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African Great Game: Russia Playing the Catchup

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After Soviet collapse, Russia has maintained strong and time-tested relations with African countries, and of course, the Soviet Union had played an important role during the decolonisation of Africa. The African continent comprises a diverse collection of countries, each with its own set of development setbacks and challenges. The political culture and investment climate are, in fact, diverse but are important forces in the economy. 

According to several development reports, Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world: the average annual GDP growth rate reaches from 3.5% to 5% on the continent. The reports have strongly encouraged African leaders to prioritise sustainable development as a step towards raising the living standards of millions of impoverished population and further guide against the revival of neo-colonialism, the destructive attitude towards the resouces in Africa.

In this wide-ranging exclusive interview, George Nyongesa, Senior Associate at Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi, Kenya) discusses, with Kester Kenn Klomegah, attitudes and perceptions toward Russia, economic cooperation between the two regions as well as Russia’s role in sustainable development in Africa and expectations from the forthcoming summit in Sochi, Russia.

African leaders and business people will be in Sochi for the first Summit. What are the perceptions and attitudes toward this new dawn in the relations? How do the political and business elites interpret the benefits of the new relationship for both Africa and in Russia?

The impending Russia-Africa Summit is a timely and opportune congregation given current global events involving Africa’s traditional partners – the US’ recent years’ protectionist policy, China’s trade wars with the US, Brexit from the European Union – all of which directly impact Africa’s economic reality. For African leaders and business people, the utility and strategic importance of the Russia-Africa Summit is tied to how aptly it addresses this immediate reality and outlines future prospects.

To-date the US, European Union, China, India and Japan have partnered with African leaders to pursue development goals for mutual benefit. Accordingly, these partners have long articulated their engagement plans for Africa through comprehensive frameworks such as the US-Africa Leaders’ Summit and Power Africa Initiative, the European Union-Africa Summit, the Forum for China Africa Cooperation, the India-Africa Summit and Tokyo International Conference for African Development. The first Russia-Africa Summit therefore signals the dawn of deeper and stronger relations between Russia and Africa as Russia takes on a more active presence.

At Sochi, African leaders and business community will be looking to understand the proposed Russian framework for political and economic cooperation going forward, particularly long-term cooperation that takes into account Africa’s risk profile and the current competitive landscape for those seeking to invest. The business community will be keen to identify in-roads and opportunities for African businesses to grow and thrive in Russia vis-a-vis Africa’s development priorities on Agenda 2063, SADC’s industrialisation strategy and AfCFTA platform.

During the parliamentary conference held in July, the Chairman of the State Duma stressed that “it is necessary to prevent the revival of neo-colonialism, the destructive attitude towards the African resources.” How would you explain neo-colonialism by foreign players in Africa? What countries are the neo-colonizers in your view?

Neo-colonialism could be viewed as the renewed interest and methods employed from western and eastern countries in relation to exploitation and management of Africa’s rich resources – both from an economic and political paradigm. Traditionally, Western aid for African development has been laced with conditionalities tagged to defending human rights and promoting good governance via anti-corruption campaigns. This approach has seen compliant countries favored and non-compliant ones sanctioned by such Western nations. The interference with independent states has widely been castigated as neo-colonialism in many quarters. The alternative development model offered under the Belt and Road Initiative has facilitated the rise of China to displace the West as Africa’s largest development partner.

With the entire African continent (save for one country) signed up to BRI, Western countries’ worries about China expansionism has escalated. In this regard, BRI has been hit with accusations of debt trap diplomacy as far as its roll out in Africa. This is because the projects are run by Chinese businesses and where African nations struggle to repay the debt, then China is primed to step in and run the projects. The warning is that these seemingly friendlier loan terms could foster unsustainable debt and economic drain on African economies.

Outside of the economic dynamic, China has been accused of supporting authoritarian governments by its loan terms, and that in default situations, China’s remedies result in significant geopolitical expansion for China. To counter the growing Chinese influence, the United States has itself set up an African focused development agency that facilitates American businesses to flourish in developing Africa. These hegemonic tussles make for the neo-colonial danger that sees these development partners prosper to the exclusion of Africa itself.

In fact, Africa needs investment in infrastructure, agriculture and industry, to create employment for the young graduates. What role can Russia play here, we are referring to Sustainable Development Goals?

Africa’s regional development priorities are largely articulated by the African Union’s Agenda 2063, the SADC’s Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap, 2015-2063 and the implementation of the recently adopted African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Briefly, these priorities include industrialisation for economic and technological transformation; competitiveness; and regional integration. Africa is keen to shift away from industrialisation powered by increased labour and capital investment, to one powered by efficient resource deployment in production processes. AfCFTA particularly presents a significant consolidated voice for African states to negotiate economic and trade opportunities in e-commerce, technology transfers, manufacturing growth, scholarship and training; and infrastructure financing. Additionally, each of Africa’s 54 states have nationally articulated development priorities. These development goals have been designed as steps in pursuit of the attainment of the Millenium Development Goals.

