While Russia’s interest in the sub-Saharan Africa is nothing new, Russian authorities have realized that it’s time to move back primarily to reclaim its economic footprints and to find old Soviet-era allies, but that step comes with new challenges especially from other foreign players and the changing internal political and economic conditions in Africa.
For the past few years, Russia authorities have taken steady and strategic steps at the possibility of pushing huge investments in lucrative sectors as ways to strengthen bilateral relations and expand economic cooperation in a number of African countries.
That show of corporate investment and business interests have been sealed into various agreements, for instance, were the results from high-powered state delegations that frequently visited both regions, Russia and Africa, last year and during the first half of 2015.
Keir Giles, an associate fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London explained to me in an email interview that “Russia’s approach to Africa is all about making up for lost time. The Soviet Union’s intense involvement in African nations came to an abrupt halt in the early 1990s, and for a long time Moscow simply didn’t have the diplomatic and economic resources to pay attention to Africa while Russia was consumed with internal problems.”
According to Giles “that changed in the last decade, thanks to two things: the arrival of President Vladimir Putin with a new foreign policy focus, and the massive influx of cash on the back of increased oil prices, which transformed Russian state finances. Russia is interested both in economic opportunities and in rebuilding political relationships that had in some ways been on hold for over a decade.”
In order to raise Russia’s economic influence and profile in Africa, in June 2009, the Coordinating Committee on Economic Cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa, popularly referred to as AfroCom, was created on the initiative of the Russian Federation Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Vnesheconombank to help promote and facilitate Russian business in Africa. Since its creation, it has had full-fledged support from the Russian Government, the Federation Council and State Duma, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the African diplomatic community.
The vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation, Georgi Petrov, noted at the AfroCom’s annual executive meeting held in April 2015 that “in view of the current geopolitical situation in the world and the economic situation in Russia Russian businesses have to look for new markets. In this regard, of particular interest is the African continent, which today is one of the fastest growing regions in the world with an annual GDP growth – 5%. In addition, opportunities for projects in Africa are opened with the accession of South Africa to the BRICS bloc.” Brazil, Russia, India and China are members of BRICS.
Reports also showed that Russia has started strengthening its economic cooperation by opening trade missions with the responsibility of providing sustainable business services and plans to facilitate import-export trade in a number of African countries.
But, these Russian trade centers must necessarily embark on “Doing Business in Africa” campaign to encourage Russian businesses to take advantage of growing trade and investment opportunities, to promote trade fairs and business-to-business matchmaking in key spheres in Africa.
Maxim Matusevich, an associate professor and director, Russian and East European Studies Program at the Seton Hall University, told me in an interview discussion that “in the past decade there was some revival of economic ties between Africa and Russia – mostly limited to arms trade and oil/gas exploration and extraction. Russia’s presence in Africa and within African markets continues to be marginal and I think that Russia has often failed to capitalize on the historical connection between Moscow and those African elites who had been educated in the Soviet Union.”
“It is possible that the ongoing crisis in the relations between Russia and the West will stimulate Russia’s leadership to look for new markets for new sources of agricultural produce. Many African nations possess abundant natural resources and have little interest in Russia’s gas and oil. As it was during the Soviet times, Russia can only offer few manufactured goods that would successfully compete with Western-made products. African nations will probably continue to acquire Russian-made arms, but otherwise, I see only few prospects for a diversification of cooperation in the near future,” added Maxim Matusevich.
As Buziness Africa gathered in May 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has held talks during the first quarter of this year with a number of state delegations at various levels and that included Foreign Ministers from Burundi, Tanzania, Algeria, Gabon, Guinea, Madagascar, Libya and Zambia.
And also at the start of this year, the high-ranking Russian delegation headed by special presidential representative for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, participated in the 24th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of States and Governments of the African Union and on the sidelines held series of diplomatic discussions with representatives from some African countries in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
“On the sidelines of the forum, Mikhail Bogdanov had meetings and talks with President of the Republic of the Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso, President of Mauritania, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, President of Madagascar Hery Rajaonarimampianina, President of Equatorial Guinea Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, President of Gabon Ali Bongo, Vice President of Angola Manuel Vicente, Deputy Secretary General of the Arab League Ahmed Ben Helli.”
“The parties discussed current bilateral and regional agendas, further improvement of diverse cooperation between Russia and Africa, including cooperation with sub-regional organizations of the continent,” according to the transcript posted to the official website of the Foreign Ministry.
Further to that, Lavrov held a meeting on the sidelines of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The meeting was attended on the SADC side by representatives of Zimbabwe (the SADC presiding country), Angola, Zambia, Namibia, Mauritius, Malawi, Mozambique, Seychelles, Tanzania, the Republic of South Africa, as well as SADC Executive Secretary.
