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Thoughts On Africa’s New Bromance With Putin’s Russia

By Caleb Onyeabor/Special to The African Times-USA

Between 1884-1885 in Berlin, European powers met to partition the African continent and share it among themselves in what has been infamously known as the Scramble-for-Africa.  One hundred and thirty-eight years after, the scramble for Africa is still on. As a matter of fact, we are all witnessing the second scramble for Africa now in full bloom.

Unlike the first scramble, the second scramble of this turf war in Africa has seen more bidders coming to the table, especially countries from the Eastern bloc. In today’s scramble for Africa, the Africans at least have been given a seat at the table.

For centuries, Africa has been like the beautiful bride courted by many suitors. And the newest suitor seeking Africa’s hand in marriage is Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

For close to a decade, Russia has been strategically targeting the continent with an eye at the expansion of her influence and power in Africa. This could be part of the expansionary plan of Russia which seeks to re-assert herself as a major power player ready to challenge the global hegemony of the American-led Western bloc. To achieve her goal, Africa has become a veritable and inevitable destination.

Following in the footsteps of other ‘scramblers’, in 2019, Russia held the first Russia-Africa Summit which was held in Sochi, Russia and co-hosted by President Vladimir Putin and Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah El-sisi. In that summit, 43 heads of states or Government showed up. The highlight  of the summit was Putin’s speech that emphasized the sovereignty of African nations and Russian willingness to offer aid or trade deals without any political or economic strings attached. Official sources confirmed that 92 bilateral agreements were signed between Russia and African nations that were in attendance

Recently, the second Russia-Africa Summit which just ended in Moscow where Russia engaged 19 African countries in days of talk to ’strengthen’ relations between the continent and Russia even in the face of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.     

For pundits and watchers of this evolving romance between Russia and Africa, the logical questions on the minds and lips of most Africans is:  “What does Russia want from Africa? And what can Russia offer Africa”? Lessons from history however in this type of relationship makes for caution and skepticism.

There are some extenuating facts that make Russia’s pronouncement of aid and assistance to Africa economically plausible, sometime dubious, and at same time doubtful. First off, Russia has a GDP of 1.776 trillion dollars while Africa has a 2.96 trillion dollars GDP. In terms of GDP, Africa is bigger than Russia by over a trillion dollars. How therefore will a smaller assist the bigger?

If President Putin had used the term “cooperate” rather than  ‘aid’, the claim would have been more apropos. Secondly, according to the World Bank, sub-saharan Africa’s exports to Russia were worth $0.6 billion in 2017 while its import from Russia at that same year was pegged at about $2.5 billion, putting the total sub-saharan Africa and Russia trade turnover to $3.1 billion. When compared to the region’s total trade with China worth $56 billion and United States of America worth $27 billion, the numbers provide a clue what Russia aims to achieve with its new economic romance with Africa. The clue also suggests that it wants to aid herself more than she wants to aid Africa.

Nevertheless, Putin’s Russia is not shy about her newly found ambition to push for a multipolar world and restore the lost glory of the former Soviet Union and Africa has been designated by the Kremlin as an important stepping stone to achieving this objective. The scenarios are quite similar to the rationale behind the imperialistic incursions into Africa in the 18th and 19th century.

There has been a major blow in the relationship between Russia and the West particularly by the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. A resurgent Russia has been making moves that puts it at loggerheads with countries in Europe and America. The results of which has been economic sanctions and a gradual plan to divest from Moscow. Determined to pursue its great power ambition, Russia has sought to thrive outside the European and Western market. Like the 18th century Britain and other imperial nations, the Russians badly needs new markets for their industries and new allies for their political, economic and military wars with the West and Africa just seems the perfect apple for the job.

Historically, Russia does not have a rich profile of helping Africa economically.  Since the end of the cold war, Russia has had a scanty contribution to International development efforts in Africa. Its current contribution to the sustainable development funds for Africa is at best negligent and at worst, non-existent. Unlike India and Cuba, it does not have a history of medical assistance to African countries in need. Between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of Russia’s overall aid budget spent in Africa ranged from a high of 7.3 percent ($26.6 million in 2013) to a low of 2.3 percent ($20.9 million in 2015). This is another reason to put a question mark on Putin’s statement about “aiding” Africa.

