The Same Old Game Africa’s Opportunity in the New Scramble for the Continent

Over a hundred years ago, it was Europe monopolizing influence in Africa. Decades ago, it was the Soviet Union and China scrambling for spheres of influence. Now, Russia is set to make a comeback—will its motives be any different?

One hundred and thirty-six years after the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 fired up the first scramble for Africa, global players are repositioning themselves for a second round. The original European heavyweights (such as the United Kingdom, France, Portugal and Germany) and new partners (such as the United States and China) will move to consolidate their spheres as they face greater competition from new players at the table, including Russia. Western European countries, the United States and China dominate African markets, and newcomer Russia will need to work hard to break through the already saturated markets. Russia will also need to tread cautiously to ensure it does not seize market share at the expense of diplomatic relations with older players and its own economy.

Russia might just pull it off. As Olga Kulkova highlights in an article for Foreign Policy, in Russia’s return to the African continent, ‘there are still some elites across the continent that have ties to the Soviet era, but the next generation doesn’t have the same links to Russia as before. So, we need to take the opportunity to return now while there are still people with connections.’ This return is welcomed by African countries for different reasons. The Soviet Union fostered goodwill, national liberation movements and anti-colonial sentiment towards the ‘decolonization’ of African countries, including the supply of military equipment. There is also the salient appreciation of the fact that Soviet Union did not attempt to colonize African countries, thereby strengthening Russia’s credibility as a safe business partner. In addition, the Soviet Union invested heavily in the education and training of Africans before its collapse in 1991—many of whom have returned to strategic positions in their home countries. 

Leadership and timing have also been critical factors in Russia’s renewed interest in Africa. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia in economic turmoil, but Vladimir Putin’s presidency has turned the tide. Russian-African trade has increased substantially in the last decade, with Russia investing as much as US$20 billion across multiple projects in 2013. Putin’s leadership has also seen a substantial amount of African debt steadily written off in the last decade: Tanzania in the early 2000s, Madagascar in 2015, Mozambique in 2017 and Ethiopia in 2019. At the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, President Putin announced over $20 billion African debt had been written off, stressing Russia’s commitment to development in Africa. The summit itself was an opportunity to strengthen ties with African leaders and delegate, broker bilateral deals and reinforce that cooperation between Russia and Africa was ‘strategic and longstanding’. These ties have been renewed at an opportune moment for Russia, as relations between Africa and other global superpowers, including the United States, have become strained. Despite announcing the New Africa Strategy in 2018 and even describing Chinese and Russian activity on the continent as ‘predatory’, implementation by the Trump administration has been lacklustre. A year later, the same administration expanded travel restrictions to four African countries, which will undoubtedly impact African economies, perceptions of the United States and affect nearly a quarter of Africa’s 1.2 billion population.

Russia has premised its interests on ‘a combination of geo-economic and geopolitical calculations’ and already gained some ground in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), South Africa and Sudan through natural resource extraction. In the DRC, partnerships with Russian companies have focused on geographical exploration, mineral extraction and processing, and infrastructure projects such as railway construction. Russian companies are also heavily involved in mineral extraction in South Africa, including Renova Group which focuses on the exploration and production of manganese ore and silicon manganese. 

The supply of military equipment has been another way in for Russia, evident in its activities in the countries above. Increased terrorism, cybercrime and civil unrest have driven the need to strengthen African military forces and Russia, like the Soviet Union in the past, has stepped in to provide discounted arms and military training. Russia has offered 200 military experts and hundreds of weapons as a military aid to weaken militia groups in CAR, and has already signed military cooperation agreements with over 20 African countries. Sudan was the second largest buyer of Russian arms in 2017, and before being ousted in 2019, President al-Bashir granted a Russian mining company preferential access to the country’s gold reserves. Russian influence in Sudan remains strong—the succeeding regime reassured Russia of the security of its substantial investments and aims to boost defence technology cooperation with Russia. The activities of Russian mercenaries in CAR’s internal affairs do not go unnoticed either. According to an article in The Africa Report, private security company Wagner ‘provides more than a thousand instructors to the Central African Republic, ensures the security of various institutions, and plays a leading role in the training of the Presidential Guard and the army.’ Last year, Russia delivered warplanes to South Africa in an effort to strengthen military cooperation.

