Russia’s scramble for Africa

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (centre) with heads of state during the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL)

Africans should be under no illusion about who their suitor really is, especially those who value their democratic institutions and practices. Racism, homophobia, a constricted civil society and curtailed human rights are all hallmarks of the Russian Federation under Putin.

More than 40 African heads of state return from Sochi after a fervent courting by Russia and with the ink drying on some substantial deals. Ethiopia and Rwanda have sealed nuclear co-operation agreements to bring the number of African countries keen on nuclear development to 18. South Africa is not among them.

The Black Sea retreat that is said to have been years in the making aimed to offer African leaders a renewed sense of partnership with Russia, who played the decolonial card with a firm hand.

African sovereignty, independence and a disdain for bullish western politics was the charm Russian President Vladimir Putin laid on thick. Analysts say the Kremlin claims that it has racked up $12.5-billion in deals over the two-day Russia-Africa summit. But it remains to be seen whether they actually materialise as real investments. The symbolically laden event to bolster co-operation and trade comes as sanctions against Russia persist. Firming up a Russia-Africa trading bloc is clearly a way to escape these constraints by structuring more deals in Russian roubles to improve economic stability.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) at the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019.EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL

Russian economic presence on the African continent is quite small. The $20-billion trade with all African countries is almost two times smaller than African deals with France and pales in comparison with China’s almost $200-billion worth of investments in Africa. So, what is Russia’s plan for saving African countries from the West?

To start, Putin has announced the forgiveness of the Soviet Union-era debts to several countries, including Ethiopia, Mozambique and Madagascar. Wiping out debts for Mozambique comes with new agreements that allow Russia’s Rosneft access to the natural gas resources in Mozambique (that could create tensions with China) and co-operation in the military area. Many of the agreements also assume state loans from Russia. The structure of agreements hardly takes a “no strings attached” approach.

Russia is believed to have a long history of using state loans for the political benefit which has often facilitated an opportunity for corruption with its neighbouring countries. South Africa is one country that was on the brink of inking a state loan from Russia to construct a nuclear fleet. Had the almost R1-trillion deal gone through it might have collapsed the South African economy over the long run because of the way energy prices would have been driven relentlessly upwards.

Nuclear energy now costs globally between R1.70 and R2.80/kWh, compared to coal which is R1.30/kWh and renewables which are between 50c and 60c/kWh. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences of the nuclear deal, former South African president Jacob Zuma remained loyal to Russia:

They would not come for us. They would understand, we would have an agreement to work out another arrangement. We know they [Russia] are trusted people. We know they will never sink us; they will lift us.”

In Putin, Zuma found an ally who shared contempt for western colonisation and hostile western businesses.

Russia has sought a way to take the sting out of finance agreements with business partners, setting out what it calls more favourable conditions for financing, instead of the punitive measures of western institutions. The International Agency of Sovereign Development RBK (IASD) launched earlier this year was promoted at the summit. The agency has already facilitated $2.5-billion worth of deals with Niger, Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The non-state agency was positioned as a general partner of the summit and constitutes a collective of “consultants” with headquarters in Moscow. It is headed by Konstantin Malofeev, who was closely connected to the mercenary activities in Eastern Ukraine. Malofeev says:

We have a network of direct contacts at the highest level with governments, institutions, corporations and investors around the world. We are supporting economic reforms in the countries which are trying to get out of economic and financial dependency of the western countries… Our goal is decolonisation, identifying infrastructural projects for investments.” Transparency is not part of this decolonial project as Malofeev has refused to disclose funding sources.

Military co-operation appears to be another central pivot for Russia which has pursued security contracts with more than 40 African countries to the tune of $3-billion in 2018.

We will continue our course towards expanding contacts between the special services and law enforcement agencies of Russia and Africa in the field of combating terrorism, organised crime, drug trafficking, money laundering, illegal migration and piracy,” explained Putin.

The contracts foresee supplying military equipment, training military personnel, establishing service centres for Russian military equipment and more. Some deals are more than just an exchange of money for hardware and expertise though. Russia has received access to decision-making circles in Sudan’s Ministry of Defence, while Russian citizen Valeriy Zakharov was appointed national security adviser to the President of the Central African Republic (CAR).