Without doubts, Russia’s strategic return to Africa has sparked academic discussions at various levels where academic researchers openly admitted that political consultations are on track, arms exports has significantly increased, but other export products are extremely low. Russia’s involvement in infrastructure development has also been low for the past decades on the continent.
In an interview, Themba Mhlongo, Head of Programmes at the Southern Africa Trust, thinks that Africa should not expect higher trade flows with Russia simply because Africa has not engaged Russia.
Mhlongo told Buziness Africa media that “there is still low Africa-Russia Dialogue or mechanism for dialoguing with Russia, and on the otherhand, Russia has not been as aggressive as China in pursuing opportunities in Africa because Russia has natural resources and markets in Eastern Europe, South West Asia. Russian exports to Africa might be dominated by machinery and military equipment which serves their interest well.”
He suggested that Africa must engage all BRICS members equally including Brazil and Russia in order to build alliances and open trade opportunities including finance and investment opportunities. Also African countries must not seem to show preferences in their foreign policy in favour of Western Europe if they want to benefit from trade relations with Russia. They must learn to be neutral!
Mhlongo suspects that Africa still holds an old view about Russia being a communist state and less technologically developed or unsophisticated compared to Western Europe. But, Russia never colonized Africa and therefore there are no colonial ties between the two.
“If you look at African trade flows to Europe they reflect colonial ties most of the time. However, modern Russia is now one of the important emerging market countries and a member of BRICS. The Russian society is also closed and orientation is towards Western Europe in particular the United States (probably as a result of the period of bi-polar global power system that existed before). Although Russia exports to Africa but rarely sets up businesses. The language (or culture in general) could be one of the barriers to the development of trade relations with Russia,” he pointed out.
He further proposed that both Africa and Russia can initiate a dialogue in the form of Africa-Russian business summit to explore economic opportunities between them. However, there are other avenues to engage each other through the BRICS bloc or through bilateral diplomatic channels. Russia has embassies in Africa and African countries have diplomatic representations in Russia. Africa may have to pay special attention to cultural issues and try to understand Russia in this ever changing environment and find an entry point to engage Russia.
On her part, Alexandra Arkhangelskaya, a senior researcher at the Institute of African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences and a staff lecturer at the Moscow High School of Economics told Buziness Africa in an interview that Russia and Africa needed each other – “Russia is a vast market not only for African minerals, but for various other goods and products produced by African countries.”
The signs for Russian-African relations are impressive – declarations of intentions have been made, important bilateral agreements signed – now it remains to be seen how these intentions and agreements will be implemented in practice, she pointed out in the interview.
The revival of Russia-Africa relations should be enhanced in all fields: political, economic, trade, scientific, technological, and cultural. Obstacles to the broadening of Russian-Africa relations should be addressed. These include in particular the lack of knowledge in Russia about the situation in Africa, and vice versa, suggested Arkhangelskaya.
“As we witness rapid deterioration of relations between Russia and the West unfold, Russia’s decision to ban the import of some agricultural products from countries that have imposed sanctions against Moscow offers great opportunities for the expansion of trade of such products from Africa,” the academic professor observed in her discussion.
Experts, who have researched Russia’s foreign policy in Africa, at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for African Studies, have reiterated that Russia’s exports to Africa can be possible only after the country’s industrial based experiences a more qualitative change and introducing tariff preferences for trade with African partners. As a reputable institute during the Soviet era, it has played a considerable part in the development of African studies in the Russian Federation.
“The situation in Russian-African foreign trade will change for the better, if Russian industry undergoes technological modernization, the state provides Russian businessmen systematic and meaningful support, and small and medium businesses receive wider access to foreign economic cooperation with Africa,” according the views of Professor Aleksei Vasiliev, the director of the RAS Institute for African Studies and full member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Evgeny Korendyasov, an expert at the RAS Institute for African Studies.
Statistics on Africa’s trade with foreign countries vary largely. For example, the total U.S. two-way trade in Africa has actually fallen off in recent years, to about $60 billion in 2013, far eclipsed by the European Union with over $200 billion and China, whose more than $200 billion is a huge increase from $10 billion in 2000, according to a recent “Africa in Focus ” website post by the Brookings Institution. According to the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Russian Federation, Russia’s trade with Africa, south of the Sahara, is only $3.2 billion.
In one of his speeches posted to the official website, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted frankly in remarks: “it is evident that the significant potential of our economic cooperation is far from being exhausted and much remains to be done so that Russian and African partners know more about each other’s capacities and needs. The creation of a mechanism for the provision of public support to business interaction between Russian companies and the African continent is on the agenda.”
