Over the years, Russia and the Republic of the Congo have had good bilateral relations and, undoubtedly, there are still prospects for strengthening these relations especially in the economy and security spheres as underlined during the meeting between Vladimir Putin and Denis Sassou-Nguesso in the Kremlin.
“Our countries have always had friendly relations that have been developing this way for 55 years now. Our trade is growing – by over 60 percent – although, unfortunately, the numbers in absolute terms are still modest. But, we have good potential in several industries, such as energy, the processing industry and agriculture,” Putin said, welcoming the Congolese delegation.
Seven years ago, precisely in November 2012, Vladimir Putin had an official meeting with Sassou-Nguesso, in Novo-Ogaryovo near Moscow. With high hopes to raise the relations from November 2012 when he last visited Moscow, Sassou-Nguesso during the meeting assertively asked Russia for support and assistance in bringing total peace in central Africa. The central African countries include the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Cameroon and Chad.
“We preside over the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. We are playing a stabilizing role in Africa that can bring peace to this region. We in our country want to stabilize the situation as a whole. We hope that Russia will act side by side with us to create peace in the African region,” he said.
With regard to the economic cooperation, the Congolese leaders briefed Putin about some steps that have already been taken and concretely asked for Russian engagement. “You know that in economic terms there was a certain crisis associated with a decrease in oil prices. This crisis affected us, but we are gradually recovering. Now we are negotiating with the IMF on obtaining loans. We are negotiating with the IMF Executive Board and hope to get support in this matter from our Russian friends,” he added.
After official talks between Putin and Sassou-Nguesso, a package of documents were signed, including intergovernmental agreements on cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy and mass communications. The documents also concern the settlement of the Republic of the Congo’s debt to the Russian Federation under previously issued loans, cooperation between the Russian Interior Ministry and the Congolese Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization, cooperation in agriculture, and sending Russian military experts to the Republic of the Congo.
In addition, documents on the relations between Lukoil and the State Oil Company of the Republic of the Congo as well as between Pipe Metallurgical Company (TMK) and the National Petroleum Company of the Congo were signed.
The Pipe Metallurgical Company (TMK) is Russia’s leading pipe manufacturer. The project is to build a major oil pipeline, running more than 1,300 km from the port city of Pointe-Noire in the Republic of the Congo to the border with Cameroon.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister, Alexander Fomin, told journalists that the Republic of Congo has had a lot of Russian-made military and special hardware since the Soviet times, and some of it might yet serve Congo’s defense capability for a long time. Russian specialists will train Congolese specialists and help them repair this hardware.
“This includes armored and lightly-armored hardware, rocket and conventional artillery, helicopters and so on. This hardware certainly requires professional operation, service, maintenance, repairs, and modernization,” Fomin said.
In an interview with Itar-TASS News Agency, Sassou-Nguesso underscored that “Russia is an important country, a strategic partner that may play its role in the period when Africa is looking for cooperation in building a new world in the region, building infrastructure, new economic and security systems. The African people want to develop their economy and to establish themselves on the global arena. Russia may hold a strategic position on this issue.”
Earlier on May 22, the Chairman of the State Duma, Viacheslav Volodin, held a bilateral meeting with the President of the Republic of the Congo, Denis Sassou Nguesso. Volodin told him that “working within the framework of the parliamentary dimension with African countries is a priority for us. It is a pleasure that you have the opportunity to address the members of the State Duma. We would like to know your proposals, which are very important for us, taking into account the necessity to develop more actively cooperation within the framework of inter-parliamentary contacts.”
The Chairman of the State Duma invited the delegation of the Congo parliament to take part in the International Forum on Development of Parliamentarism, which will be held in Moscow on July 1-3.
In his address to the State Duma, Sassou-Nguesso reminded them that he had repeatedly been in various statuses in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. “It is a great honour to be in Russia and meet old friends, as these are the prerequisites for the development of bilateral cooperation. Meeting with representatives of the Russian people is symbolic,” said the President of the Republic of the Congo.
The Congolese leader proposed to strengthen the mutual strategic partnership between Russia and the Congo, and assist the Congo in the process of diversifying the economy in the interests and for the benefit of both countries.
“Today, Russia remains the most important player, a very active player, which undoubtedly participates in global governance in our common family of nations. Russia should continue to strengthen strategic partnership on mutually beneficial terms and assist the Congo in the process of diversifying our economy in the interests and for the benefits of the two countries,” he told the State Duma.
