After decades of a bipolar world in which the US and the Soviet Union competed for global hegemony, we entered a unipolar era with the collapse of the USSR and the US imposing its will across the globe virtually unchallenged – until the rise of China.
Now the geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting once more as the US loses ground and influence, the European Union shows signs of fracturing, and new players scramble to gain the high ground.
Africa, with its central, strategic geographical position, its vast natural resources, its expanding markets and its youth heavy demographics, is beginning to play a critical role in the emerging balance of power.
While the spotlight has been fixed firmly on China’s ever expanding presence on the continent, it has obscured the steady advance of Russia in Africa. 30 years ago, Russia, as part of the USSR, was a major actor in Africa, counterbalancing the West. It had largely been absent following the ending of the Cold War, but is now making a strong comeback.
What does Russia want from Africa? What is behind Vladimir Putin’s ‘Pivot to Africa’ strategy? How do the other powers, as well as African leaders, view Russia’s new push into the continent? What are the benefits as well as the dangers of this new alliance?
Experts believe a new “Scramble for Africa” is unfolding. The main players are China, the EU and the US. India Brazil, Turkey, Iran, South Korea and the Gulf countries are also interested in increasing cooperation with Africa.
Russia’s volume of trade and economic interaction with Africa is inferior to almost all of the above-mentioned players. Currently, Russia’s trade with Africa is less than US$12 billion. Nevertheless, in some areas, competition between Russia and other players is quite serious.
During the heyday of the former Soviet Union, it had a strong influence in Africa. This changed after the demise of the USSR. Under Vladimir Putin, it now seems Russia has new aspirations for Africa, which is reflected in Foreign Minister Sergey Lavroy’s visits to several African countries in 2018.
Russia’s timing is good as Africa is both searching for and being courted by new strategic partners, amid changing geopolitical dynamics. First, significant changes among Africa’s traditional partners in the West, such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, have seen them adopt a more insular approach to foreign policy and international affairs.
Apart from China, Russia is an obvious beneficiary, especially since Western sanctions after its invasion of Crimea meant it needed to find alternative trading partners. As President, Putin also places value on geopolitical relations and Russia’s dominance globally.
Russia’s method of trade and investment in Africa –without conditions or the moral prescriptions of the West (like China) – also opens the way for economic interactions on the continent. Indeed, trade and investment between Russia and Africa witnessed growth of 185% between 2005 and 2015.
As Russia’s interests in Africa expand, so does the field for possible conflict and competition with other players. For example, it is not only Russia that is trying to help Africa in the construction of nuclear power plants, but there is already serious competition, and there have been cases of opposition to Russia’s interests.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov undertook a five-day tour to Africa in March 2018, including visits to Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. This clearly indicates Russia is setting itself up to return to Africa. It is also seen as a reaction to the cooling off of Russia’s relations with the West. In addition, sanctions against it have influenced Russia’s decision to reorient its attention to new partners, including Africa.
Lavrov’s visit to Africa, which coincided with that of former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was significant. Alex Vines, Head of the Africa Programme of Chatham House, states that the “Russian trip is really about commercial priorities, a bit about defence, while the US one is very much about peace and security.”
From a business perspective, Africa’s growing middle class is creating a huge new consumer market, also for Russian goods and services. Africa’s resources in the field of energy, minerals and raw materials can supplement the needs of Russia in this regard.
Russian companies have been implementing a number of interesting projects in African countries. From a mining perspective; it is cooperating with Zimbabwe (where Russia is developing one of the world’s largest deposits of platinum group metals).
It seems that Russia is actively re-establishing links with Angola. Firstly, Alrosa, the Russian giant, mines diamonds in that country. Secondly, there are talks with Angola over hydrocarbon production; it is one of the largest oil-producing countries in Africa and a member of OPEC.
Thirdly, Russia’s Roscomos recently offered to build Angola’s second satellite, AngoSat-2, which was accepted by Angola. Payment for the production of the second satellite would come from the insurance reimbursement for the lost AngoSat-1 satellite worth US$121 million. The rest of the total cost of US$320 million will be paid by Russia.