Fuelling peace through dialogue over natural resources in Sudan’s West Kordofan
Niematian village in Al-Muglad area of West Kordofan State shares many similarities with other neighbouring villages and towns in the province, where crop-farming, grazing and small-scale trade are the mainstays of the local economy.
Pastoralists of West Kordofan were greatly affected by the 2011 secession of South Sudan, which hindered them from crossing the border as they had done previously in search of pasture and water for their herds.
This has led to concentration of livestock in the already fragile grazing areas in the state, overgrazing around permanent water points and potential conflict with farmers, spread of diseases and livestock death.
Niematian has also experienced a considerable population increase, arising mainly from displaced communities from the Hamar tribe, in the state’s North Babanusa area, and Dinka refugees from South Sudan and the disputed region of Abyei.
This rapid population growth, coupled with failing environmental governance structures, has fuelled environmental degradation. It has also spurred tensions and conflict over land, which on many occasions have resulted in violence.
Between June 2015 and August 2018, UN Environment, with funding from the European Union, implemented the Promoting Peace Over Natural Resources in Darfur and Kordofan project. The project aimed to improve the capacity to resolve resource-based conflicts and to manage natural resources more sustainably and equitably.
The 39-month project was implemented across five areas in West Darfur (Kerenik and Mornie), Central Darfur (Azum) and West Kordofan (Muglad and Babanusa). It was delivered in partnership with two national non-governmental organizations: the Darfur Development and Reconstruction Agency (DDRA) in West and Central Darfur, and SOS Sahel Sudan (SOS Sahel) in West Kordofan.
In 2016, there was an unprecedented situation in Niematian village after farmers expanded their agricultural fields and encroached agreed migratory routes, thus denying pastoralists access to water for themselves and their livestock.
However, thanks to a local reconciliation committee, the dispute was managed and the tension diffused in a thoughtful and reliable way.
“To prevent similar conflicts in future, a peace forum was held in Niematian village January 2017 with the support of SOS Sahel. Community and tribal leaders briefed communities on the forum’s objective and invited five members from each of the 18 sub-villages along the central migratory route to participate in the peace forum,” says Atila Uras, UN Environment’s Sudan Country Programme Manager.
The local administration brought together leaders of the tribes in conflict to not only jointly identify violations but to also explore ways to strengthen relations between them.
The Niematian reconciliation committee, which comprised local leaders from the Dinka, Hamar and Misseriya tribes, continues to resolve conflicts over land use in accordance with customary law.
Furthermore, through a seasonal agricultural committee, which is activated during the rainy season, the tribal leaders in Niematian have been implementing the taleg, traditional rules and customs, to allow free access to crop residue by pastoralists after the collection of harvest by farmers.
“As a result of the forum, and the consequent dialogue, we witnessed a 60 per cent reduction in conflict,” says Bashtanah Mohamed Salim, a local leader from the Misseriya tribe who played a key role in establishing the Niematian peace forum in 2017.
Thanks to the project, conflict resolution training was provided to both local government officials and tribal leaders in all the three states.
In West Kordofan State, the training was delivered in collaboration with the Peace and Development Studies Centre in the state capital Al Fula. It provided tailored guidance on conflict analysis, carrying out risk assessments to intervene prior to conflict, and communications and mediations skills.
In 2008, cognizant of the need to make resource scarcity and competition a platform for cooperation rather than conflict, UN Environment established its Environmental Cooperation for Peacebuilding programme. The initiative seeks to address critical knowledge gaps on the role of natural resources in identifying conflict risks and peacebuilding opportunities.
Between 2009 and 2015, the programme co-generated 150 original peer-reviewed case studies by 225 experts and practitioners, covering 12 natural resource sectors across 60 conflict-affected countries. It also provided technical analysis and environmental diplomacy support to Western Sahara, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Papua New Guinea, the Sahel region, Sudan and Nigeria to address ongoing or potential resource disputes. In February 2015, the United Nations Department of Political Affairs and UN Environment jointly published Natural Resources and Conflict: A guide for mediation practitioners.
UN Environment has also, in collaboration with the Environmental Law Institute, the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Duke University and the University of California at Irvine, developed a groundbreaking massive open online course on environmental security and sustaining peace.
Russia wants to bolster economic ties with Lesotho
In southern Russian city Sochi, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations of the Kingdom of Lesotho, Lesego Makgothi, held wide-ranging diplomatic talks mid-February to understand deeply how to continue to build upon relations in numerous areas especially economic cooperation.
Makgothi, who has been Minister since 2017, made his first official trip to Moscow.
According to the official media release, Lavrov and Makgothi exchanged views on important global and regional issues, including Russia’s participation in international efforts to resolve conflicts and crises in Africa and some ways to ensure sustainable socioeconomic development of the continent.