Experts are, of course, concerned about the significance of the visit. In an emailed comment, Kelvin Dewey Stubborn, South African based Senior Analyst on BRICS and African policy, argued that many African countries, including the Congo, view such official visits as steps to sustain political contacts and as a key instrument for building economic cooperation especially those necessary for attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
He, however, suggested that “existing cooperation agreements between Russia and many African countries have to be implemented with renewed vigour and consistency” alongside other previous pledges that have been made, at least, during the past decade. The fact the Congo was there in 2012, definitely there were some agreements signed that time, so also many leaders from other African countries during the presidency of Vladimir Putin.
“Given that Russia and Africa have confidence in building new relations on Soviet past, then there might be the possibility to create a wider platform, both formal and informal, for collaboration and cooperation,” told me by email from South Africa.
Last year’s growth in trade was primarily due to boosting Russia’s exports of foodstuffs and agricultural goods to Congo. Thus, bilateral trade reached US$38.4 million in 2018, according to the Russian Federal Customs Service.
Nearly 80% of the population still live in abject poverty despite the fact that the country boasts of huge resources. Congo has become the fourth largest oil producer in the Gulf of Guinea, providing the country with a degree of prosperity despite political and economic instability in some areas and unequal distribution of oil revenue nationwide. The country also has large untapped mineral wealth, large untapped metal, gold, iron and phosphate deposits. In 2018, the Republic of the Congo joined the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
‘Full scale’ humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia’s Tigray
A “full-scale humanitarian crisis” is unfolding as thousands of refugees flee ongoing fighting in Ethiopia’s Tigray region each day to seek safety in eastern Sudan, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported on Tuesday.
More than 27,000 have now crossed into Sudan through crossing points in Kassala and Gedaref states, as well as a new location further south at Aderafi, where Ethiopian refugees started crossing over the weekend, according to UNHCR.
The scale of the influx is the worst that part of the country has seen in over 20 years, according to the agency.
“Women, men and children have been crossing the border at the rate of 4,000 per day since 10 November, rapidly overwhelming the humanitarian response capacity on the ground,” said Babar Baloch, UNHCR spokesperson, briefing reporters in Geneva.
“Refugees fleeing the fighting continue to arrive exhausted from the long trek to safety, with few belongings”, he added.
According to news reports, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has indicated the military operation that was launched in response to the reported occupation of a Government military base by Tigrayan forces nearly two weeks ago, would continue, although he said it was now in its “final phase”.
‘Needs continue to grow’
UN agencies, along with relief partners have ramped up assistance – delivering food rations, hot meals and clean water, as well as setting up latrines and temporary shelters. They are also supporting the Sudanese Government in its response. But the needs continue to grow.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) is also supporting other humanitarian workers in its response, providing fuel for vehicles and generators in remote locations. The UN Humanitarian Air Service, managed by WFP, has also increased flights from three times per week to daily flights for aid workers.
Since Saturday, UNHCR has relocated 2,500 refugees from the border to Um Raquba settlement site, in eastern Sudan. There is however, a “critical need” to identify more sites so that refugees can be relocated away from the border and can access assistance and services, said Mr. Baloch.
‘On standby’ in Tigray
Meanwhile in the Tigray region of Ethiopia itself, lack of electricity, telecommunications, fuel and cash, continue to severely hamper any humanitarian response, the UNHCR spokesperson said.
“After nearly two weeks of conflict, reports of larger numbers of internally displaced grow daily, while the lack of access to those in need, coupled with the inability to move in goods to the region, remain major impediments to providing assistance,” he said.
UNHCR and partners are on standby to provide assistance to the displaced in Tigray, including basic items, when access and security allow.
The conflict is also a major ongoing concern for the Eritrean refugee population of nearly 100,000 in Tigray, who are reliant on assistance from UNHCR and partners.
“Potential for further displacement of refugees inside the country is increasingly a real possibility … The humanitarian situation as result of this crisis is growing rapidly” he warned, reiterating UNCHR’s call for peace and urge all parties to respect the safety and security for all civilians in Tigray.
Russia to Build Naval Facility in Sudan
Emerging from the first Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi a year ago, Russia will make one huge stride by establishing a naval facility in Sudan. This marks its maritime security presence in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region. Sharing a northern border with Egypt, Sudan is located on the same strategic coastline along the Red Sea.
According to the executive order, the published document says “the proposal from the government of the Russian Federation to sign an agreement between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Sudan on creating a facility of the Navy of the Russian Federation in the territory of the Republic of Sudan be adopted.”
It also authorizes “the Defense Ministry of Russia to sign the aforementioned agreement on behalf of the Russian Federation.” The document stipulates that a maximum of four warships may stay at the naval logistics base, including “naval ships with the nuclear propulsion system on condition of observing nuclear and environmental safety norms.”
