Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba said in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin back in July 2018 that “Africa needs” Russia’s support because it is a “big country [and] it has huge capabilities and can contribute a lot for the good of the continent,” said the leader of Gabon. He valued Russian participation in the resolution of conflicts in the African continent and in that relationship, he suggested joining the efforts of the two countries.
It appears that the Russian president was listening very closely to his African partner and it is for this reason that Putin yesterday at the Russia-Africa Forum framework in Sochi, an event attended by the heads of State and Government of 43 countries, with another 11 will be represented by their vice presidents, foreign ministers and ambassadors, explained that Russian authorities will support their country’s company plans to increase its presence in the African region and are willing to increase their presence in Africa.
Africa is becoming one of the growth centers of the international economy, and by 2050, the GDP of African countries will amount to $29 billion, according to experts. Russian-African trade has more than double in the last five years and exceeded $20 billion, and Russia takes part in the initiative to ease the debt burden of African countries, having already forgiven more than $20 billion worth of debt.
And with the Russian president expressing hope that the trade between Russia and Africa will continue to grow, especially with its plan to export weapons worth $4 billion to Africa this year alone. Of high interest are anti-aircraft systems, armored vehicles, light weapons and anti-tank missile launchers.
This would not be a new phenomenon as Russia already has about $14 billion worth of arms contracts with 20 African countries, including Rwanda, Mozambique and Angola. However, countries below the Sahara only account for about $2 billion worth of contracts, suggesting there is a huge room for expansion across the continent. Russia’s role in Africa is not only reduced to arm contracts. According to Rwandan Foreign Minister Loiuse Mushikiwabo in July 2018, Russia could play a key role in the area of peacekeeping activity in Africa, a demonstration that Russia is seen as a force for peace and stability.
With China bringing significant infrastructural development across the continent to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, it appears that African countries are looking towards Russia for its security needs. As Russia has demonstrated many successful operations in counterterrorism, particularly in Syria and its own Caucasus region, Russia can provide the means and materials for Africa to slowly achieve security in a region that has been plagued by war since the continent achieved independence from Western European colonialism.
Therefore, is Russia’s increasing relations with African a move to challenge the former colonists, particularly France and the United Kingdom? When quizzed last week whether Russia seeks to compete with China and the Western countries in Africa, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said “Russia has always been present in Africa, it is a very important continent, Russia has something to offer in terms of mutually beneficial cooperation with African states.”
Although Russia does not seek to challenge Western powers in Africa according to Peskov, by avertedly offering itself as an alternative for security and trade opportunities, Western aid dependency in Africa is not only being challenged by China, but also by Russia. With Russia successfully presenting itself as an alternative to Western-backed U.S. unilateralism, that aims to control the continent’s countries through aid dependency, it can empathize with Africa’s experience of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries as it was the Soviet Union who significantly assisted in the de-Colonization of Africa.
China has also realized this historical memory of Africa and it is for this reason that former Chinese ambassador to Eritrea, Shu Zhan, ensured African countries that “China would not do anything that is like a colonialist.” With U.S. unilateralism resembling colonialism in the minds of Africans, Shu’s comments relieved any fears African states may have had about China.
But with friendly rhetoric from African countries towards Putin, there is every suggestion that the continent’s leaders do not fear that Russia will become a neo-colonizer, and rather, Russia is a state that can help Africa achieve security and peace. Although China is undoubtedly the economic king in Africa, it is Russia that can help bring peace and stability to the volatile continent with its vast experience in peacebuilding.
With Western countries only accelerating poverty and corruption in Africa by creating a system of aid dependency, it is unsurprising that African countries are now gravitating towards China and Russia in the Age of Multipolarity. With Russia working towards bringing investment and stability, it is almost ensured that they will have an advantage over Western countries in accessing the massive emerging markets and natural resources of Africa. And this was all being formalized and established during Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s first ever Russia-Africa Forum.
In an effort to delegitimize China’s development of Africa, there are constant accusations from U.S. and British media and ‘think’-tanks that the Asian country is a new colonizer on the continent. Rather, these are just projections of their own government’s predatory behaviour without a nuanced understanding on how different social, political and economic systems work.
With Russia now bringing new trade, investment and security experience and options to Africa, it is likely that these countries will adopt a mostly balancing act between the Great Powers, which in turn will lead to more accusations levelled against Moscow from the West in an attempt to delegitimize their growing influence on the continent, just as they do against China. Such desperate brings up an important question, why does Africa need the West when it has Russia?