Towards achieving these goals China has offered as much as US$60 billion, Japan US$32 billion, and India US$25 billion, while large investment funds have also come from the United States and the European Union. Similarly, Russia could design a funding vehicle focused on supporting Africa’s development priorities, particularly industrialisation and trade facilitation, for mutual benefit. Russia could further share knowledge on its own steps towards the MDGs and train professionals with the relevant skills for development projects. Such training could either be by the rollout of inter-university student exchange programs or the collaboration amongst academia to teach relevant skills in local curriculum in vocational institutions.

With trade specifically, there are surging competition, rivalry and trade wars in Africa, and recently the adoption of African continental free trade. What is your interpretation of all these and how profitable could it be for corporate Russian exporters?

Russia has progressively engaged Africa on bilateral basis at country level, as well as through regional blocs such as AU and SADC, at continental level. The adoption of the largest trade agreement since the WTO, the AfCFTA, signals the exponential potential of Africa as a trading bloc, going forward. The intention of AfCFTA is to provide a significant consolidated voice for African states to negotiate economic and trade opportunities in e-commerce, technology transfers, manufacturing growth, scholarship and training; and infrastructure financing. It is anticipated that there will be an additional 1.3 billion people in Africa by 2050. This is a massive market for Russian corporates to explore if they can leverage mutually beneficial engagement at the AfCFTA level.

In your expert view, what are the key challenges and problems facing Russian companies and investors that wanted business operations in Africa?

Africa’s active business development partners have been the United States, European Union, China, India and Japan, but less so Russia. As such, there’s limited shared knowledge on the value proposition of development and business collaboration between the two. Additionally, the absence of an articulated collaboration framework has meant that African and Russian policy makers are yet to design appropriate collaboration channels and tools that would facilitate mutually beneficial investment and ease of doing business. Related gaps include the prevailing language and cultural barrier that is, as yet, to be actively addressed. These, coupled with other prevailing hurdles to doing business in Africa such as limited infrastructure, high local unemployment rates, semi-skilled workers and protection of local industries, have hindered the set up of local business operations by Russian companies and investors.

On the other hand, why the presence of African companies on the Russian market is extremely low? Why Russia is not attractive to African exporters? Under the circumstances, what should be done to improve the current situation, a two-way trade?

The African perception of Russia and vice versa has largely been painted by other Western powers that are active on the African continent. That public persona is not one that has been enticing for African exporters. As such, Africa’s knowledge of the opportunities in trading with Russia is significantly limited. Opportunities for driving up trade relations between Russia and Africa include the facilitation of trade expos that create a platform for investors and businesses from both parties to interact and understand the opportunities and challenges to their export and import businesses. In addition, continued interaction between Russia and Africa, such as through exchange programs for students, or business cultural trips, will facilitate the chipping away at the language and cultural barrier that in turn hinders easy trade. If both Russia and Africa are able to showcase the available market for each other’s products, then trade engagement is likely to increase.

Could we finally talk about media cooperation between Russia and Africa, social platforms and the use of soft power as important instruments for strengthening the relations? What are your suggestions to these aspects in the existing relations between the Russia and Africa?

As part of Russia’s desire to adopt a comprehensive strategic roadmap for a more integrated cooperation and to find effective ways of improving public diplomacy in Africa, the Russian government is supporting a pilot programme organised for African media groups for a two-year period from 2018 to 2020. The utility of this approach is to develop a cohort of champions that will facilitate a positive post-Soviet economic and cultural narrative, as well as demystify Russia for Africa’s political, business and general population. Through this, Russians and Africans will be able to leverage soft power to build trust from shared experience, shift towards normalisation of relations through increased familiarity, set the stage for increased reciprocity such as Russia granting accessibility for African correspondents to match Russia’s increased media presence in Africa. In a nutshell, there will be an avenue for demystification and contextualisation (getting to know the truth about each other through moderated content) and so help counter any negative public persona, share cultural experiences and begin to wear down language barriers.

MD Africa Editor Kester Kenn Klomegah is an independent researcher and writer on African affairs in the EurAsian region and former Soviet republics. He wrote previously for African Press Agency, African Executive and Inter Press Service. Earlier, he had worked for The Moscow Times, a reputable English newspaper. Klomegah taught part-time at the Moscow Institute of Modern Journalism. He studied international journalism and mass communication, and later spent a year at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He co-authored a book “AIDS/HIV and Men: Taking Risk or Taking Responsibility” published by the London-based Panos Institute. In 2004 and again in 2009, he won the Golden Word Prize for a series of analytical articles on Russia's economic cooperation with African countries.