Over a hundred years ago, it was Europe monopolizing influence in Africa. Decades ago, it was the Soviet Union and China scrambling for spheres of influence. Now, Russia is set to make a comeback—will its motives be any different?

No Friends, Just Interests

Many political leaders have asserted that nations have no friends, just interests. Global superpowers have always sought a strategic alliance with African countries for their own interests. ‘Talk of a new Cold War may be premature’, according to J. Peter Pham, but the political landscape does invoke memories of past rivalry for Africa among the Soviet Union, the United States and China. In its renewed interest, does Russia plan to follow the Soviet Union’s legacy of tenacity in global movements, and rise to rival the United States again?

From 1945–1989, the Soviet Union established itself as a centralized state-controlled political economy and its influence spilled over into China, Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa. For the Soviet Union to further establish itself as a superpower, it was important for more economies to adopt communism and in January 1949, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was established. China took its cue from its northern neighbour and also adopted Marxism-Leninism. This Marxist ideology contrasted with the liberal democratic institutions and capitalism embraced by the United States and Western Europe. To protect their capitalist interests and maintain the world capitalist system, the United States and Western Europe synergized to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in April 1949. NATO’s aim was to maintain a defence anchor against future pressure from the Soviet Union and indirectly keep communism at bay. In response, the Soviet Union established its own military pact in May 1955: the Warsaw Treaty Organization.

The Soviet Union saw a potential ally in Africa—propagating socialism to African countries would help establish an international socialist system, increase the Soviet Union’s ‘sphere of influence’ and grant access to raw materials such as copper, rubber, diamonds, oil and cobalt. A 2004 CIA declassified file on Soviet involvement in Africa reported, ‘the Soviet Union wants to ensure access to any African raw materials it may need and position itself to deny or restrict Western access should Soviet policy makers decide it is necessary.’ For the newly independent African countries, the Soviet Union was supposedly a beacon of hope offering economic, diplomatic and military aid to empower African revolutionaries exploring socialism as an alternative to the capitalist legacies from colonial masters. Kwame Nkrumah, the first Ghanaian President, sought investments from the West before increasingly shifting focus to the Soviet Union; he even attempted to introduce socialism in Ghana. Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso banned International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and instituted a socialist economy. Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) looked to the Soviet Union for military intervention when the Congolese army was usurped by Mobutu Sese Seko, after a swift response from the United Nations seemed unlikely. Unfortunately, the dreams of socialism for these countries died with those leaders. 

 Ultimately, there were many factors that determined the extent of Soviet influence and the adoption of socialism in Africa. In ‘Soviet involvement in Africa’, Abbott Brayton argues that African countries with political instability and lower socio-economic development experienced greater Soviet penetration. Conversely, countries that Brayton described as ‘fairly stable’ were generally resistant, including Ghana (after the ousting of Nkrumah), Nigeria and Morocco. The case of Angola is pertinent to the discussion of socialism and Soviet influence in Africa, as it demonstrates how additional factors influenced the outcome of socialism. 

After Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1975, both political instability and low socio-economic development made Angola an attractive target for the Soviet Union. The coalition government had promptly disintegrated as a result of the irreconcilable interests and ideology of three revolutionary groups: the National Liberation Front of Angola, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola supported by China and the United States, and lastly, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The MPLA, identifying as a socialist party, received strong backing from the Soviet Union and was flooded with military aid. This aid furthered the success of the MPLA and militization but not socialism itself. 

