A New Imperialism? Russia-Africa Relations in the Twenty-First Century

Russia’s rekindled interest in Africa is driven not by ideology as it was in the decolonization era but by pragmatism and Russia’s geo-economic interests. 

In October 2019, several African leaders attended a Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, the Russian city famous for its dachas and the 2016 Winter Olympics. In certain quarters, the summit was symbolic of Russia’s imperial intentions and prompted fears that Africa could be the newest setting for a cold war rivalry recently rekindled in Syria and Ukraine.

Africa’s contemporary engagements with old and new global powers have been characterized as the new scramble for Africa, a reincarnation of the West’s extractive politics in Africa in the 19th century. Conspicuously absent in that earlier scramble was the Russian Empire, a country now being accused, because of its rekindled interest, of pursuing imperial ambitions in Africa. As will become clear, these Russian ambitions, should they exist, are grossly exaggerated. They are more the outcome of a deliberate discourse constructed by the West as it seeks to use distraction to maintain the geopolitical hegemony achieved in Africa in the aftermath of the Cold War.

Russia in Africa

The chequered history of Russia’s involvement in Africa dates back to the 18th century when, in 1783, Czarist Russia established a consulate in Egypt, followed, in the subsequent century, by the initiation of diplomatic relations with Southern Africa (as the Transvaal Republic of the Boers) in 1896 and with Morocco in 1898. In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, however, Africa was relegated in the order of Soviet interests; Josef Stalin, for one, considered Africa an outpost of western capitalism.

Stalin’s death in 1953 and the fortunes of the major colonial powers after World War II transformed Soviet attitudes to Africa. The end of World War II presented the world with two ideologically antagonistic powers locked in shadow geopolitical combat. The United States emerged from the war as the leading capitalist state while the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, developed a policy of exporting its brand of socialism, presenting a new bi-polar conflict across the world. In Africa, this manifested in Soviet diplomatic and material support for liberation movements and the new nationalist governments while the US-supported leaders who disavowed socialism and communism, regardless of their despotic tendencies. In countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, US action included destabilization and assassinations.

Soviet relations with Africa were largely transacted in the ideological sphere and the trade in arms. Having funnelled arms and ideology to guerrilla movements, the newly emergent states simply continued a familiar trade. Unlike the colonial powers, the Soviet Union failed to transform this limited trade into deep social and economic linkages. This failure is perhaps down to two reasons.

Firstly, Britain and France, who were the dominant colonial powers created ring-fencing systems that allowed them to maintain dominant economic ties with their former colonies. Britain expanded the scope of the British Commonwealth to include the states that had gained independence. In most British colonies, independence was won not through outright warfare but by negotiated settlements under which it dictated the terms of future cooperation. 

The French created a monetary union for its former colonies and a single currency, the CFA Franc, which was pegged to the French franc and later to the euro after the creation of the European Economic and Monetary Union. The erstwhile colonies were also arm-twisted into agreements that held them in perpetual subservience to the French. For Russia, this ring-fencing mechanism—described by Kwame Nkrumah as the highest stage of imperialism—created strong barriers for economic entry into the newly independent African states.

Secondly, not until the late 1990s did Africa become a foreign policy priority for Russia. As it lacked the resources to match the West, Soviet action during the Cold War was largely defensive, giving more primacy to Europe and North America, and focused on building the Warsaw Pact as a bulwark against an aggressive North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall signalled the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, and a chastised Russia was left scrambling to ensure its security. To make matters worse, the apparent triumph of western (American) liberal capitalism over Russian communism, celebrated famously as the end of history, left Mikhail Gorbachev’s Russia working to appease the West by implementing a rash of neoliberal economic reforms. 

Is This New Imperialism?

Renewed Russian interest in Africa has been packaged as the escalation of the new scramble for Africa. This packaging simply invokes European imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries and fails to consider African agency. Considered from the African perspective, the self-serving perniciousness of many Western commentators becomes clear.

Russia’s resurgent courtship of Africa came at a time when fissures were beginning to develop between Africa and the West. African countries began to scale back their reliance on the West, pivoting East and South to strengthen previously ceremonial ties with policies such as the Look East Policy (LEP) and the South-to-South Cooperation.

In West Africa, leaders had begun to question the emasculating independence deals with the French. In southern Africa, ordinary citizens, as well as governments, began to question the racially skewed land tenure systems. The interventionist policies of the West in African conflicts, especially after crises in Ivory Coast and Libya, were now being questioned. The concept of ‘African solutions to African problems’, characterized as ‘the African Monroe Doctrine’, was beginning to gain more traction. While this doctrine could not fully insulate Africa from western intervention as was shown in the Ivorian and Libyan cases, the crises demonstrated the increasing public assertiveness of African leaders against the former colonial powers. Leaders like Mbeki and Museveni spoke against the intervention. They also received diplomatic support from Russia and China who impressed upon NATO the need to not abuse the responsibility handed it by the United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 to give military support to rebels fighting embattled Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. 

