Second Russia Africa Summit: More about Russia than Africa

By Samir Bhattacharya
Opinion Second Russia Africa Summit: More about Russia than Africa
AUG 13, 2023 LISTEN

From 26-29 July 2023, the second Russia-Africa Summit took place in Russia’s St Petersburg. Originally scheduled to take place in Addis Ababa in October 2022, the summit got postponed, most likely due to complications emerging from Russia’s war against Ukraine. Despite the presence of 49 out of 54 African nations, there were Ministers from only twenty-seven countries which includes about 17 Heads of state. This is in high contrast with the 2019 summit, where 45 African heads of state and two vice presidents were in attendance, along with 109 ministers and the heads of the African Union (AU) Commission, the AfricanExport–Import Bank and several regional economic communities.

Similar to last year, the agenda of this year’s summit included technology transfer and development of industry and critical infrastructure in Africa, developing power engineering, agriculture and mineral extraction, and ensuring food and energy security. As the 2023 edition expanded to include a humanitarian element, a Russia-Africa Economic and Humanitarian Forum also took place in parallel. Additionally, there were exhibitions and a platform for holding business meetings.

At the end of the summit, both parties agreed upon a 74-paragraph Declaration of the Second Russia-Africa Summit. However, with the abundance of words such as neo-colonialism, neo-Nazism, neo-fascism, Russophobia, illegal sanctions, import substitution, and traditional values, the document appears to be an implicit African endorsement of Russia’s justification for its war against Ukraine. Indeed, the 4,000-plus words document contains multiple statements subtly used to encourage Africa to back Moscow’s position in the war.

In the wake of the summit, food security was the key concern for African policymakers. Around mid-June, Russian President Vladimir Putin withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) in July 2022. The BSGI was intended to ease the Russian blockade, thus allowing Ukraine to export grain. During the summit, Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, and five other leaders who were part of the African Peace initiative encouraged President Putin to change his mind. But their request was firmly rejected. Instead, the declaration attributed the entire blame for the food shortages to Western sanctions.

Definitely, the pledge from President Putin to deliver 25,000 to 50,000 tons of free grains to six countries, namely Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Central African Republic and Eritrea, is encouraging. However, it will not be done immediately but within three or four months- too little for a continent of 54 countries.

Russian Footprint in Africa
Indeed, the inaugural Russia-Africa summit in Sochi in October 2019 was a watershed moment for Russia. Russia used the summit to institutionalise its Africa policy. However, the geopolitical landscape has radically transformed since the initial Russia-Africa Summit. First, the Covid-induced pandemic and now the Ukraine war have crippled the world economy. The unipolarity of the US-led world order is in steady decline, to the point where there are conversations about creating alternative currencies like the BRICS currency. As a result, there was a discernible rise in interest in this year’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg.

Regarding trade, Africa presently imports five times as much as it exports to Russia, resulting in a $12 billion trade imbalance. Following the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, President Putin planned to increase Russia’s trade with Africa from roughly $16.8 billion to $40 billion per year within five years. Instead, it is now stuck at approximately $18 billion annually or about 2% of all trade on the continent. Moreover, 70 per cent of the total trade is restricted to only four countries: Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and South Africa. During the first summit, the organisers subsequently boasted of dozens of agreements that were signed, worth an estimated $15 billion, but according to some reports, most of those were memorandums of understanding (MOU) and not legally binding.

Further, Russia’s direct investment in Africa is currently about 1 per cent of the total inflow. Indeed, Russia has waived off a large part of its debt to different African nations worth $23 billion. This is almost 90% of the total African debt. According to President Putin, this leaves Africa with no more “direct” debts for Russia but some financial obligations. However, given Russian loan to Africa is only a very small part, this will have very little impact on this highly indebted continent. Putin added that his government would also provide over $90 million for development purposes at the request of African countries. Last but not least, Russia announced that it will spend about US$13 million on “large-scale assistance” to healthcare systems in Africa. To sum up, except for some of these garden-variety announcements, African leaders have very little concrete to take home from the event.

From Russia’s perspective, it is essential to remember that the event occurred amid the backdrop of Russia’s full-scale war with Ukraine and growing international isolation. Under continued severe sanctions, Russian businesses would be keen to make new and considerable investments in Africa. Going forward, Africa can become a joint testing and development site for Russia’s latest innovative technologies.

Indeed, Russia lacks the resources to compete with the US, France, Germany and Japan or China as a bilateral development donor. However, it does have some cards to play. Last year it was Africa’s largest source of fertiliser, supplying 500,000 tonnes. It is also a significant power in oil, gas and mining. Another significant effort by Russia to strengthen ties with Africa is its commitment to education. In 2023, Russia offered a record 4,700 scholarships to African students, a considerable increase from the 1,900 scholarships awarded in 2019.

Russia accounts for 44 per cent of major arms imports to the region between 2017 and 2021., surpassing other major players like the US (17 per cent), China (10 per cent), and France (6.1 per cent). In addition to importing weapons, many African nations have hired Russian mercenaries. These Russian mercenaries in Africa work under the Wagner Group, a company connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a personal friend of Vladimir Putin. About the future of the Wagner group in Africa, particularly in the backdrop of mutiny by the Wagner group, both Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, in separate statements, have clarified that the group will continue to operate in parts of Africa. And the recent statement by the Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin celebrating the coup and blaming it on the legacy of colonialism makes it clear that Wagner will remain in Africa.

An evaluation in lieu of a conclusion
Russia has shown a remarkable commitment to engaging with Africa, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov making three visits to the continent this year. These diplomatic efforts underscore the increasing importance Moscow places on cooperation with African countries. Clearly, Russia wanted to demonstrate its support base of many old and loyal allies from Africa in its fight against Western hegemony. And from that perspective; the gathering served the Russian purpose.

However, it was also crucial for African leaders to demonstrate to other foreign powers that they were open to hearing various points of view and that irrational loyalty to one state was no longer the norm. The low attendance at the summit suggests that African leaders are readjusting their place in the multipolar world. African leaders are used to foreign leaders making bold promises but falling short of keeping them.

And they realised that in the new age of multilateralism, jeopardising their relationships with either the West or Russia is not the best diplomacy. Almost all African nations are nonaligned, eschewing global power blocs and resenting Western pressure. This is also probably why the Heads of State and Ministers stayed away but sent their representatives. Therefore, the statement that Africa had gained nothing from the conference mirrors Macbeth’s half-truth instrument of darkness: it is neither a simple fact nor a deliberate lie.

Samir Bhattacharya
The author is a Senior Research Associate with the Vivekananda International Foundation and doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University