They noted a desire to expand these relations in all areas, beginning with the political dialogue and then cooperation within international organizations, as well as in trade and economic, cultural and humanitarian areas.
During the discussion, both noted geological prospecting, mining and the energy industry as promising areas. The economy is based on agriculture, livestock, manufacturing and mining. Water and diamonds are its significant natural resources.
Both ministers also focused on cooperation in education exchanges. Russia has expanded the quota by five times for students from Lesotho. This will make it possible to meet the interests of Lesotho and to train specialists in healthcare, meteorology and mining starting next academic year, 2019/20.
There was also the possibility of sending law enforcement officers to study in advanced training courses at the educational institutions under the Russian Interior Ministry.
Lavrov informed that an inter-parliamentary Russian-African conference has been scheduled to take place later this year, and Russia would host a general meeting of the African Export-Import Bank’s shareholders.
Lavrov and Makgothi believed that this would make it possible to considerably raise the level of cooperation and to chart specific ways of further enriching Russia’s relations with Africa. He invited Makgothi to attend the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum scheduled for June.
In general, Lavrov and Makgothi advocated for greater cooperation between Russia and the African countries in all areas, primarily within the context of a proposal put forward by President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, at the BRICS summit in July 2018 in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Lesotho’s geographic location, the southernmost landlocked country in the world and is entirely surrounded by South Africa, makes it extremely vulnerable to political and economic developments in South Africa.
Relations between the two countries were established soon after Lesotho gained independence in 1966. Lesotho, with about 2.5 million population, is a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
‘Endemic’ sexual violence surging in South Sudan
A surge in sexual violence in South Sudan’s Unity state targeting victims as young as eight years old, has prompted a call from the UN human rights office, OHCHR, for urgent Government measures to protect victims, and bring perpetrators to justice.
Despite the signing of a peace deal between belligerents last September, UN investigators found that at least 175 women and girls have been raped or suffered other sexual and physical violence between September and December 2018.
The actual level of violence is likely to be considerably higher, OHCHR spokesperson Rupert Colville told journalists in Geneva on Friday.
“Obviously (it is) not the whole picture, but they found 175, women and girls who had been either raped, gang-raped or sexually assaulted or physically harmed in other ways,” he said. “And 49 of those girls who were raped, were children.”
Nonetheless, it warns that such incidents are “endemic” in northern Unity state, on the border with Sudan, creating a sense among communities that it is normal to be a victim of sexual violence.
Victim’s testimony recalls recurring attacks
Citing the testimony of one victim, Mr. Colville explained that many women are raped while fetching firewood, food or water – often more than once – as they lack any protection.
“She said, ‘If we go by the main road we are raped, if we go by the bush, we are raped. I was raped among others in the same area repeatedly on three separate occasions.”
The surge in conflict-related sexual violence is attributed to many factors including the breakdown in the rule of law, the destruction of livelihoods, forced displacement and food insecurity, after years of civil war.
Large numbers of armed young men, a ‘toxic mix’
But one of the main reasons is the large number of fighters in the area, who have yet to be reintegrated into the national army, according to the peace deal.
Most of the attacks are reported to have been carried out by youth militia groups and elements of the pro-Taban Deng Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition, SPLA-IO (TD), as well as South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF).
In a few cases, attacks were perpetrated by members of the group affiliated with reinstated Vice President and peace deal participant, Riek Machar, Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM), the UN report says.
“Particularly in this area, there are essentially three main groups who…are involved in these rapes, including the National Government force,” said Mr. Colville. “And a lot of these young men who are heavily armed, are just waiting around…This is a very toxic mix, and there are also youth militia which some of these official groups ally with and you don’t know exactly who they are; they’ve been heavily involved as well.”
Rule of law ‘just not applied’
A key challenge is tackling the prevailing impunity throughout Unity state, which is linked to the volatility of the situation across the country, OHCHR maintains.
“There’s been very little accountability in South Sudan for what is chronic, endemic problem of sexual violence against women and girls,” Mr. Colville said. “Virtually complete impunity over the years, as a result, very little disincentive for these men not to do what they’re doing. The rule of law has just not been applied.”
Mobile courts provide glimmer of hope for victims
Among the practical measures taken to a bid to help vulnerable communities in Unity state, UNMISS has cleared roadsides to prevent attackers from hiding from potential victims.
A mobile court system is also operational in towns, including Bentiu, which has had “some success” in bringing perpetrators to trial, OHCHR’s Mr. Colville said, noting nonetheless that “this is just a drop in the ocean”.
“There are thousands and thousands of perpetrators, there are officers involved, there are commanders who’ve got command responsibility who instead of being investigated and brought to book…have been promoted, and are still in charge of groups operating in this area who are still raping women,” he concluded.
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