Angola and Mozambique are actively cooperating with Russia in military-technical cooperation. Russia and Mozambique are planning to jointly develop and produce military equipment.
For Lavrov, it is important to strengthen contacts with the new government of Zimbabwe, which came to power after the displacement of President Robert Mugabe. It will be interesting to see how this relation evolves, given the influence China has been wielding in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s President, Emmerson Mnangagwa was recently in China to discuss collaboration within the Belt and Road Initiative.
An inter-governmental commission on trade and economic cooperation between Russia and Namibia was recently established. It seems that Russia has big plans to increase the exports of its agricultural products to Namibia (wheat, dairy products, poultry, etc.).
There is also the potential of competition for the support of Namibia between Russia and China. As was the case with Zimbabwe, Namibian President Hage Geingob also recently visited China and discussed participation in the Belt and Road Initiative with China’s President, Xi Jinping.
A UN sanctions committee recently allowed Russia to sell weapons to the government in Central African Republic (CAR), which is struggling to contain an ethnic and religious conflict. The arms were accompanied by a small group of Russian military trainers.
CAR’s President, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, is quoted as saying he now wants more cooperation with Russia, including infrastructure and education.
Vulnerable fragile states, such as CAR, that have intense security demands and requirements, are the sorts of place that the Russians are looking to improve their market share.
While the above paints the general picture of Russia in Africa, one could also look at Russia’s presence in greater depth in specific countries. Some of these relationships are of a security nature, whilst others are more business-related. Some countries even exhibit a dual relationship, where booth economic relations and geo-security relations are forged.
Russia in Sudan
The relationship between Russia and Sudan is by no means new. For decades, there were economic, political and military relations between the two countries. Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, along with China, opposed initiatives to send peacekeeping missions to Darfur, although Sudan itself accepted the peacekeeping mission through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. In addition, Russia has been a major arms supplier for a considerable time.
President al-Bashir recently announced that Sudan and Russia had agreed on a programme to boost Sudan’s military capabilities. The plan aimed to enable the Sudanese military to counter any threat. Russia would develop the Sudanese armed forces in a way that would deter any aggressor.
Sudan’s air force is comprised mainly of Russian warplanes, and the bulk of its military equipment has also been traditionally supplied by Russia. The programme regarding the development of the Sudanese military is therefore a mere continuation of a historical trend.
Apparently it was during a trip to Russia in November 2017 that al-Bashir asked Russia’s cooperation in the field of nuclear power. Russia has agreed to supply Sudan with a small-capacity floating nuclear plant to produce electricity, and will endeavour to complete the technical studies to build Sudan’s nuclear power plant within eight years. The project is part of a plan to generate more than 5000 MW by 2020. During the same trip al-Bashir blamed the US for the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and claimed that the US was now planning to split the rest of Sudan into five countries.
Al-Bashir apparently also discussed the establishment of military bases on the Red Sea coast with President Putin and his defence minister. In addition, he expressed support for Russia’s role in Syria. It is reported that al-Bashir also offered Sudan as a gateway into Africa for Russia.
In a recent development, Sudan invited Russian companies to take part in the development of its oil industry. The Sudanese government offered Russian energy companies several oil sites, including both producing and untapped ones, as well as fields that are currently being developed by other foreign companies, whom the Russian players would help to increase production.
Sudan has been eager to build an oil industry after the split with South Sudan when it seceded in 2011. After the secession, the two countries have remained mutually dependent on oil revenues, with South Sudan owning 75% of the oil reserves, while Sudan owns the only transport route to get oil to international markets. Rosneft, Gazprom, Lukoil, and Tatneft were among the Russian companies invited by the government to tap into Sudan’s oil resources.
Russia in The Horn
Russia is reportedly negotiating with Somaliland leaders for a naval base to support its warships and submarines to operate in the region and the busy shipping lanes carrying most of Europe’s goods.
