The Dynamic Evolution of Russo-African Relations Africa’s Struggle for Agency in a New Power Tussle

Russia is on a charm offensive in Africa and seeks to position itself as a strategic alternative to America’s global hegemony, China’s opaque economic diplomacy, and the dark legacies of Africa’s former colonizers.

At the Berlin conference of 1884-1885, powerful European nations effectively decided Africa’s destiny without its knowledge, consent or participation. The conference was set up to help the participant-nations resolve their conflicting interests in Africa without resorting to a violent confrontation. The result of the conference was the colonization of Africa. Although trading routes between African coastal cities and the western world had been established as early as the 1400s, only 20 per cent of Africa was formally occupied by Western powers as of 1884. Africa presented an invaluable opportunity for Western imperialist nations to expand their territories and influence while also enriching themselves by exploiting Africa’s mineral-rich land. The end game was largely two-fold: increasing wealth and global influence. By 1914, over 90 per cent of Africa was under European control. 

Of all the participants in the Berlin conference, the Imperial Russian Empire ostensibly emerged without having any African colony to its name. This was largely because the Imperial Russian Empire already had substantial territory under its control and had no real incentive to launch an African expedition. While other powerful European empires typically conducted intercontinental naval expeditions to claim new lands, the Russian Empire expanded by stretching its borders outwards to accommodate new territories, and at its peak had acquired 14 million square miles of land stretching across Europe, Asia, and North America.

Two Power Blocs and a Three-way Romance

Russia’s influence in Africa grew dramatically from the 1950s-1960s, during Africa’s ‘decolonization’ era. This coincided with the peak of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Post-World War II Europe was war-torn and economically stretched. European superpowers such as England, France and Germany were the weakest they had been in centuries and this had major effects on global geopolitical dynamics. On the one hand, the US saw a weakened Europe as an opportunity to assert itself as the de facto new world superpower and use its new political influence to spread capitalist-democratic ideals and liberal hegemony around the globe. The Soviet Union continued to exert its dominance by spreading its Marxist-Leninist ideals across Eastern Europe, Asia and parts of Africa. US-Soviet Union tensions reached unprecedented highs as each nation saw the other as a serious threat to their politico-economic ideals and international prominence.

Conversely, a weakened European economy sparked widespread agitations for self-rulership amongst African nations colonized by Europe. Africa’s push for liberation from Western colonial powers and its allies provided an opportunity for the Soviet Union to influence the political destiny of Africa and challenge Western domination in ways it was unable to do in the 1800s. The nature of the tension observed between the triad of African states, their former colonizers and the Soviet Union is succinctly summarized in a paragraph from a declassified report from Russia’s Foreign Intelligence archives:

The 1960s proved themselves to be a ‘hot’ decade both for young African nations and Soviet foreign intelligence. African countries that had just been liberated immediately encountered harsh confrontation with their former metropoles, who sought to maintain political and economic positions in their former colonies. In a number of cases, this led to the emergence of crisis situations, such as in the former Belgian Congo, for instance. Coups d’état that occurred with the interference of Western powers and their intelligence services—accompanied by internecine conflicts, tribal feuds, and civil wars—became a habitual phenomenon.

The Soviet Union managed to identify itself with the rising tide of nationalist movements springing up around Africa and provided military and logistical assistance to anti-imperialist and pro-communist forces in several African countries, including Algeria, Angola, Cape Verde, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Madagascar, Sao Tome & Principe, and Tanzania. The continent of Africa ipso facto became an arena of ideological and political confrontation between the Eastern and Western power blocs, with the West arguably coming out on top, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

A Cold Shoulder: Post-Soviet-Era Relations

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian influence on the African continent all but halted completely. Several embassies and consulates were closed. Personnel subordinated to African missions from the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were drastically reduced and Russian cultural institutions were shut down. Most importantly, economic relations between African states and Russia were unilaterally terminated, with the then-Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, declaring that Russia’s policy of foreign aid would be halted and asking African countries to repay their debts thereby worsening Africa’s already dire debt crisis. Most of this debt would remain unpaid until current President Vladimir Putin, wrote off debt in excess of US$20 billion, a move he described as not only an act of generosity but also a manifestation of pragmatism.

Official diplomatic relations between African states and Russia were virtually non-existent from 1991 till the beginning of the millennium. All this while, the European Union and the US continued to deepen ties with Africa through weapons treaties, trade deals, cultural exchange programmes and other forms of strategic aid. Notably, within this time, China, an emerging world power, challenged the EU-US commercial duopoly in Africa, eventually surpassing the US to become Africa’s biggest trade partner in 2009.

Russia’s Unfinished Business in Africa

Although Russia’s growing interest in Africa has been noticeable since the mid-2000s, the Russia-Africa summit held in Sochi in 2019 in which 43 of Africa’s 54 national leaders were present, displayed a new palpable urgency in Russia’s strategy to deepen ties with Africa. It is impossible to understand Russia’s interest in Africa without understanding the contextual motivations of its current and longest-standing president, Vladimir Putin. Having experienced the Soviet Union’s golden age of influence in the 70s and 80s as an agent of the Soviet secret police force—the KGB—Putin watched in dismay as that influence began to wane, eventually resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He would later describe the event as ‘the major geopolitical catastrophe of the century’. 

