The Russian government and state companies signed dozens of memoranda of understanding and agreements during the first Russia-Africa Summit in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi last week. Russia also promised further cooperation, building on recent agreements with individual African governments.
With the summit, the host, President Vladimir Putin, reaffirmed his intention to restore Russia as a major geopolitical player in Africa. Much of its political clout on the continent has waned in the post-Cold War period.
Russia’s trade with Africa remains below levels of trade with Europe, the US and Asia. And Africa has much larger trading relationships with China, the US and India than with Russia. Also, development aid to Africa largely comes from the US, China and Japan. This means that Russia’s engagement and presence in Africa is still lagging behind the other major powers in many ways.
One of Putin’s goals is clearly to revive his country’s great-power status. But how can Africa help him achieve this? First, Africa is an important market for Russian arms exports. It is also where Russia has made key investments in the oil, gas and nuclear power sectors. And Africa is an important source of minerals for Russia.
The summit, the first ever of its kind, is a clear indication that Russia is stepping up its efforts to increase its influence in Africa. The deals signed all underscore how Moscow is using strategic investment in energy and minerals, as well as military muscle and soft power, to gain more traction on the continent.
Russia accounts for 35% of arms exports to Africa, followed by China with 17%, the US with 9.6% and France with 6.9%. Africa is the second largest importer of Russian arms globally. The Asia-Pacific region tops the list with 60%. Russia has also signed close to 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements with African governments in recent years. These range from the supply of military aircraft to missiles to engines. Algeria is the largest importer of Russian weapons in Africa, followed by Egypt, Angola and Uganda.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
Other military agreements with African states pertain to cooperation on countering terrorism, including jointly training troops for peacekeeping on the continent. The countries involved include Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Niger and Rwanda.
At the summit, African states wholeheartedly embraced Russia’s newly established relations. South Africa’s minister of public enterprises, Pravin Gordhan, made this clear when he said:
Anybody who gets business going, either from the Russian point of view or the African point of view, in the medium term will benefit from that process.
This was borne out in some of the deals finalised in Sochi. For example, Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, purchased 12 military helicopters. In turn, Russia agreed last week to assist Nigeria in its fight against Boko Haram. The terror group has waged a decade-long insurgency in the northeastern parts of the country.
Russia relies on imports from Africa to cover its requirements for minerals such as manganese, bauxite and chromium.
In addition, Great Dyke Investments, a company jointly owned by the Russian and Zimbabwean governments, is developing a $4 billion venture to mine the world’s largest deposits of platinum in Zimbabwe. In oil-rich Angola, discussions with Russian companies have focused on hydrocarbon production.
Russia is also interested in Namibia’s uranium. In recent years, Rosatom and the Namibian government have been finalising an agreement on cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And the Russian state-run oil company Rosneft has benefited from a cooperation agreement between the Russian and Mozambican governments and to develop offshore gas exploration in Mozambique.
Precious gems, especially diamonds and gold, are also on Russia’s list of priorities in Africa. Moscow has thus deepened relations with Angola, where Alrosa, the Russian diamond mining giant, mines diamonds.
In some instances military and mineral interests are intertwined. For example, in the Central Africa Republic (CAR) a Russian military and security company known in the Russian media as the Wagner Group is strongly linked to diamond exploration in the country.
Discussions have been held between the CAR and Russia to explore the country’s natural resources, especially diamonds and gold, on a concession basis. And Russia has successfully managed to offer weapons and instructors to train CAR military forces in exchange for access to markets and mining rights.
Russian companies are very active in the energy sector too, making significant investments in Algeria, Egypt, Uganda and Angola.
Several Russian companies, including Gazprom, the global gas company; Lukoil, the oil multinational; Rostec, the advanced technology company; and Rosatom, the clean energy company; have done numerous deals amounting to billions of US dollars.
These companies are either state-owned or state-controlled. They are beneficiaries of state contracts from the Kremlin and qualify for preferential loans from state-owned banks. Because of the close relationship between the state and these companies, investments are mostly or often linked to diplomatic considerations.
Moscow’s nuclear deals fall firmly into this category. For example, Russia is negotiating with Egypt on its first nuclear plant. In Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, a major deal has been concluded with Russia on the construction of two nuclear power plants, with a view to ending the country’s ongoing energy crisis.
Russia promised aid to combat the Ebola virus and to accommodate more Africans at Russian universities. The details of many agreements are not clear, but Moscow claims that it racked up $12.5 billion in deals during the two-day summit. Critics argue that it remains to be seen whether these deals will materialise as real investments in Africa.
Moscow’s diplomatic efforts to strengthen its political relations with African states, and its related geopolitical ambitions, have not escaped Western observers. They come at a time when US influence in Africa – and elsewhere – is on the decline.
Russia seems keen to fill the gap. Besides solidifying Russia’s trade relationship with Africa at the summit, Putin also clearly tried to confirm Russia’s status as a more dependable partner for the continent, with less baggage than either the US or other Western powers. He probably succeeded in convincing many African leaders that Moscow can deliver – with no strings attached – on the Russian sweet spots of technology, energy and military support, where African countries experience particular needs.