If realized, this would be Russia’s first base in Africa since the Cold War and be a major step forward for Putin’s programme to revive Russia’s once proud navy. The base is expected to be home to two destroyer-sized ships, four frigate class ships, two large submarine pens, two airstrips that can host up to six heavy aircraft and 15 fighter jets. It is reported the naval base would be staffed by 1,500 people and service destroyers, frigates and submarines.
The rumored location of the base is outside Zeila city, in Somaliland. It is also on the border with Djibouti – near the location of China’s first overseas base in modern times, which opened last year. As the US and China both have military facilities in Djibouti, it should not be a surprise that Russia would want facilities there too.
According to Dr Andrew Foxall, director of the Russia and Eurasia Studies Centre, the Horn of Africa is strategically important for a number of reasons, amongst others because it allows both power projection into the Middle East and influence over the Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden. The development of a facility in Somaliland could be seen as an attempt to build a blue-water navy.
According to the Qaran News, Russia is proposing that it will recognize the breakaway Republic of Somaliland in return for being allowed to establish the base. It also reported that Russia will ensure security in the breakaway country by training the Somaliland military.
Russia’s possible base in Somaliland would be about much more than just spiting the Americans, as it would be part and parcel of Moscow’s intended ‘Pivot to Africa’. In this instance, Russia could potentially mediate between Somaliland and Somalia and then ‘balance’ between both of them and their much larger neighbour of Ethiopia.
Given that Djibouti was becoming cramped for space, and the relatively long distance between Port Sudan and Ethiopia, Russia might have decided to build a base in Somaliland as an alternative entry to Ethiopia, with whom Somaliland is allied.
Furthermore, Ethiopia’s joint development of a port in Berbera with the UAE, as well as Russia’s increasing relations with both of these countries, point to tacit economic-strategic motivations behind its possible decision to build a base in nearby Zeila because it could kill several birds with one stone by strengthening Russia’s ties with all three parties.
Russia in Egypt
Russia-Egypt ties, already on the rise in Putin’s earlier years, noticeably improved after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became President after the military coup of July 2013.
Bilateral trade between the two countries doubled to US$5.5 billion in 2014. Russia and Egypt held their first joint naval drills in June 2015, and military exercises in October 2016. Russia had also deployed special forces to Egypt on the Libyan border in March 2017, which signalled Russia’s growing role in Libya. In October 2017, Cairo finalized negotiations with Moscow to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant.
More recently, Egypt expects a massive boost in tourism after Russia’s decision to resume flights to Cairo as of 11 April 2018 after a two-year suspension. In late 2015, Egyptian-Russian civilian air traffic was halted by Russia after a bomb went off aboard a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 of its passengers.
Egypt’s tourism sector suffered greatly after that, as Russians make up the largest number of tourists to Egypt. For Egyptian tourism insiders, this decision will revive Russian tourism to the Red Sea coastal cities.
According to the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, Russian tourists numbered between 2.8 million and 3.1 million in 2014, bringing in estimated revenues of US$2.4 billion. Following the 2015 incident, Egypt has tightened security in its airports to satisfy Russian concerns. According to the Egyptian President, the return of the Russian tourists would reassure the world that Egypt is a country of safety and security.
The decision to build a Russian industrial zone in Egypt was agreed by President Vladimir Putin and President al-Sisi in 2014. The area of the Russian industrial park on the Suez Canal was expanded from 800 to 2000 hectares, and has a friendlier tax regime for resident Russian firms. It is expected to provide 77,000 jobs, and the companies expect revenues to reach US$11.6 billion.
It is estimated Russia will invest around US$4.6 billion in the construction of the industrial park by 2035. Construction of the park will start in 2018. Most of the money will come from private investors. Russian companies Kamaz, GAZ, UAZ, Transmashholding, Gazprom Neft, Tatneft, Inter RAO and others will be part of the new industrial hub. Russia had selected East Port Said to establish the industrial park in Egypt.
Russia in Ethiopia
Lavrov’s recent tour to Africa also appears to have an interest in re-establishing former Soviet-era ties with Ethiopia, with which Russia has longstanding diplomatic relations dating back to the 19th century. Lavrov pushed for a nuclear reactor to be built in Ethiopia by Russia as part of its policy of exporting atomic power facilities. In addition, he called for Russian membership in the Africa Union’s Mechanism for Police Cooperation (AFRIPOL).
