Russia's Summit on Africa: Challenges, Implications and Beyond

Published on 1st February 2022

Russia's primary focus at the forthcoming November summit in St. Petersburg with African leaders, corporate business directors, representatives from the academic community, civil society organizations and media will largely be renewing most of its unfulfilled bilateral agreements, and making new pledges that will, as usual, be incorporated into a second joint declaration.

The first summit was described as highly successful since it offered the necessary solid impetus for raising to qualitative level the multifaceted relations, especially in the economic spheres with Africa. Much is however yet to be pursued. Behind the shadows of the bilateral agreements, some of the projects were simultaneously assigned to either Western or European investors.

Long before the historic summit, African foreign ministers and delegations had lined up visiting Moscow. This was partly in a bid to show off that Russia is on high demand as indicated in a 150-paged new policy released last November by a group of 25 leading experts headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

The report vividly highlights some pitfalls and shortcomings in Russia's approach towards Africa, especially the country’s failure in honoring its several agreements and pledges over the years. It decries the increased number of bilateral and high-level meetings that yield little, and the insufficient and disorganized Russian African lobbying combined with a lack of "information hygiene" at all levels of public speaking.

Russia has to intensify and redefine its parameters. Russia's foreign policy strategy regarding Africa has to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries. Russia has to promote an understandable agenda for Africa: working more on sovereignty, continental integration, infrastructure development, human development (education and medicine), security (including the fight against hunger and epidemics), normal universal human values, the idea that people should live with dignity and feel protected.

Vsevolod Tkachenko, the Director of the Africa Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, observes that "African partners expect concrete deeds, maximum substantive ideas and useful proposals."

Russia has to move from rhetoric and mere declarations of interests. Since the basis of the summit remains the economic interaction between Russia and Africa, "the ideas currently being worked out on new possible instruments to encourage Russian exports to Africa, Russian investments to the continent, such as a fund to support direct investment in Africa, all these deserve special attention," Tkachenko says.

According to Russia's Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov, on January 26, the "cooperation with African countries has expanded to reach new frontiers. Together with African friends, we are working on preparations for the second Russia-Africa summit scheduled to be held this year." Lavrov indicates that: "Russia's political ties, in particular, are developing dynamically. But economic cooperation is not as far advanced as political ties."

At present, diplomacy dominates Russia’s  approach, but the outcomes remain hardly discernible, observes Professor Gerrit Olivier from the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria in South Africa and a former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

"Given its global status, Russia ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role. Be that as it may, the Kremlin has revived its interest in the African continent and it will be realistic to expect that the spade work it is putting in now will at some stage show more tangible results," Olivier adds.

Zimbabwe's Ambassador to Russia, Brigadier General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango, who has been in his post since July 2015, says that Russia’s economic footprints in Africa are not growing as expected.

Russia's foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms.The Russian Federation has shied away from economic cooperation with Africa, making forays into the few countries that it has engaged in the last few years. African leaders hold Russia in high esteem as evidenced by the large number of African embassies in Moscow. Furthermore, Russia has no colonial legacy in Africa, according to the Zimbabwean diplomat.

Ambassador Sango notes that 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. Africa desires economic upliftment, human security in the form of education, health, shelter as well as security from transnational terrorism among many challenges afflicting Africa.

In an interview discussion for this story, Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Regional Integration of Ghana, explains to this research writer that "Although, for a relationship lasting this long with Africa, one would have expected it to move past where it is now. In short, there is still room for improvement, in fostering particularly stronger economic ties."

Russia should catch up with other active foreign competitors and transform the well-developed political relations with broader economic cooperation. Ultimately, emphasis should also be placed on developing 'people-to-people' relations.

Russia has not been visible in SADC region as compared to China, India or Brazil. Dr. Babafemi A. Badejo, Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Chrisland University, Abeokuta, Nigeria, argues that many foreign players and investors are now looking forward to exploring several opportunities in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which provides a unique and valuable access to an integrated African market of over 1.2 billion people. In practical reality, it aims at creating a continental market for goods and services, with free movement of business people and investments in Africa.

Badejo argues further that Russia's gradual engagement can be boosted by African media popularizing and boosting knowledge on such engagements by Russia. Hosting the next summit would feed very well into popularizing Russia. Promoting relations with the continent of Africa requires more than a one-off event with African leaders who have varying levels of legitimacy from performance or lack of it in their respective countries.

Interestingly, and at the current moment, not much of Russia's image is promoted by the media in Africa. African media should have the opportunity to report more about Russian corporate presence in Africa and their added value to the realization of the sustainable development goals in Africa. This corporate presence can support the building of the media image of Russia in Africa through involvements with people-at-large oriented activities.

Russia has to make consistent efforts in building its media network that could further play a key role in strengthening its relations with Africa.

Russia has not pledged publicly concrete funds toward implementing its policy objectives in Africa. Its investment efforts have been limited thus far which some experts attributed to lack of a system of financing. While Russians are very cautious about making financial commitments, the financial institutions are not closely involved in foreign policy initiatives in Africa.

Experts have identified lack of effective coordination and follow-ups combined with inconsistency are basic factors affecting the entire relations with Africa. While the first summit is still considered as the largest symbolic event in history, many significant issues in the joint declaration have not been pursued and that could lay down a comprehensive strategic roadmap for building the future Russia-African relations.

As publicly known, China, Japan and India have committed funds publicly during their summits, while large investment funds have also come from the United States and European Union, all towards realizing various economic and infrastructure projects and further collaborating in new interesting areas as greater significant part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in Africa.

By Kester Kenn Klomegah

The author writes frequently on Russia, Africa and the BRICS.


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