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Decade of Sahel conflict leaves 2.5 million people displaced

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Two displaced women sit at a camp in Awaradi, Niger. © UNOCHA/Eve Sabbagh

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) called on Friday for concerted international action to end armed conflict in Africa’s central Sahel region, which has forced more than 2.5 million people to flee their homes in the last decade.

Speaking to journalists in Geneva, the agency’s spokesperson, Boris Cheshirkov, informed that internal displacement has increased tenfold since 2013, going from 217,000 to a staggering 2.1 million by late last year.

The number of refugees in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger now stands at 410,000, and the majority comes from Mali, where major civil conflict erupted in 2012, leading to a failed coup and an on-going extremist insurgency.

Increase in one year

Just last year, a surge in violent attacks across the region displaced nearly 500,000 people (figures for December still pending).

According to estimates from UN partners, armed groups carried out more than 800 deadly attacks in 2021. 

This violence uprooted some 450,000 people within their countries and forced a further 36,000 to flee into a neighbouring country.

In Burkina Faso alone, the total number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) rose to more than 1.5 million by the end of the year. Six in ten of the Sahel’s displaced are now from this country.

In Niger, the number of IDPs in the regions of Tillabéri and Tahoua has increased by 53 per cent in the last 12 months. In Mali, more than 400,000 people are displaced internally, representing a 30 per cent increase from the previous year.

Climate, humanitarian crisis

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation is rapidly deteriorating with crises on multiple fronts.

Insecurity is the main driver, made worse by extreme poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the climate crisis are also felt more strongly in the region, with temperatures rising 1.5 times faster than the global average.

Women and children are often the worst affected and disproportionately exposed to extreme vulnerability and the threat of gender-based violence.

According to the UNHCR spokesperson, “host communities have continued to show resilience and solidarity in welcoming displaced families, despite their own scant resources.”

He also said that Government authorities have demonstrated “unwavering commitment” to assisting the displaced, but they are now “buckling under increasing pressure.”

Bold response

UNHCR and humanitarian partners face mounting challenges to deliver assistance, and continue to be the target of road attacks, ambushes, and carjacking.

In this context, the agency is calling on the international community to take “bold action and spare no effort” in supporting these countries.

UNHCR is also leading the joint efforts of UN agencies and NGOs to provide emergency shelter, manage displacement sites and deliver vital protection services, including combating gender-based violence and improving access to civil documentation.

In 2021, more than a third of the agency’s Central Sahel funding needs were unmet.

This year, to mount an effective response in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, the agency needs $307 million.

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SADC extends its joint military mission in Mozambique

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The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has collectively decided to extend its force mission mandate in Mozambique for three months to provide military support in fighting terrorism in Cabo Delgado, the northern seaside provincial district that suffered frequent militant attacks displacing thousands out of their homes.

The South African Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), according to the final communiqué released after the leaders of the southern African countries gathered to review significant issues, among them the operations of the joint military force dispatched last year as attacks reached its greater heights to Mozambique.

Chairperson of the SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defense and Security and South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa told the gathering in Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, where the regional bloc held its extraordinary summit and reviewed progress in Mozambique, described SAMIM as highly successful in defeating the militant groups particularly in Cabo Delgado.

“I would like to express my appreciation and commend SAMIM for its work on the ground, as well as recognize the member states that have supported this work financially and in the deployment of military personnel and equipment,” the final report quoted Ramaphosa.

SADC cannot allow terrorism to spread to other provinces in Mozambique and to the region, and it is imperative to promote a spirit of unity among member countries as terrorism and violent extremism threaten the stability and development that the region has achieved over the past four decades, says the report.

The communiqué also approved the framework for support to Mozambique in addressing terrorism outlines, among others, comprehensive strategic actions for consolidating peace, security, and the socio-economic recovery of Cabo Delgado.

The Maputo daily Noticias wrote after the SADC summit that a budgetary allocation of US$29.5 million has been set aside for the three-month extension, after several years of high-level consultations and this would mean until at least mid-April. The SAMIM extension set from mid-January.

Addressing the opening session of the summit, the current SADC Chairperson, Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera, urged regional bloc member states to stick together and ensure that SAMIM remains multidimensional and comprehensive. He entreated SADC member countries not to relent, regress or even retreat on their commitments.

“What remains now is for us to stay the course and stick together. We cannot relent. We cannot regress. We cannot retreat. Our approach to this mission must continue to be multidimensional and comprehensive. It must not only focus on neutralizing the threat, but also have post-conflict plans to rebuild,” said Chakwera, added that the collective mission is paramount and the stakes for all the Member States are high because what they are fighting for is regional stability, and the sustainability of the quest for the bloc’s integration and socio-economic development.

