As Sochi, a Russian city located on the Black Sea coast, prepares to host African leaders, experts have been discussing the possible outcome of this first high-level event in the history of Russian-African relations, with the heads of all states of the African continent invited, as well as leaders of major subregional associations and organisations attending. According to official sources here, the summit on October 24 will play special attention to the current state and prospects of Russia's relations with African countries and to the expansion of the political, economic, technical and cultural cooperation.
The agenda includes a wide range of issues on the international agenda, including joint response to new challenges and threats, and strengthening of the regional stability. At the end of the meeting, the participants are scheduled to adopt a political declaration on the key areas of Russian-African cooperation.
Ahead of summit, to be co-chaired by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who also heads the African Union, IDN’s Kester Kenn Klomegah talked to Dr. Gideon Shoo, media consultant and business lobbyist based in Kilimanjaro Region in Tanzania. Dr. Shoo explained in this interview what Russian investors and other participants can expect from the African political leaders and corporate business heads from the public and private sectors in Africa. Following are excerpts from the interview:
Question: Africa Beyond Aid! What should African leaders do in order to raise mutual cooperation with Russia? Let us look at this question on the reverse side, from the African side?
Answer: African leaders must strive to understand their counterparts in Russia. They need to understand the political system in Russia, and at least, the economic policies and interests. At the same time, they need to demonstrate what they can do in terms of helping Russia overcome some of the economic hitches as a result of sanctions imposed on her by the United States and the European Union. They should engage in "a scratch my back I scratch yours" relationship given the fact that Russia is advanced in technology which is badly needed in Africa.
Q: Russia has a number of bilateral agreements, at least during the past decade, that were largely not implemented in many African countries. In your view, what mechanisms be fixed to deliver on pledges and promises?
A: This is quite an important aspect of Russia-African relationship. Bilateral agreements need to be revised and schedules of implementation be drawn wherever possible. Russia needs to go back to those years when it committed itself to help Africa get out of neocolonial cobweb by assisting in crucial and important areas such as education, public health and engineering. That was partly done through offering higher and specialized education as one way of development assistance to the continent.
Q: Of course, priority spheres include energy, oil & gas, infrastructure etc., but what kinds of state support be offered Russian companies and enterprises to operate effectively in Africa?
A: Russian companies need to prove their superiority in the sector mentioned above. The companies should show how African countries are going to benefit. African governments must make it easier for Russian companies to set up and operate in their countries. Russian financial institutions can offer credit support that will allow them to localize their production in Africa’s industrial zones, especially southern and eastern African regions that show some stability and have good investment and business incentives. In order to operate more effectively, Russians have to risk by investing, recognize the importance of cooperation on key investment issues and to work closely on the challenges and opportunities on the continent.
Of course, Russians have been trying to return there over the past few years, which is a very commendable step forward. There are prospects for greater or broader foreign players. Until potential Russian investors make a decision to pay more high-level attention to Africa, it is difficult to see greater engagement at the economic or business level. In practical sense, it requires to move beyond mere expression of interests, it needs strategic focus and pragmatic approach from both Russians and African governments.
Q: According to official figures, Russia-African trade currently stands at US$17.8 billion. Could trade preferences help potential African exporters (make it a two-way road) also to explore the Russian market?
A: Russia is, so far, a closed market to many African countries. It is difficult to access the Russian market. There are no direct flights to most African capitals, and it makes Russia not a common destination even to the Vasco da Gamas of Africa. While tropical fruits and vegetables are rotting in Africa, the Russian market is yawning because of sanctions. Why not work out a two-way traffic between Africa and Russia? African countries have to look to new emerging markets for export products, make efforts to negotiate for access to these markets. This can be another aspect of the economic cooperation and great business opportunity for both regions.
Q: Talking about Russia's presence in Africa and Africa's presence in Russia. Understandably, much also depends on the interest of African businesspeople; but what should be done to stimulate or boost potential African exporters' interest in Russia?
A: Visits. Visits. Visits. But, how can this be achieved if there are no direct affordable flights? Can Africa and Russia establish links through joint ventures including those in aviation? Yes, I think and believe it is possible. Can Africa, especially south of the Sahara be a tourist destination for Russians and vice versa? Yes, it is possible. For instance, tourism can primarily help to broaden cultural horizons, breaking stereotypes and attitudes.
Developing tourism is one way to promote business and raise knowledge of diverse culture in Africa. By looking at the rules and regulations, the situation about Russia's presence in Africa and Africa's presence in Russia can be changed. Russia and Africa have to make efforts for raising the level of trade and business in both regions.
Q: Sochi summit holds the key to all these questions you have so far discussed above. Can these, among others and in reality, mark a definitive start of a new dawn in the Russia-African relations?
A: In the first place, Russians and Africans have to look at this positively. It will offer participants the opportunity to engage in dialogue, receive up-to-date information on the current trends, challenges and prospects of investment activities as well as networking for business contacts. It is also important that African leaders determine and set their development priorities.
I believe Sochi can turn out to be a new chapter in Russia-Africa cooperation, it all depends on how serious all participants are in seeing it happen. The gathering has to offer the expected fruits, leave a long-term and sustainable impact and memories among the participants. Sochi, indeed, should open the door to Africa.