Boots on the ground
Interestingly enough, the US has raised alarm over China’s naval ambitions in Africa, saying it could “place US security at risk”. However, they have not yet commented at a similar level of intensity on the expansion of Russia in West, East and North Africa.
In 2017, China finished work on its military barracks in Djibouti, with a capacity for up to 10,000 personnel, more than the combined number of soldiers and special forces at the French and US bases in the country.
The Pentagon operates its largest military base in Africa from Djibouti, using it against terror groups across East Africa, Somalia and the Middle East. However, they fear President Ismail Omar Guelleh could break this agreement should his Chinese patrons call in another debt, leaving the US limited in its ability to project power in the region. This constraint would leave US interests vulnerable, given the expansion of China, Russia, Turkey, the UEA and Qatar in the region.
Russia has a notable military influence in Africa, both in terms of boots on the ground and military transactions with states. Russia is the second-largest exporter of arms globally and a major supplier to Africa. Despite the controversy and moral issues around this (Russian weapons are often the ones showing up in the countries under arms embargoes), it is likely to remain one of its comparative advantages.
Many African countries attend the ‘military games’ hosted by Russia, either to participate or observe. Russia provides troops to UN peacekeeping missions.
Putin’s window of opportunity
Russia’s interests are not only of a military nature, but it has economic characteristics as well. Africa’s large population, forecast to grow to 2.4 billion by 2050 and more than 4 billion by 2100, provides a massive market for Russian goods and services. The fact that the middle class is growing in leaps and bounds in Africa, makes this market even more attractive to Russian businesses.
More than 620 million people in Africa do not have access to electricity. This provides Russia’s nuclear industry with an attractive potential market. Russia has already approached various countries in Africa to sound them out as potential clients, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, and South Africa.
Africa’s resources are also part of the attraction for Russia. Not least of these is Namibia’s uranium and Zimbabwe’s platinum. In addition, various minerals and agricultural products from Africa are in demand in Russia.
Russia’s investment charge has been led by companies such as Gazprom, Lukoil, Rostec, and Rosatom, which have investments or interests in Algeria, Egypt, South Africa, Uganda and Angola.
Diplomatically, Africa is of strategic interest to Russia in terms of the geopolitical support it offers – African states comprise the biggest geographic voting bloc across a multitude of global diplomatic, security and economic institutions, most notably the UN Security Council.
For Vladimir Putin, Africa is beginning to assume even greater significance. He wants to reassert Russia as one of the world powers, but is facing isolation in Europe and perhaps in the US. The sanctions regime is weakening his state so he is keen to open up other avenues of income, gather support, as well as establish military strategic positions, for example in the Horn of Africa, in Egypt and the African heartland, close to the source of natural resources.
The window of opportunity was thrown wide open for him when Donald Trump, without any provocation went out of his way to insult the whole of Africa in terms that can only be described as gutter language. Africa will not forgot or forgive this uncalled-for insult in a long while.
Lavrov’s hectic tour of African countries came as a well-timed counterbalance and he was given a warm welcome wherever he went and his measured statements were the polar opposite of Trump’s erratic and alarming tweets. Here was somebody Africa could deal with and rely on.
Africa therefore finds itself in the happy position of having many suitors – each offering something it needs. The Western media’s shrill warnings that China and Russia are bent on a ‘new colonization’ of Africa are seen as simplistic and have largely fallen on deaf ears. African can think for itself, thank you.
The question for African foreign policy makers now is how to play it clever from a position of relative strength and leverage the interest from not only China and Russia, but also from India, Japan, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey to its advantage and use the new ties to make the economic gains it so desperately needs.
Johan Burger is the director of the NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies, established by Nanyang Technological University, and the Singapore Business Federation. This article was first published in the New African, November 2018. Republished with permission from ICC Publications. The original article with full references is available on request.