Despite its highly praised global status, experts and researchers said Russia has still lagged far behind economic engagement, compared to key foreign players, in Africa since Soviet’s collapse in 1991.
In separate interviews, they pointed to how the African continent is more confidently integrating into the world economy and called for more development-oriented foreign policies that would help the continent overcome its development problems, reviewing some of policy approaches and strategies towards Africa.
In an exclusive interview, the Executive Secretary of the Southern African Development Community, Stergomena Lawrence Tax, said Russia has a long history of bilateral engagements with the Southern African countries.
“The most recent visit of the Russian Foreign Minister H.E. Sergey Lavrov to the Republics of Angola, Ethiopia, Namibia and Zimbabwe, (as we understand it) was largely focused on signing of economic cooperation agreements to attract Russian investments in key areas such as mining, aviation and energy sectors, as well as fostering military technical cooperation,” she told Buziness Africa in Moscow.
In his statement, the Minister Lavrov noted that Russia together with Africa wanted to elevate trade, economic and investment relations to a level that would meet political and trust-based relations, explained Lawrence Tax.
Like most of the developing countries, Southern African countries have, over the years, largely relied on multilateral and regional development financial institutions to fund their development projects.
In this regard, SADC welcomes investors from all over the world, according to the Executive Secretary, and added “In reality, Russia has not been that visible in the region as compared to China, India or Brazil. But, it is encouraging that, of recent, Russia has positioned herself to be a major partner with Southern Africa and being part of the BRICS promotes her engagement with the region, particularly in investment in minerals, aviation, defense and energy sectors.”
In March 2018, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited the Southern Africa region where he held talks with the Presidents of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Hommes d’Afrique magazine before embarking on the African tour that “our African friends note the need for Russia’s active presence in the region, and more frequently express interest in holding a Russia-African summit. Such a meeting would undoubtedly help deepen our cooperation on the full range of issues.”
In another interview with (H.E.) Ambassador Major General (rtd) Nicholas Mike Sango willingly shared his objective views on a few current issues connecting Russia and Africa. He says there is growing realization that Africa is an important partner in the “emerging and sustainable polycentric architecture of the world order” as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has aptly asserted.
“For a long time, Russia’s foreign policy on Africa has failed to pronounce itself in practical terms as evidenced by the countable forays into Africa by Russian officials. Africa desires economic upliftment, human security in the form of education, health, shelter as well as security from transnational terrorism among many challenges afflicting Africa. The Russian Federation has the capacity and ability to assist Africa overcome these challenges leveraging on Africa’s vast resources,” Ambassador Mike Sango told me during the discussion.
“The most conspicuous aspect of Russia’s involvement in Africa is its absence,” says John Endres, Chief Executive Officer of Good Governance Africa from South Africa, adding that “whereas the Soviet Union was quite extensively engaged in Africa, Russia has almost entirely abandoned the field to other foreign players during the past two decades.”
Professor Gerrit Olivier at the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria, and former South African Ambassador to the Russian Federation, wrote me in email discussion that important though is the fact that the Soviet Union never tried to colonize Africa. Soviet influence in Africa disappeared almost like a mirage with the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. And today, Russian influence in Africa, despite efforts towards resuscitation, remains marginal.
While, given its global status, it ought to be active in Africa as Western Europe, the European Union, America and China are, it is all but absent, playing a negligible role, according to the views of the retired diplomat.
In a similar argument, Dr Ojijo Al Pascal, Ugandan lawyer and business consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in East Africa, suggested that “Russia needs to have its own mega or corporate projects. And it should have them in strategic economic areas.”
Ojijo underlined the fact that Russia, in essence, could use its history of electrifying the Soviet rural areas to help Africa. It could promote the establishment of manufacturing hubs and mega projects, promote its technologies in mutually beneficial spheres while cooperating with individual countries in Africa.
In his assessment, Rex Essenowo, Member of the Board of Trustees of Nigerians in Diaspora Europe and Senior Executive of Asian Africa Trade, a Moscow based business lobbying NGO, argued that African leaders also have to treat Russia with some kind of objective understanding. “Apart from sanctions, Russia is struggling with the challenges after the breakdown of Soviet Union and economic meltdown of the 90’s in the country. Russia, as it seeks to restore and strengthen its position, has very limited human resources specially trained to implement policies in Africa,” he said.
“Nevertheless, diving into muddy waters could be very risky and dangerous for Russia. On the other hand, Russian authorities are studying what the Chinese and other foreign players are doing very closely before even thinking about going into the first five or ten preferred destinations within the next five years in Africa. Watch out my words!” concluded Essenowo.
During the past decade, at least, from the time of African Union Commission Chairperson Jean Ping to Nkosazana Clarice Dlamini-Zuma and now Moussa Faki Mahamat, all have passionately raised the issue of Russia’s active involvement in economic sectors especially energy, infrastructure, agriculture and industry in Africa. Still Russia plays very little role in Africa’s infrastructure, agriculture and industry.
Last year, Business Research and Consultancy firm published its survey conducted between January 2016 and June 2018. The firm recommended that all existing Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and Bilateral Agreements Russia has signed with African countries and together with various economic agreements reached by the joint Business Councils during the past few years could provide a solid framework for raising vigorously economic influence to an appreciable level in Africa.