The first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi last week has generated renewed interest in better understanding the growing competition among major world powers in Africa.
While there has been considerable attention on Beijing’s and New Delhi’s motives and interests, Russia’s footprint on the continent has received less attention.
During its Cold War rivalry with the United States, the Soviet Union supported many African nations in the fight against colonialism and viewed them as fertile grounds for the advancement of socialism.
Putin’s Russia has now begun to renew old Soviet partnerships. While in the recent past Russia has prioritised a deepening of military cooperation and trade links with selected African countries, it has now launched a major strategy to open “a new page” and make the whole continent a priority on its foreign policy.
The Sochi summit declaration highlights six areas of future cooperation—political affairs; security; trade and economic matters; legal affairs; scientific, technical, humanitarian and information exchange; and environmental protection.
The international reaction thus far has been lukewarm and two main sets of arguments have emerged that advise African states to be extremely cautious as they become entangled in this rejuvenated relationship with Russia.
The first set of arguments relate to fears of rising debts as African leaders are sold to the idea of using Russia’s national nuclear corporation to build expensive power plants that they cannot afford in the long-run. For many years, various stakeholders have been concerned over Africa’s growing debt to China, but now there are even greater concerns over the environmental and financial costs associated with Russian help to resolve the continent’s growing demand for electricity.
While South Africa has expressed its inability, much to Russia’s displeasure, to commission a previously agreed power project, Egypt has already signed an agreement for a nuclear power plant while Rwanda, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria have begun negotiations for similar projects.
The second concern relates to Russia’s own lack of democracy (and support for autocrats), which critics fear will weaken existing efforts to promote good governance in Africa. According to plans, a so-called Russia-Africa Partnership Forum will soon be established and annual political consultations will be held between the foreign ministers of Russia, African nations and the president of the African Union in order to foster greater political cooperation and support for multilateral cooperation.
There are also plans to use NGOs and youth organisations to promote “people-to-people contacts” as well as to “coordinate efforts for international parliamentary events to arrive at decisions and resolutions that would benefit the Russian Federation and African states”. How African leaders address these two sets of challenges will greatly determine the future impact of Russia’s renewed interest in Africa.