As highlighted in Jeremy Bervoet’s article, Soviet Union and Angola History’, the Soviet Union failed to recognize that the civil war was driven by ethnic tensions and Angolans would relate less with the ‘socialist ideas of class struggle and industrialization’. Another highlighted issue was that Soviet financial aid was dependent on requirements that Angola would struggle to meet at the time. Bervoet explains, ‘in order to receive Soviet aid, the Angolan government had to have shown significant progress in industrializing its economy, nationalized its industries, instituted land ownership reforms, developed readiness among its people to support a cultural revolution, and established a vanguard party in alliance with countries of similar ideology.’ For Angola, then a predominantly rural society plagued by years of civil war, these requirements were utopian. There was also that despite the Soviet Union’s initial push for Angola to sever ties with the West, the Soviet Union had less financial aid to offer and could not singlehandedly support Angola’s economic development. While Angola declared itself a socialist country, Oye Ogunbadejo asserts, ‘it was non-aligned in economic matters, open to receiving aid from both the USSR and the United States.’ The two sources of aid served different purposes: Soviet military aid was channelled towards efforts to quell uprisings and retain the seat of power, and financial aid from the West furthered Angola’s socio-economic development. By the late 1980s, it was clear that socialism could not satisfy Angola’s interests and Soviet interest subsequently waned.

Rivalry for Resources

The competition for African resources continues today but countries now rely on strategic partnerships to access these resources. Russia and the United Kingdom hosted summits focused on relations with African countries in October 2019 and January 2020 respectively. France had planned to hold a similar summit in June 2020, but this has been postponed to 2021 in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The 2019 Russia-Africa Summit cost Russia approximately US$70 million, a hefty investment and indication of how much value Russia places on strengthening ties, and the long meetings between Putin and some African leaders suggest a potential reshuffling of global power politics. As far as foreign policy is concerned, there are arguments that ‘this fits into broader Russian foreign policy where Moscow is following opportunities and posturing to be seen as a global power.’ There are additional concerns that Russia seeks to ‘strong-arm the US and the former colonial powers, the UK and France out of the region’. Strong ties with African countries could also influence how African countries vote in the UN and other international bodies, potentially in Russia’s favour.

Nonetheless, Russia intends to tread with care and hold on to its few strongholds in Africa: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and South Africa. Russia has a strong relationship with South Africa in particular, with both countries belonging to the BRICS group and Russian interests in South African mining, oil, gas, and petro-chemical sectors. Rosatom, one of Russia’s major mining companies, has engaged South Africa, Ukraine, Finland, Turkey and the United Kingdom in nuclear energy deals and is determined to dominate in this field. The company has already signed a nuclear energy generation agreement with South Africa to increase nuclear capacity from 1.8 to 11.4 gigawatts over the next 15 years. Theoretically, local industries should benefit from such a feat, but, in ‘Relevance in the Age of Globalization: Russia in Africa through South Africa’, Lere Amusan argues ‘Russia, as a member of BRICS, is interested in the mineral extraction industry in South Africa as against setting up manufacturing companies that may ensure multiplier effects in terms of employment opportunity through value added and beneficiation.’ When we consider that Russia is yet to set up factories to boost employment in South Africa, its largest partner, the thought of it setting up manufacturing companies elsewhere in Africa (where it has less interests) seems almost wishful. Peter Pham further argued that Russia’s investments in mineral resources seek to monopolize world commodity markets and ensure a steady source of raw materials for its own local industries.

Although the spotlight often falls on the superpower rivalry between Russia and the United States, Russia’s toughest competitor in Africa is a different superpower: China. Sino-Russian relations have blossomed substantially since the 1950s, and both countries share an anti-colonial history with Africa. In the early 1960s, Premier Zhou Enlai defined the principles that would characterize China’s relationship with Africa: friendship, equality, mutual benefit and non-interference. An IDE-JETRO article described how the construction of the Tanzania-Zambia (TAZARA) railway in the 1970s symbolized China’s contribution to African economic development (undoubtedly an important signal to African countries at the time). China has invested in its relationship with African countries consistently since then; China-Africa summits over the last 20 years have arguably inspired the ‘Africa-Plus-One’ summits, including the Russia-Africa Summit last year. China established Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2000 and has achieved significant impact in sub-Saharan Africa: trade increased from US$10 billion in 2000 to US$199 billion in 2012. 

