OPINION: Russia has been open about its interests in Africa’s natural resources. For Africa, the eagerness of global powers like Russia to invest in Africa is in our interest in order to diversify our investors and strategic partners, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Special Representative for Africa and the Middle East, Mikhail Bogdanov, was in South Africa this week to further strategic relations – a growing trend between Russia and strategic African countries. Russia’s growing intervention on the continent comes as a number of African countries have grown frustrated with Western partnerships.
There is nothing new in Russia developing strategic depth on the African continent, given its close relations with a number of African liberation movements since the early 1960s. However, with the end of the Cold War, Russian involvement on the continent had waned, given its limited resources and preoccupation with domestic issues. Under Putin, however, relations with Africa have enjoyed a reawakening.
A key objective of President Putin has been to rebuild Russia’s stature as a global power, which makes strengthening relations with Africa imperative. A decade and a half ago, Putin had already promised $1 billion (about R15.6 billion) in investments in Africa and wrote off approximately $20 billion of debt incurred by African countries during the Cold War.
For the first time in 2019, Russia hosted the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, which was attended by 43 African heads of state, and was considered a great success. Several memoranda of understanding were signed, including between Russia and the African Union.
Putin was quoted having said: “We are not going to participate in a new ‘repartition’ of the continent’s wealth; rather, we are ready to engage in competition for cooperation with Africa. We have a lot to offer our African friends.”
The second Russia-Africa Summit is scheduled for next year and is likely to take place in Cairo, Dakar or Addis Ababa.
Key to Russia’s strategic priorities has been to sign military cooperation agreements with a number of African countries, including Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Sudan, and most recently with Nigeria and Ethiopia – Africa’s two most populous nations.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Africa accounted for 18 percent of all Russian arms exports between 2016 and 2020, with Algeria being the largest recipient. Apart from military equipment, the agreements contain provisions for countering terrorism and the joint training of troops.
In July, a group of Russian instructors were sent to the CAR at the request of its leaders and with the knowledge of the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on the CAR. Russia also signed a deal with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration to supply military equipment, training and technology to Nigerian forces. This came a month after US lawmakers stalled a planned $1 billion weapons sale to Nigeria over allegations of human rights abuses by the government.
At a time when Western governments like the US have criticised Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government for its military response to the insurgency in northern Tigray, Russia has provided support to the Ethiopian government. Geo-political positioning has been very much part of the equation as Ethiopia has resented the US backing Egypt’s demands with regards to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The willingness of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to engage with and assist his Ethiopian counterpart Demeke Mekonnen in June this year put relations on a strong footing, and Russia proceeded to deploy election observers to Ethiopia even as the EU withdrew its observers. Russia has also provided tangible support to Ethiopia in the form of strategic weapons, which could be used to defend against any potential Egyptian strike on the dam and assist government forces in Tigray.
Russia has proceeded strategically, however, maintaining close bilateral relations with Egypt and forging ahead with the creation of the Russian industrial zone in Egypt. In 2018, Russia and Egypt signed an intergovernmental agreement on the creation of a special zone in the east of Port Said with a simplified tax regime for Russian resident enterprises.
The full implementation of the project is expected to take 13 years, and resident companies will be able to start producing products as early as next year. In the first two or three years, about 50 resident companies will appear in the zone. Russian state investments in the development of the primary infrastructure of the zone are expected to amount to $190 million, and the total volume of private investments is estimated at $7 billion.
Russia has been open about its interests in Africa’s natural resources, and while it is endowed with its own natural resources, many of them are difficult to extract, making it easier to import them instead.
Notable developments are taking place in Zimbabwe (platinum group metals), Angola (diamonds), and Namibia (uranium). Russian state-owned energy companies such as Gazprom, Rustec and Rosatom are also active in Africa, with key investments in the oil, gas and nuclear sectors in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda, and Angola.
For Africa, the eagerness of global powers like Russia to invest in Africa is in our interest in order to diversify our investors and strategic partners.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor of Independent Media.