Western governments had developed a doctrine of human rights and democracy which underlined their intervention in African affairs. The doctrine was soon given extraordinary coverage. African countries could be denied either financial assistance, aid, or supply of defence equipment on the basis that they would be used or could be used for human rights violations. African leaders like former Zimbabwe president, Robert Mugabe, questioned the nature of the West’s relation with Africa, the developing world in general and Zimbabwe, in particular. These issues prompted the rise of the South-to-South Cooperation and the LEP, linkages that require alliances in which Russia joins China to protect weaker African states on the world stage. In 2008 Russia (and China), for example, used its veto power to protect Zimbabwe from UN sanctions sponsored by Britain and the USA. 

In addition to African resistance, emerging Eastern and Southern powers (specifically China and India, but also including states like Iran and Brazil) had begun to intensify pursuits of economic interests in Africa, unsettling the erstwhile colonial powers who felt they were being elbowed out of their ‘spheres of influence’. This created a race for influence which has been packaged as the new scramble for Africa and new imperialism. It is easy to see how imperial nostalgia and insecurity has fuelled the West’s mischaracterization of the intensifying courtship of African states by emerging powers.

What is indisputable, however, is that rekindled Russian interest in Africa is driven not by ideology as it was in the decolonization era but by pragmatism and Russia’s geo-economic interests. Russia’s African overtures are growing at a time when President Vladimir Putin is seeking to reassert Russian influence regionally and globally. The Russian stance in crises in Georgia and Ukraine sent a clear message it took a dim view of NATO incursions in its borders of strategic interest. 

Internationally, after the West’s Libyan fiasco of 2011, Russia became more assertive against the Western countries involved in the Syrian civil war. It propped the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against the West which, as in Libya, was supporting a coalition of rebels. Russia’s involvement in Syria has now made Russia the central global power in the Syrian conflict as well as in the negotiations for a political resolution. Russia also strengthened its ties with Iran, at the time under immense western pressure against its nuclear programme, as well as Turkey, a former US ally.

The West labelled Russia a pariah on the back of these events, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 being the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Russia was excluded from the G8, with the group reverting, symbolically, to G7. The US and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia, characterizing Putin’s Russia (as both president and prime minister) as a despotic state and gross abuser of human rights, cementing Russian kinship with the African states that had also suffered such vilifications from the West. These global and regional events drove Russia to increase the prioritization of its relations with Africa. 

As noted earlier, the new Russian policy in Africa is driven primarily by geo-economic interests. Russia has continued to strengthen its traditional armaments deals with African states and trade in military equipment constitutes more than 50 per cent of Russia’s trade with Africa. During the Sochi summit of 2019, military hardware dominated the exhibitions. Russia has also diversified into energy and mining, with its big extractive industry giants like Gazprom, Alrosa, Rosatom, and Rosneft leading the charge. Currently, these and other Kremlin-linked companies have acquired deals and are operating in Angola, Algeria, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe among other African states.

While the investments are still comparatively very low at US$17.4 billion as of 2017 (ten and four times less than Chinese and US investment in the same period), what is important is Russian investment is not as encumbered as western investment, which is typically tied with political conditionalities. Russia has no colonial baggage in Africa, having in fact contributed to the anticolonial struggle on the continent. Russia, therefore, could claim a moral high ground against the West. Russia can also have an edge over China given that Chinese investment in Africa has been tarnished by allegations that it is loading Africa with unsustainable debt while failing to create enough employment or transfer technology.

The Age of Independence?

Some international political theorists have characterized the current era as the age of interdependence. Be it as it may, subjecting international relations to a strict application of the theory of imperialism reveals the warped relations that characterize imperialism. Financial capital, for instance, is still seen as the most important export from the major powers to the global south, especially to Africa. This picture is complicated by the fact that some countries in the global south have grown to become major economic powers whose capital moves not only in the south but also to the global north. China, for example, is now contesting with the United States for global dominance in all major spheres. The movement of capital and the increased interests in Africa by the major economic powers (old and new), has been characterized by the western powers as the new imperialism and a new scramble for Africa. Such a characterization invites more questions than answers. Was there ever a break in the movement of monopoly capital? What can be discerned from the western argument is a cynical scaremongering that seeks to keep Africa within its orbit by equating the current actions of the East (Russia and China) with the barely acknowledged ills of the West’s history in Africa. 

Nevertheless, Russia’s involvement (and by extension, that of other eastern powers like China and India) in Africa is not a one-way relationship. African states keen to use foreign assistance to pursue domestic mandates are grateful for an alternative they can negotiate as a counterbalance to the West’s domineering attitude. These eastern powers provide this alternative, as well as the requisite muscle to act as a genuine counterbalance. But as with global monopoly capital, there are legitimate fears of exploitation. Russia’s relationship with Africa has not evolved to the exploitative stage, which gives it great room to increase its cooperation with various African states and supplant both the old and new nexuses of dominance. Given that the 2019 Sochi Summit was a statement of intent, the potential future of Russian engagement—between beneficial investments and dominant imperialistic investments—is still to manifest and will always require careful monitoring and sober analysis

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