The emergent Russian Federation floundered in economic ruin and lost the political relevance and influence it once enjoyed globally. On becoming president in 1999, Putin inherited a bleeding economy and a deflated national ego but managed to turn things around. In his first two terms as president, Russia recorded eight straight years of economic growth and steadily regained some of its global political clout. Putin’s presidency has been a slow but steady mission to re-establish Russia as a dominant and influential power and as a challenger to Western political ideologies, much like it was in the Soviet era. With the tide of ethnic nationalism rapidly spreading across the West—beginning with President Trump’s America First policy and nationalist ideologies playing a major role in Britain’s decision to leave the EU—Russia has met a golden opportunity to carve a niche for itself and stake a claim for an appreciable share of the global influence previously enjoyed exclusively by Central Europe and the US. 

A New Scramble for Africa: Moscow’s Game Plan

Africa is currently estimated to consist of 1.2 billion people and is projected to rise to 2.5 billion in the next 30 years. By 2050, 25 per cent of the world’s population will be African. Economically, Africa’s growth is second only to Asia’s and continues to trend upward, with a young workforce and rapidly expanding industrialization. The continent also retains its importance in having the world’s richest concentration of natural and mineral resources, many of which are essential in driving various multi-billion-dollar industries around the world. The diamond industry for example was worth an estimated US$25 billion as at 2018 and Africa accounts for around 35 per cent of global diamond reserves. Other minerals like bauxite, cobalt and phosphate rocks—for which African reserves rank first or second globally—are key raw materials in the aluminium, aerospace and fertilizer manufacturing industries.

Russia’s resurgence as a dominant force on the global stage is inextricably linked to the quality of its relationship with Africa. Russia appears to be thinking even beyond the obvious strategic benefits of securing proximity to Africa’s mineral resources. Following its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, western nations led by the US imposed strict economic sanctions on Russia. Though the Russian economy managed to survive this near-disastrous situation, Russia has since been actively expanding its search for potential partners in efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its allies in international organisations. Africa accounts for about one-quarter of member states in the United Nations and backing from African countries on key UN votes can help Russia avoid similar economic and political sanctions in the future—or, at the very least, soften the blow of diplomatic isolation from the West.

Russia is on a charm offensive in Africa and seeks to position itself as a strategic alternative to America’s global hegemony, China’s opaque economic diplomacy, and the dark legacies of Africa’s former colonizers. Like the Soviet Union previously, contemporary Russia has opportunistically tried to exploit its lack of participation in the colonization of Africa to its advantage—as it continues to portray western interference in African affairs as a form of neo-colonialism.

Africa as Agents in the New Scramble

Nearly two centuries ago, when a group of 14 European nations sat at a table to carve up African land between themselves, it was not because they had Africa’s best interests at heart. Similarly, the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union in Africa occurred not because of altruistic concerns from either party for African nations, but as an attempt from the world’s two biggest powers to prevent the other from achieving unilateral domination. Even China’s generous loans have entangled many nations in a debt trap that will be difficult to escape. African nations must, therefore, see beyond the flattery and view this fresh wave of foreign interest with a degree of cautious scepticism. 

As a continent that many times has had its sovereignty compromised and its political destiny influenced by the Middle East, North America and Europe, renewed interest in Africa presents an opportunity for African nations to work towards achieving socio-economic parity with the rest of the world. Ironically, most contemporary discussions around Africa’s agency vis-à-vis its contributions to and benefits from international relations and global politics still come primarily from external sources. Even within the recent ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, African states and their citizens had little input towards their own public perception in the global community. Despite the great progress made over the past few decades in redeeming Africa—from the narrow-minded perception that the continent is nothing but a war-torn, catastrophe-prone and poverty-stricken ‘scar on the conscience of the world’—Africa continues to be perceived ‘not as an actor, but acted upon, not as a historical agent, just history’s recipient.’ This perception needs to change.

African agency as described by researcher, Roseline Achieng, is ‘How people who identify as African have managed through making conscious choices, to change their structures…especially contextual structures that confine/oppress them.’ To the extent that this definition is at least approximately true, a robust approach to African agency should explore not only how African states as political entities can interact with other participants in the global community to ensure favourable outcomes, it should also explore how these ‘outcomes’ benefit the vast majority of the African people on whose behalf the governments are acting. Summarily, strategies towards the attainment of African agency should ensure both national and individual autonomy for African nations and their citizens respectively.

A Stronger Local for a Competitive Global

Rally cries for a more united African front have gone on for decades. However, a commitment to increased diplomatic and economic collaboration between African nations is arguably more critical now than ever before. A 2019 World Economic Forum report published showed that intra-African exports accounted for just 16.6 per cent of total exports, compared with 68 per cent in Europe and 59 per cent in Asia. A commitment to reducing the barriers in trade between African nations will strengthen product value chains and foster technology diffusion and knowledge sharing across the continent while simultaneously stimulating infrastructural development.

The establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA)—the world’s largest free trade area—is a good step towards achieving the ‘economic unity’ essential for ensuring that Africa’s economic growth is no longer heavily dependent on outside investment. This development has also come with renewed agitations for members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other regional blocs to adopt a common currency. Sceptics have warned that a unified currency is not a magic wand for boosting intra-regional trade—citing the fact that the region is particularly volatile economically and politically. Despite this, a single currency would go a long way in insulating ECOWAS member-states from the vulnerability associated with shocks in commodity prices such as oil. To illustrate just how devastating this exposure can be, the sharp fall in global oil prices as a result of the combined effects of the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia and the COVID-19 pandemic is going to cost Nigeria around US$9 billion in revenue. This anticipated loss in earnings has forced the Nigerian government to revise its annual national budget, with obvious adverse effects on the nation’s growth and development projections. These disruptions might have been avoided or at least buffered if the region had a unified currency.

Similarly, a currency union would give the ECOWAS and other subregions greater economic influence in global trade, potentially boosting collective regional infrastructural development, job creation and helping secure better investment terms with Russia and other global powers.

Transparent Foreign Policy

Considering that Africa is a heterogeneous continent made up of unique and culturally diverse nations, Africa must put up a united front against the looming threat of economic neo-colonialism. The power imbalance between African nations and world powers like Russia is huge. Individual and secretive diplomatic negotiations between African nations and the developed world will invariably leave African nations open to exploitation. Instead, synergy in foreign policy strategy among African nations should be encouraged, as this is more likely to lead to fiscally responsible deals with foreign nations.

African leaders must also realize that they do not have to choose sides, as was the case during the Cold War. Provided the proposals are fair and transparent, they can do business with Western democracies and with China and Russia. In principle, African nations should be able to negotiate more beneficial bargains with international trading partners now that several countries are openly competing for African resources. Africa’s biggest trading partner, China, has become notorious for strategically tying its loans to infrastructure, with the intention of taking possession of the infrastructure asset if there is a default on the loan repayment. Zambia recently fell victim to this debt-trap. In late 2018 the Zambian Government was in talks with China to forfeit control of the Zambian state electricity company, ZESCO, as a form of debt repayment for defaulting on a number of Chinese loans. China is already in control of the country’s broadcasting company, the ZNBC. These stringent and exploitative terms presented to African nations for receiving loans need no longer continue. Now that Russian has pledged to double its trade with Africa in the next five years, African nations are in stronger positions to negotiate better terms for foreign direct investment. 

The Fourth Arm of Government

A common thread across most of Africa is how the wholesale expropriation of resources generates wealth for African elites, multinational companies in the private sector, and foreign governments, but hardly ever for the masses. This situation fuels corruption and impunity from public officials, as the government’s reliance on resource revenue and not taxation means they can insulate themselves from accountability to their people. All efforts to improve the nature of Africa’s relationship with the international community will be futile if such efforts do not facilitate the process of structural transformation required to provide economic stability for its most vulnerable citizens.

Civil society, independent media and social activists have an important role to play in demanding such stability, and in ensuring that economic growth benefits African people and not just political leaders and business elites. The power of this ‘fourth arm of government’ to decentralize information, elicit social change and encourage accountability is more pronounced now than ever before. In 2018, for instance, fearless and responsible journalism in Kenya helped expose the massive corruption that mired land allocation in a Chinese funded three-billion-dollar railway project. Similarly, two South African activists working for small NGOs took the South African government to court regarding a dubious seventy-six-billion-dollar nuclear deal with Russia, on the grounds that negotiations were kept secret and an agreement was reached without parliamentary debate. After the activists lobbied and protested for almost two years, a high court in Cape Town voided the nuclear deal in 2017, declaring it unlawful and unconstitutional.

Re-establishing Africa’s Sovereignty

African nations will not reverse the effects of centuries of slave trade, colonialism and systematic exclusion from global trade in one fell swoop. However, amidst the changing geopolitical dynamics facilitated by the new scramble for Africa and the major disruptions in global trade brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, now is as good a time as ever for Africa to begin to re-establish its sovereignty over its land, resources and politics.

Russia’s influence on the African continent will continue to expand in the next few years. Rather than signal the beginning of another wave of political and economic manipulation, Russia’s resolve to increase its footprint in Africa—regardless of the motives behind the move—actually gives Africa greater leverage within the international community. This strategic leverage, if maximized, can hasten Africa’s drive for true political and economic self-determination and guarantee that Africa has a substantial influence on global geopolitics. 

The path towards reclaiming Africa’s agency will be arduous and will require honesty, patience and long-term thinking from African leaders. As a policy analyst, Angelle Kwemo, put it, ‘The future of the African trade regime depends more on what Africa will negotiate and not on what Africa deserves’. Africa’s success or failure in its struggle for agency is contingent on the improvement of intra-African trade, the establishment of a unified foreign policy front and a collective responsibility by citizens of African nations towards safeguarding their commonwealth—by ensuring that public servants are transparent and accountable to those they represent. If these can be achieved, then Africa might avoid being a pawn in the latest version of the geopolitical chess game, and the continent can begin to make strides towards achieving competitive parity with the rest of the world

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