Earlier, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin approved the draft agreement on establishing a naval logistics base in Sudan and gave instructions to submit the proposal to the president for signing. The draft agreement on the naval logistics facility was submitted by Russia’s Defense Ministry, approved by the Foreign Ministry, the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee of Russia and preliminary agreed with the Sudanese side.
As the draft agreement says, the Russian Navy’s logistics facility in Sudan “meets the goals of maintaining peace and stability in the region, is defensive and is not aimed against other countries.”
The signing of the document by the Russia president shows the positive results of negotiations, the possibility of constructing a naval base in the region, over the years with African countries along the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean.
During a visit by then-President of Sudan Omar al-Bashir to Moscow in November 2017, agreements were reached on Russia’s assistance in modernizing the Sudanese armed forces. Khartoum also said at the time it was interested in discussing the issue of using Red Sea bases with Moscow.
On the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Russia had a naval base in Somalia during the Soviet days. Currently, Djibouti hosts Chinese and American naval bases. China’s military base in Djibouti was set up to support five mission areas. India is another Asian nation that has increased its naval presence in Africa. In order to protect its commercial sea-lanes from piracy, it has established a network of military facilities across the Indian Ocean.
Will South Sudan follow its northern neighbour’s lead?
As the world watches to see whether President Trump accepts the US election results, few have noticed thatcivil war is looming in Ethiopia, after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he was sending troops to the Tigray province. This imperils not only Africa’s second most populous state but its neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, as well.
Sudan has had a good run recently and is in a better position to weather any regional conflict. In a surprise movelast month, President Trump announced Sudan’s removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism List (SST)in exchange for normalising relations with Israel. The US is understood to have sweetened the deal with a raft of economic and political incentives, including humanitarian assistance and high-level trade delegations. It would also support Sudan in its discussions with international finance institutions on economic and debt relief.
Since the toppling of President Bashir in 2019, the new transitional government, led by Prime Minister Hamdok, has focused on reviving Sudan’s economy and managing its $60bn debt burden. Hamdok faces a severe economic crisis, aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic, high inflation and the worst flooding in decades, that has affected more than 800,000 people and destroyed homes and large tracts of farmland just before the harvest. Food, bread and medicine are in short supply.
Thesanctions removal means that Sudan can now expect substantial assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bankand unlock investment into its fledgling economy.
This is good news for Sudan. But where does it leave its neighbour, South Sudan?
The international community had high hopes for South Sudan when it announced independence in 2011. But its optimism was misplaced. It never understood the Sudanese conflict that began with British colonialism and erupted after the British left in 1956. It wasn’t just a war between the Government of Sudan and the southern Sudanese rebels. Nor was it a fight between the Islamic North and the Christian South. It was a fight over resources and power.
South Sudan continues to fight. After its first post-independence civil war in 2013 and its endless cycle of violence and retribution, South Sudan is now as unstable as it was before it seceded from Sudan. To accommodate the different factions and keep old military men in power, the South Sudanese government and bureaucracy is peopled with those loyal to the former rebels.
Few have the skills needed to manage the country properly. They have squandered their oil opportunity, through mismanagement and corruption. With falling oil growth demand, oil is unlikely to remaina sustainable revenue source. This will challenge the South Sudanese economy which is 90% reliant on oil.
South Sudan is also facing multiple sanctions. In 2014, the international communityimposed travel bans and asset freezes, as well as an arms embargo. In 2018, the EU designated sanctions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations, alarmed by “the outbreak of a destructive conflict between the Government of South Sudan and opposition forces in December 2013.” Most recently, the US added First Vice President of South Sudan, Taban Deng Gai to its Global Magnitsky sanctions list for his involvement in the disappearance and deaths of human rights lawyer Samuel Dong Luak and SPLM-IO member Aggrey Idry.
If US foreign policy towards Sudan was driven by religious and ideological interests in the 1990s and 2000s, what we are now seeing is a shift to transactional diplomacy. There is no reason to think that President Biden would change course.
South Sudan is watching closely. It may be why it has instructed a US lobbying firm to allegedly lobby for their own sanctions removal. It is also why it welcomed a peace deal between Sudan and five rebel groups in September, paving the way for increased oil export cooperation with its neighbour.
But stability in the youngest African state is fragile. Even with a recently signed peace agreement between former foes, President Kiir and Vice-President Machar, violence is always lurking. South Sudan is plagued with the same environmental challenges of flooding and poor harvests. The fighting in Ethiopia will not help.
As South Sudan looks to the North, it will see a New Sudan, unshackled by the weight of its history and benefitting from international goodwill. Will this encourage South Sudan to look forward instead of back? Or will it unleash demons from the past?
Let’s hope that the international community pulls itself away from Trump’s horror show and starts paying attention to East Africa. It may be a long winter.
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