Russian reengagement raises stakes in Africa

KIGALI, Rwanda

With Russia’s reengagement in Africa, the continent is perceived to be set for a new Great Game, which may no longer remain confined to political and diplomatic confrontation, but to ensue a trade war between the powers.

While China, India and the West have been aggressively engaged in the continent for over a long time, to expand their trade baskets and seek access to the continent’s untapped resources, Moscow off late, has been quietly investing in Soviet-era partnerships.

It has been forging new alliances, by offering arms and electioneering services, in exchange for mining rights and other opportunities, believe many African experts.

The say, that in exchange of defense cooperation and supply of arms, Russia is extracting mining contracts from African nations.

“Russia continues to provide military hardware, but behind the scenes are hundreds of agreements on setting up mining and extracting companies and a host of other business ventures,” said Oscar Kimanuka, analyst and author of book Sub-Saharan Africa’s Development Challenges.

“A good example is Central African Republic, one of Africa’s most fragile states. Russia has bolstered the regime of President [Faustin-Archange] Touadera by providing equipment and military personnel. But behind this generosity, it has forced business deals that are more in Russia’s favor,” he added.

At the recently concluded first-ever Russia-Africa Summit, held in Sochi, Russia flexed its muscles to join China, India and the West, in order to seek a foothold for its investments, beyond arms deals.

Attended by 43 heads of state and government leaders, a large number of Memoranda of Understanding were signed to facilitate Russian trade, especially in the fields of energy infrastructure, military equipment and even setting up of nuclear reactors.

The Great Game had become quite evident last year, when the U.S. sought to maintain a strong influence for Africa, focusing on commercial ties, counterterrorism, and better-targeted foreign aid.

“The West has every reason to get concerned, as their monopoly in Africa is being challenged and this means that they will devise counter measures to maintain their stocks,” said Freddie David Egesa, a security and political analyst, based in Uganda’s capital Kampala.

China, India popular investors

China and India, so far were popular investors in Africa, as they would not attach strings to their aid or loans, like criteria of human rights situation, democracy or labor standards. While Russia is also following their footsteps, the question remains, whether Russia will be able to match the race?

Russia is still a major arms exporter to Africa and has military cooperation agreements with at least 28 countries, but it lacks financial muscle, to compete with other players. The trade volume between Russia and Africa has been a mere $20 billion, a paltry against China’s $204.2 billion and India’s $63 billion, recorded in 2018.

In order to join the race, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently announced writing off debts worth more than $20 billions of many African countries.

Egesa, however, believes that Russia’s influence as a game changer in the continent, will depend on its packages, budget and cost-effective technology.

Kimanuka, said while Putin may not match other powers in terms of volume of trade and investments, he was actually racing to fulfill his country’s geo-political ambitions, by having strategic alliances with African countries. “By hosting African leaders, he was trying to resurrect old Soviet bonds,” he told Anadolu Agency.

In the Cold War era, Moscow had extensive foot prints in the continent, supplying armaments, deploying military contractors, manning natural resources projects and even helping many rulers to stay in power.

“The revival of interest in Africa by Russia will help Africa, and ensure a still competition among big powers to seek access to African markets,” added Kimanuka

Since 2000, China has been engaging the continent, through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC). According to China Daily, the national English-language newspaper, more than 3,700 Chinese companies are currently present in Africa, with a combined direct investment over $46 billion. It also suggested that the total value of Chinese investment and construction in Africa has reached to $2 trillion.

African leaders have undertaken to work with China to implement eight major initiatives agreed at the 2018 FOCAC summit, including building the Belt and Road, a development strategy adopted by the Chinese government.

Over past one decade, India has also activated its trade diplomacy to seek commercial footprints in the continent. At the last India-Africa Summit in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to provide $10 billion loans to African countries. But experts say, the amount was modest as compared to China, which provided $124 billion in loans.

”India sees Africa as a strategic continent for the 21st century. It has relatively strong and informal networks, thanks to its diaspora of over 3 million people across the continent, or 15% of the Indian diaspora in the world,” according to Jean-Joseph Boillot quoted by Jeune Afrique, a French-language pan-African weekly news magazine.

*Felix Tih contributed to this story from Ankara
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