In 2011 alone, 68 per cent of China’s exports to Africa were machinery or transportation equipment, and manufactured goods. Even Angola is now one of China’s key trading partners in Africa; 32 per cent of China’s 2012 oil imports were from Angola in return for investments in infrastructural projects and mining. Comparing this exchange to Russia’s trade relationship with South Africa highlights a less mutually beneficial trade relationship. Russia’s activities in South Africa are predominantly mineral extraction and uranium supply for nuclear energy generation that are critical for Russia’s home industries and development. In return, South Africa exports solid minerals and sea food to Russia, revenue from which contributes significantly less to South Africa’s economic sector. 

China’s investments in Africa are significantly more diverse and mature than Russia’s. Since building the Tanzania-Zambia railway, China has been busy. In sub-Saharan Africa, Chinese Civil Engineering construction companies now dominate the infrastructure sector, carrying out multi-million-dollar road/railway construction and hydropower generation projects. Examples include the Abuja Rail Mass Transit System and Lagos-Kano line in Nigeria, the Benguela Railway line project in Angola and the Nouakchott-Bofal railroad in Mauritania and contracts to construct roads in Sudan, Angola, Ethiopia and Botswana. Perhaps the most ambitious project so far is to build the transnational railway, New Silk Road, to link sub-Saharan Africa regional terminals to Suez and Djibouti. 

Hydro-electric water supply projects contribute to China’s infrastructure footprint in Africa, including constructions of the Congo River Dam in the Republic of Congo and the Bui Dam in Ghana. Contracts have been signed to build a 20-megawatt hydroelectric power plant in Kenya, a power plant in Zambia and the Poubara hydropower dam project alongside Belinga Iron Ore project in Gabon. Furthermore, Chinese goods and services such as android phones, phone accessories, electronics and IT solutions are increasingly popular with African consumers, which has encouraged more Chinese entrepreneurial start-ups, Chinese privately owned investments and a growing influx of Chinese nationals to set up shop on the continent. Another positive by-product has been greater cultural exchange. In 2017, 13 per cent of international students in Chinese universities were African compared two per cent in 2003. African traders regularly travel to China for business while others emigrate in search of better opportunities, with the majority settling in Guandong. In addition, the popularity of Chinese movies in African households has inspired some Africans to learn Chinese dialects.

The success and scale of China’s activity in Africa since the Cold War ended present a sizeable challenge to Russia’s success on the continent. China and Russia are both driven by the usual motive—economic power – but China has made more progress in maturing, subtly navigating with the terrain to establish itself as Africa’s largest partner. It also understands the importance of ‘soft power’ and fostering goodwill: China built the new African Union Complex in Addis Ababa at a cost of US$200 million and attracts more African students with scholarships. Russia must, therefore, work diligently to bridge the gap.

The 2019 Bilateral Trade Statistics are also an important reflection of the impact both countries have on economic activity in Africa. Africa’s exports to China were valued at US$75.2 billion while its imports from China stood at US$105.6 billion. This resulted in Africa’s trade deficit of US$30.4 billion. Africa’s exports to Russia stood significantly lower at US$2.1 billion; its imports from Russia were valued at US$15.2 billion. This gave Africa another trade deficit just over US$13 billion. The figures above are comparatively high when we consider that Africa had a global trade deficit of US$82.5 billion. 

Focusing on Nigeria’s trade statistics with Russia and China for the same period is equally illuminating. Nigeria had a sizeable trade deficit of US$737 million from trade with Russia—a significant loss of potential domestic capital to a single country—and an even larger trade deficit of $10.4 billion from trade with China. These are only the official statistics; informal economies and black markets would undoubtably widen disparities. A salient point to call out is that African exports are predominantly raw materials later imported to Africa as diverse finished goods. Raw materials are quite cheap when compared to revenue accrued from varieties of finished goods; value is enhanced through manufacturing. Trade with Russia and China typically results in trade deficits for African countries and, if the roles were reversed, it is hard to believe either country would accept such trading disparities.

