991.
In separate interviews, they pointed to how the African continent is more confidently integrating into the world economy and called for more development-oriented foreign policies that would help the continent overcome its development problems.
In an exclusive interview, the Executive Secretary of the Southern African Development Community, Stergomena Lawrence Tax, said Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries.
“The official visit of the Russian Foreign Minister H.E. Sergey Lavrov to the Republics of Angola, Ethiopia, Namibia and Zimbabwe, (as we understand it) was largely focused on signing of economic cooperation agreements to attract Russian investments in key areas such as mining, aviation and energy sectors, as well as fostering military technical cooperation.”
Like most of the developing countries, Southern African countries have, over the years, largely relied on multilateral and regional development financial institutions to fund their development projects.
In this regard, SADC welcomes investors from all over the world, she said, and added “In reality, Russia has not been that visible in the region as compared to China, India or Brazil. But, it is encouraging that, of recent, Russia has positioned itself to be a major partner with Southern Africa and being part of the BRICS promotes her engagement with the region, particularly in investment in minerals, aviation, defense and energy sectors.”
According to many experts, most often talked about economic diplomacy. What is abundantly clear is how to stimulate African governments into exploring investment opportunities in Russia and Russian investors into Africa within some framework of mutual-cooperation.
Professor Vladimir Shubin, the Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies, told me in an interview that “African leaders also have to pay high attention to and take significant steps in promoting their achievements and highlighting their main developmental needs.”
In an acknowledgement, he said Africa has great potential for bilateral relationships with Russia. But, the relations in many spheres, especially in economic cooperation, are lagging behind.
Shubin, however, pointed to the truth that “Africans have to acknowledge the fact that the world has progressively changed, and they must be seen changing with a similar positive pace. It’s about time Africans take development issues seriously and work progressively towards establishing good governance and drastically seek improvement in the welfare for its large impoverished population.”
Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Russia, Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview discussion that, “For a long time, Russia’s foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms as evidenced by the countable forays into Africa by Russian officials. The Russian Federation has the capacity and ability to assist Africa overcome these challenges leveraging on Africa’s vast resources.”
Sango further expressed his views as follows: “Africa’s expectation is that Russia, while largely in the extractive industry, will steadily transfer technologies for local processing of raw materials as a catalyst for Africa’s development.”
Professor Gerrit Olivier at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, said Soviet influence in Africa disappeared almost like a mirage with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991.
And today, Russia’s influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal. Many foreign players are involved in building infrastructure, have engaged in agriculture and industry, and Russians only noted for their diplomacy characterized by “frequent official visits” to and from Africa.
Dr. Ojijo Al Pascal, Ugandan lawyer and business consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa, wrote an email and suggested that “Russia needs to have its own mega or corporate projects. And it should have them in strategic economic areas.”
Ojijo underlined the fact that Russia, in essence, could use its history of electrifying the Soviet rural areas to help Africa. It could promote the establishment of manufacturing hubs and mega projects, promote its technologies in mutually beneficial spheres while cooperating with individual countries in Africa.
Russia could target priority development projects in Africa. “There are so many investment areas”, says Dr. Shaabani Nzori, a Moscow-based Oil and Gas specialist and Foreign Policy Expert, “What is important is to identify investment sectors and here Russia has the chance to transfer its technology to agriculture and industry in Africa.”
Rex Essenowo, Member of the Board of Trustees of Nigerians in Diaspora Europe and Senior Executive of Asian Africa Trade, a Moscow based business lobbying NGO, said African leaders also have to treat Russia with some kind of objective understanding.
“Apart from sanctions, Russia is struggling with the challenges after the breakdown of Soviet Union and economic meltdown of the 90’s in the country. Russia, as it seeks to restore and strengthen its position, has very limited human resources specially trained to implement policies in Africa,” he added.
“Nevertheless, diving into muddy waters could be very risky and dangerous for Russia. On the other hand, Russian authorities are studying what the Chinese and other foreign players are doing very closely before even thinking about going into the first five or ten preferred destinations within the next five years in Africa. Watch out my words!”
There has been, for a long time, interest from Russia to revive its old economic ties with Africa. Russia and Russian enterprises are in a much stronger position today to capitalize on this opportunity than a few decades ago.
At the same time, not ignoring the fact that the continued economic sanctions imposed by the West, has made Russia to reinforce its strategic partnerships with other regions, and currently on the move towards Africa where it has had good historical ties from the Soviet era.
In July, Moscow hosted the Russia-Africa conference that brought together parliamentarians from Africa. Speaker of the Parliament of the Republic of Zimbabwe, Jacob Mudenda, said: "participation in the conference is another opportunity to discuss many issues, compare positions, develop solutions and give impetus to further cooperation, but it is important to turn words into concrete actions."
He argued assertively that it was distinctively evident from the large number of African delegations that had been invited, so far, to Moscow over the past few years, marked a new chapter to re-activate relations with Africa. But, Russia's influence might not take roots anytime soon if the conference declarations are not vigorously and promptly implemented.
Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with the Ambassadors of African countries in the Russian Federation that Russia would take adequate steps to deliver on pledges and promises with Africa countries. “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps,” he said.
In an official report posted to the ministry’s website, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said: “We have been consistently advocating the strengthening of the legal and democratic principles of the international life, respect for all people’s identity and their right to independently choose ways of their political and socioeconomic development.”
The first Russia–Africa summit scheduled to take place in Sochi on October 24 and will be co-chaired by President of Russia Vladimir Putin and President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who currently chairs the African Union.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The author writes frequently about Russia-Africa and the BRICS.