In what scholars have described as more arms and less aid, Russia has a rich history of arms shipment into Africa. It has been implicated in several reports by the United Nations and other international bodies for supplying arms to rebel groups in Africa. Almost half of Africa’s imports of military equipment (49%) come from Russia. These include major arms (military tanks, warships, fighter aircraft and combat helicopters) and small arms (pistols and assault rifles such as the new Kalashnikov AK-200 series rifle). Wagner Group, a private para-military outfit of the Kremlin has made serious inroads in Africa. Following the deployment of its contractors between 2017 and 2019, to Sudan, the Central African Republic, Madagascar, Libya and Mozambique, the Wagner Group has offices in 20 African countries, including Eswatini, Lesotho and Botswana which it could use to and in fact has been accused of spreading Russian propaganda, stealing African resources and spying on African governments. This variable does not paint any picture of a Russia that is different from all other ‘exploiters’ who had preyed on Africa.

At the moment, Russia’s influence in Africa is growing. Russia seems to be the new darling for a large number of Africans. This has been partly demonstrated by the unwillingness of African governments to outrightly rebuke Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and vote against it in a number of resolutions at the United Nations.

There are some factors responsible for Africa’s increasing alignment to Russia. First is the discontentment with Africa’s relations with the West and the positioning of Russia as an alternative or solution for the emancipation of the African continent from strangleholds placed on it for decades by the West. With the Marxist-Leninist ideology’s perspective on Africa’s plight gaining more prominence and spreading like wildfire, the attempt to depict the West as an age-long enemy and Russia as a historical friend has gained traction especially with the emphasis on the Soviet position on colonialism and slavery side by side its arm support to liberation movement in Africa. Russia is being sold to Africans as a ‘big’ country that did not participate in enslaving and colonizing Africa therefore, did not commit the often-talked about atrocities associated with the two institutions. Rather, Soviet support for Liberation movement argues it did the opposite. Some of the current leaders in eastern and southern Africa like Jacob Zuma of South Africa and Museveni of Uganda were trained in Russia and supported by the Russians during the struggle for freedom. The Marxist-Leninist doctrine have successfully propagated a gospel of an evil Western led International economic system characterized by a dependency model where ‘poor’ Africa nations are ripped off by rich nations in the West. Africans have been reluctant to review their relationship with the Russians because they reason that Russia have given lower foreign aids to the continent as the concept of foreign aid and loans have been demonized and  further impoverished the continent, and consequently Russia does not need to give aids to endear herself to the Africans.

Another factor is the disconnection between Trump’s America and Africa. America under Trump pursued a foreign policy of withdrawal and lack of interest towards Africa. This created a vacuum that the Chinese and now the Russians are conveniently exploiting. Prior to that, the catastrophe of the controversial US-led invasion of Libya, assassination of an African folk hero, Muammar Gaddafi and the instability that followed – one in which Libya is yet to recover –  form the amplified narrative about why Africans should be skeptical of the West. This has pushed more African leaders to embrace another enemy of the West that they perceive could be an ally against any future repetition of the Libyan fiasco anywhere else in Africa.

The policy of the West especially The United States of America where it refrains from selling arms to African governments on the basis of alleged poor human rights records have further pushed these African countries into Russia’s warm embrace. Russia’s support of the Mali’s new military government is believed to be the grounds for the Malians to expel the French from their country, and has thus buoyed the mass protests in Burkina Faso against the French asking them to leave their country while inviting the Russians to their place as “our new friends”.

In conclusion, it is safe to assert that the ‘new suitor’ Russia has so far recorded some successes in wooing the ‘beautiful bride’. However, there is a growing school of thought in the continent that  believes that the ‘bride’ must be wary in all of their dealings with the new suitor, and that she needs to pay attention to the details of this courtship in order to foreclose the chances of repeating the same mistakes of the past. 

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