Chakwera welcomed the comprehensive Cabo Delgado Reconstruction Plan launched by his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Nyusi, and his government, which, among other issues, seeks to provide humanitarian support to the affected population, including internally displaced persons, and uplift their living standards.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi however expressed high optimism about the current military situation in Cabo Delgado. He said that all the bases from which the terrorists used to plan their actions are now in the hands of the Mozambican forces, and 2022 would be a decisive year to support the regional standby force in the final fight against terrorism in Mozambique.

For the Mozambican President Nyusi the extension of the SAMIM mission demonstrates the spirit of unity and solidarity that the Southern African Development Community members have readily and warmheartedly shown with the people of Mozambique.

Mozambique has grappled with an insurgency in its northernmost province of Cabo Delgado since 2017, but currently fast improving after the deployment of joint military force with the primary responsibility of ensuring peace and stability, and for restoring normalcy in Mozambique.

Mozambique has consistently maintained that all problems especially relating to conflicts and crises should be resolved largely based on the approaches of Africans, and of course with moral, political and material support from regional blocs such as SADC and the continental organization – African Union, and the involvement of United Nations with its UN Security Council.

With an approximate population of 30 million, Mozambique is endowed with rich and extensive natural resources but remains one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world. Mozambique is a member of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

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Mali: Security Council warned of ‘endless cycle of instability’

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The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, has supported peace and reconciliation efforts in the country. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

A decade after civil conflict erupted in Mali, hopes for an early resolution to insurgency and strife have not materialized, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the country, El-Ghassim Wane, told the Security Council on Tuesday.  

Instead, the UN top envoy explained, “insecurity has expanded, the humanitarian situation has deteriorated, more children are of out of school and the country has been affected by an endless cycle of instability.”  

In fact, more than 1.8 million people are expected to need food assistance in 2022 compared to 1.3 million in 2021, the highest level of food insecurity recorded since 2014.  

And more than half a million children have been affected by school closures, which the envoy believes puts “the future of the country in jeopardy”.  

Despite these challenges, Mr. Wane argued that the situation “would have been far worse” without the engagement of the international community, including the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in 2013.  

The Malian Government has been seeking to restore stability following a series of setbacks since early 2012, including a failed military coup d’état, renewed fighting between Government forces and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of its northern territory by radical extremists. 

Standoff 

The Special Representative also briefed the Council on the current stand-off between the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Malian transitional leadership, controlled by the military.  

Over the weekend, ECOWAS held an Extraordinary Summit and decided that the proposed timetable for the transition, lasting up to five and a half years, was “totally unacceptable”. 

Urging Malian authorities to focus on a speedy return to constitutional order, they decided to uphold individual sanctions put in place on 12 December and imposed additional ones. 

The new sanctions include the recall of ambassadors from Bamako, the closing of land and air borders, suspension of all commercial and financial transactions (with some exemptions), and the suspension of financial assistance, among others.  

Mali reciprocated by recalling its ambassadors and closing its borders with ECOWAS Member States.  

In an address to the nation on Monday evening, however, Transition President, Colonel Assimi Goita, called for unity and calm, stating that Mali remains open to dialogue.  

Mr. Wane explained that supporting the transition is a key aspect of the MINUSMA mandate, so the mission will try to find a consensual way out to overcome the impasse. 

“A protracted impasse will make it much harder to find a consensual way out, while increasing hardship for the population and further weakening state capacity”, he argued, warning that such scenario would “have far-reaching consequences for Mali and its neighbours.”  

Beyond the political transition, Mr. Wane believes it is also crucial that the Council continues to pay attention to the implementation of the peace agreement and to stability in the Centre of the divided nation, calling it two “building blocks” for a peaceful and stable Mali.  

‘Window of opportunity’ 

Back in December, a process of national consultation, known as Assises nationales de la refondation, ended with a series of main recommendations, including a constitutional review, the creation of a Senate, the acceleration of the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) process and territorial decentralization.  

For Mr. Wane, these proposals “offer a window of opportunity on which all stakeholders should build upon to move forward on the implementation of the peace agreement.” 

The Special Representative also provided an update on MINUSMA’s activities, noting that 2021 saw more extremist attacks than any years prior.  

The mission ended the year with the highest number of casualties since 2013, following a significant rise of attacks targeting main axes, convoys, camps, and temporary operating bases.  

In total, 28 peacekeepers died, including seven Togolese in a single incident back in December.  

Humanitarian situation 

The conflict has also had a devastating impact on civilians and the humanitarian situation.  

On 3 December for instance, 32 civilians, including 26 women and children, were killed near Songho when their bus was attacked by extremist elements.  

In just one year, the number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) increased from 216,000 to more than 400,000.  

In such difficult circumstances, Mr. Wane described the response to the humanitarian appeal as “lukewarm”, with only 38 per cent of funding received.  

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