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) speaks with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa (R) at the first plenary session as part of the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit at the Sirius Park of Science and Art in Sochi, Russia, 24 October 2019. EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV / POOL

Russia’s other leverage for earning state credit is the energy sector. Russia’s national nuclear corporation, Rosatom, is at different stages of negotiating nuclear power plant construction with more than 15 countries in Africa. The closest to implementation is the nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean coast in El Daaba, Egypt, where four third-generation VVER 1200 reactors are planned by 2028-2029.

Russia provides most of the funding, 85%, of the $21-billion nuclear power plant. In addition, Rosatom gets a 60-year servicing contract to maintain the reactors. Among other countries negotiating for nuclear plants are Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda, Ghana and more. Most of these countries lack the capacity to distribute the amount of energy that these nuclear plants will produce.

It may still be a bit early for citizens of African countries to worry — out of the 26 reactors that were planned for the end of 2014, only five came online in 2018. However, those who do bow to pressure and agree to the construction of a nuclear power plant will soon discover that a Russian nuclear power plant is more than just an energy generator: it is more akin to a hybrid combination of a powerful embassy and a military base, complete with a sovereign guarantee to cover the loan finance.

In the months leading up to the summit, Russian officials met with almost all of their African counterparts. Each meeting would start with the story of the common history of the struggle for political and economic independence against the West. The ideological push from Russia is that western countries are out to exploit African nations, while Russia is a partner for development and an ally at the international level.

It would do well for African states to remember that Russia is a country where racism and homophobia in public discourse are rife. In September 2019, the CEO of Russian VTB bank Andrey Kostin addressed the Mozambican government saying:

I hope our black friends in Mozambique are listening to this”. It begs the question: how will Putin’s revival of European fascist ideas associated with the fascist writer Ivan Ilyin and propagated by the highly influential Izborsk Club be reconciled with what it will take to build trust-based relationships with African leaders?

The Izborsk Club includes Putin confidantes like Alexander Dugin, Sergei Glazyev, Tikhon Shevkunov and founder Alexander Prokhanov. Prokhanov blames the Jews for the Holocaust and when he heard that a delegation of Russians had met President Barack Obama he moaned that it was “as if they had all been given a black teat, and they all suck at it with lust and mammalian smacking… In the end, I was humiliated by this.”

In Prokhanov’s eyes Europe is dying:

The white race is perishing: gay marriages, pederasts rule the cities, women can’t find men.” This is the man who has accompanied Putin on radio shows and whose ideas shape Putin’s Eurasian expansionism.

What may bind Russians and Africans together would be strident nationalism and anti-West sentiment (especially with the likes of Trump and Johnson in power); but tensions may arise when Africans become aware of the white supremacist ideas that are core to the ideology that the Putin power elite likes to propagate within the Russian cultural-polity. Ironically, there is very little to distinguish between the ideologies propagated by Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Putin thought leader Alexander Prokhanov.

Russia is an active international player that was part of the G8 prior to its illegal annexation of Ukrainian Crimea. It has veto power in the UN Security Council and is a member of BRICS. The opportunity to strengthen its sphere of influence by courting 55 African countries’ allegiance is worth the effort of the mammoth undertaking of organising this summit. After all, those African nations hold 25% of votes in the UN.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and UN Resolution 68/262 was adopted on March 27 2014 (“Territorial integrity of Ukraine”), 18 African countries voted in support of the resolution. Only two countries, Sudan and Zimbabwe, supported the Russian position in 2014. On a similar vote in 2018, the total number rose to eight countries: Burundi, Chad, Comoro, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa.

As Russia sets out to reshape global geopolitics, African leaders should not forget that the Russian economy is struggling, with GDP growth that is predicted to be a mere 1.3% in 2019, averaging 0.32% over the period 2015 to 2019. The levels of poverty in some areas in Russia are comparable to those in many African countries. Racism, homophobia, a constricted civil society and curtailed human rights are all hallmarks of the Russian Federation under Putin. Africans should be under no illusion about who their suitor really is, especially those who value their democratic institutions and practices. DM

Dzvinka Kachur and Mark Swilling write for the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition Stellenbosch University.


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