A Seat at the Table

History has shown that each player in the scramble for African resources will likely act in their own interests. Press releases for the different ‘Africa-plus-One’ summits typically include photos of smiling world leaders shaking hands, broad outlines of bilateral deals, and promises to prioritize development in Africa. The ‘plus one’ country (ironically), be it Russia, China or the United States, ultimately drives the agenda to secure access to raw materials, international ‘goodwill’ and political clout but what do African countries gain in reality? As discussed earlier, there is an implicit imbalance in the value of African exports versus imports, often resulting in trade deficits for African countries. Long-term projects may be stalled and not always have the expected multiplier effect in local communities. The stark reality is that the development promised at these summits does not always translate to development on the continent. To truly protect and assert their own interests and ensure bilateral deals are fair, African countries must join the table as equals. Africa must be intentional in this new scramble for its resources and drive the agenda. 

Inadequate and poorly designed social and economic infrastructure within African countries, from business procedural bottlenecks to civil service inefficiencies, truncates local partners’ capacity to woo potential investors. It is pertinent that African countries look inward to strengthen their own economies and socio-economic factors, and address issues including partisan politics, underlying ethnicism and bigotry, accountability and systemic corruption. One area of focus is advancing human capital—any host wishing to bargain favourably and intelligently must have an impeccable education system and rational organization of labour in place. Most African students assimilate theoretical knowledge but lack the practical/technical skills that should serve as leverage during negotiations. Consequently, the skillset of the local workforce is not aligned to the skillset required for ‘the hundreds of job opportunities’ promised by the bilateral projects, and foreign partners end up filling the jobs created with their own technical officers and manpower. This problem could be alleviated by negotiating training and apprenticeship programs into agreements, giving the local workforce the opportunity to learn on the job, particularly for technical roles. This also emphasizes the importance of the bilateral agreements themselves; contractual terms are key and must be mutually beneficial. African governments and the local elite must prioritize and advocate for public interest in local businesses, infrastructure and industry considering depleting natural resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented undoubtable challenges as governments everywhere scramble to protect their citizens and economies. African governments declared stay-at-home orders at the height of the pandemic but have been forced to ease lockdown restrictions with insufficient reserves, rising unemployment and small-scale businesses closures. An alarming number of African countries applied for loans and, fortunately, the IMF and African Development Bank have responded swiftly with debt relief and grants. To evaluate the success of these funds reaching the common people, it is pertinent to take Nigeria as a case study. In addition to a US$3.4 billion loan from the IMF, Nigeria also received a €50 million donation from the European Union to ease the financial crises of many poor households. The process of distributing these funds to those in need, however, has been challenging. The Central Bank of Nigeria’s N50 billion Targeted Credit Facility requires households and SMEs to complete multiple online forms to secure the COVID-19 stimulus package and some requirements in these forms have acted as bottlenecks for members of the working class. The overall ineffectiveness of the process has prompted a resolution to investigate the facility’s shortcomings and emphasized the need for greater effort in championing and supervising welfare schemes. On the other hand, the COVID-19 lockdown has also presented opportunities and urgency for internal restructuring and developing local industry. One impact of the pandemic has been the spotlight on domestic supply chains; local demand must be met by local supply as imported good reserves wane. Another impact has been on the ability of people to physically relocate. Brain drains have been a persistent challenge for African countries, and global lockdown restrictions present a unique opportunity for governments to engage intellectuals and skilled workers who can no longer physically move in search of better opportunities. If there was ever a time to focus on boosting domestic production and stimulate local economies, this is it.

Aside from developing within their own borders, it is critical for African countries to present a united front to maximize their negotiating power and learn to leverage their own relationships for Africa as a continent. We have advantages that our predecessors did not have during the first scramble—our regional economic blocs, the African Development Bank, the African Union and other African institutions established to promote African diverse and collective interests. These institutions have the power to enforce regional and continental policies to place local partners on equal footing with their foreign counterparts and protect the interests of investors and local labour alike. However, as Dr Paul Tembe asserted during a 2017 Africa-China policy symposium, we must remain conscious that African countries have different contexts and challenges that have shaped their journeys so far. It is thus important that strategies and policies consider these nuances to be effective across the continent. Additionally, Africans everywhere must be able to rally round in support of the united front. The new scramble for Africa remains the same old game—global superpowers seeking to use African resources to further their interests and strengthen their economies. What is new in this age of greater enlightenment, however, is the benefit of hindsight and the chance for Africa to change the game

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