Better late than never sums up Moscow’s newfound interest in Africa. While Russia is no stranger to the continent, Moscow’s African policy stalled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet Union’s presence in Africa, which Russia basically inherited, goes back to the earliest days of the African struggle against western colonialism and apartheid. This fact was reiterated by President Vladimir Putin as he got ready to inaugurate the first two-day Russia-Africa summit in Sochi last week. “Our country played a significant role in the liberation of the continent,” Putin told TASS news agency the day before the summit started.
Indeed, the former Soviet Union helped almost all African countries either gain independence from Western imperialists or fend off the then apartheid South Africa; it also helped to implement development projects. Mozambique’s flag still carries the Russian Kalashnikov rifle as a reminder of that country’s hard won independence from colonial Portugal in 1975, the final major Cold War era battle on the continent.
The Sochi summit, co-hosted by Putin and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the current chairman of the African Union, marked a rather late Russian return to Africa. The continent’s main trading partner is China; Russia’s trade balance with African countries is about $20 billion, or roughly a tenth of China’s. Russian defence and security sectors dominate its current trade with many African countries. Over 30 African states already have arms deals with Russia, with the potential for more as terrorist threats rise. To attract African customers, Moscow’s arms are usually cheaper and without political conditions. Western countries have always offered help and investment to African states but with strings attached. During the Sochi summit, sovereignty was the underlying theme of the discussions.
All 54 African states were represented, including 43 heads of state in Sochi. The economic forum complementing the summit saw Moscow offering nuclear power, technology and defence equipment to visiting delegations. Over $12 billion worth of trade deals were signed, mainly for arms. In bilateral discussions with Putin, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni emphasised the importance of Russian-facilitated loans to help speed up the purchase of arms from Moscow, noting the good Russian defence and security assistance given to his army. In a symbolic gesture, Russia sent two of its Tupolev Tu-160 nuclear bombers to South Africa; the first time that such strategic aircraft had landed on African soil.
It is not only weapons that Moscow seeks to sell to its African partners. With a long history of helping major development projects across the continent, Moscow is positioning itself more as a trading partner. In the late 1950s, the US denied financial help to Egypt which was looking for money to build the High Aswan Dam on the River Nile, primarily because of President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s support for the Palestinian cause. The Soviet Union stepped in and offered Nasser a $1 billion loan at only 2 per cent interest; construction of the dam started in 1960. Cairo also benefitted a great deal from Soviet arms as it was preparing to liberate its land from Israeli occupation in the 1973 war. Soviet made surface to air missiles provided were the equivalent of today’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence systems.
The Soviet Union also helped newly independent African countries with education. The famous Friendship University in Moscow was intended for Third World students. In 1961, it was renamed after the Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961); hundreds of African engineers, doctors, political leaders and teachers graduated free of charge.
Russian interest in Africa waned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the anarchy that engulfed its territories in the aftermath. Nevertheless, Moscow’s albeit late attempt to renew its African ties does have the foundations in place for them to flourish while the US is retreating under President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
Moreover, many African leaders were furious at a comment attributed to Trump in which he described African countries in extremely derogatory terms while defending his immigration policies. The comment drew diplomatic protests from a dozen countries and the African Union.
Washington is retreating from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and is yet to engage with Africa constructively. Moscow, meanwhile, is marching forward and consolidating its gains in the MENA region while re-engaging the continent.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured five African countries in March last year, promising economic assistance and the renewal of old ties. Notably, Lavrov brought up the subject of Western countries trying to force their own solutions on African problems. The conflict in Libya certainly comes to mind in this respect, with the US and European countries trying to impose their will on the Libyans. According to Lavrov, Russia wants “Africans to stand up” and take ownership of their issues without Western interference. Russia, which has a veto at the UN Security Council, still accuses NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya of obliterating the country. Putin has repeatedly accused the West of murdering the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011.
The real competition for Russia’s African comeback is from China. Over the past three decades, Beijing has made steady strides in its bilateral trade and direct investment across the continent. Through a global foreign policy model that refrains from any political conditions attached to aid and investment, China is now the number one investor in Africa, with a trade balance of $200 billion across dozens of African nations.
Russia is now trying to imitate that model. It will only be a matter of time before it catches up with Beijing. Aided by its long history in Africa, Moscow is certainly positioned to make a successful comeback. The Russian-African summit is now set to take place every three years. It has freed the genie from the bottle, and putting it back will not be easy as long as Moscow is willing to keep on developing its African ties.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.