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Russia –Africa Economic Forum: The Renewed Commitment on Russia-Africa Relations

David Ceasar Wani

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The inaugural Russia-Africa Summit which was hosted in the black sea city of Sochi just ended a summit which was full of huge deals and commitments as well as enhancement of the relations between Russia and the African continent. Dating back to the soviet glorious days there was a strong Russian influence in Africa. The post-independence governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Ethiopia, Somalia, Egypt, Uganda, Angola, Mozambique, and Benin at some point all received diplomatic or military support from the Soviet Union.

Nevertheless, this began to change after the superpower started to collapse in December 1991. More than a quarter of a century later Russia’s President Vladimir Putin seems to have new aspirations in Africa. This is in line with his desire to restore Russia to great power status.

Putin places a high premium on geopolitical relations and the pursuit of Russian assertiveness in the global stage. This includes re-establishing Russia’s sphere of influence, which extends to the African continent and this was seen in the concluded Russia-Africa-Summit in was held in Sochi.

Moscow’s places a distinctive method of trade and investment in Africa which is without the conditionality’s of actors like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund rather Moscow believed in the win-win cooperation.Russia is gradually increasing its influence in the African Continent through strategic investment in the energy and minerals sector. It’s also using military muscle and soft power.

“Let’s drink to the success of our joint efforts to develop full-scale mutually beneficial co-operation, wellbeing, peaceful future and prosperity of our countries and people,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a toast at the formal summit dinner in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.  This might sound a toast expression but it is a commitment.

With the attendance of some 40 African heads of state in the black sea historical city of Sochi, the opening day of the inaugural Russia-Africa Summit kicked off with an explosion. In an introductory address, the Russian president Vladimir Putin positioned his renewed push in the continent in the soviet tradition of fighting colonialism.

Russian official argued deals with modern Russia offered African states their independence, presumably implying deal with former colonial powers like the UK, and France or global powers like China and the United States come with strings attached one way or another. 

Even though deals in nuclear energy, oil, gas, Diamonds, and agriculture took a prominent place, two of the main attractions for African heads of states are military cooperation and military hardware.

Russia, which is the second-largest supplier of arms in the world today, is already a major supplier of arms to African countries. The number of arms supplied by Russia keeps increasing and reports notes Russia sales of weaponry to African countries has doubled in the year 2017 compared to the previous years. United States and China are also crucial weapons suppliers but in Africa, they fall behind Russia, which supplied 39% of Africa’s imported arms between 2017 and 2013.

However, competition among major powers in the African continent is raising, both Russia and China are keen to play a future role in Africa. The difference between these two major powers is that China forms part of the Asian regional economy. This will surpass North America and Europe combined, in terms of global power – based on GDP, population size, military spending, and technological investment.

China and India have sustained impressive economic growth over many years. And, their enormous populations make them two world powers of extraordinary importance. Growth predictions for the Russian economy, on the other hand, remain modest – between 1.5% and 1.8% a year for 2018-2010, against the current global average rate of 3.5% a year.

Still, Russia remains a major power in global politics. For African leaders, the keyword is agency and the question is how to play the renewed Russian attention to their countries’ benefit, and not to fall victim to the contemporary “geopolitical chess” game played by the major powers on the continent.

DAVID CEASAR WANI, South Sudanese with a master’s degree in International Relations from Jilin University China, and correspondingly graduated with honors from Cavendish University Uganda with bachelor degree in international relations and diplomatic studies. Diplomat, scholar, currently working with a company as Director of Administration.

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Unprecedented humanitarian crisis in Mali revealed in new report

MD Staff

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Escalating violence and insecurity in Mali have sparked an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, rendering 3.9 million people in need of assistance and protection – an increase of 700,000 since the beginning of the year, the UN said on Thursday.

Citing a recent report from the NGO Refugees International, Deputy Spokesperson Farhan Haq told correspondents in New York that the number of internally displaced people has also jumped from around 80,000 to nearly 200,000 in one year with more than half being children and women.

The data shows that 650,000 people face food insecurity, compared to 185,000 at the same time last year and that number is projected to nearly double to 1.2 million by June 2020.

These figures are the highest recorded level over the last five years, said Mr. Haq.

The report notes that eight years after the onset of the political crisis that has destabilized Mali, “the international community remains heavily focused on stabilization and counterterrorism, at times to the detriment of the worsening humanitarian situation.”

While insurgent violence in the north rages on, anti-Government elements have spread south into central Mali, where they have inflamed intercommunal tensions.

Some 70 per cent of the people affected live in the conflict regions of Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao.

Throughout the year, UN and humanitarian partners have assisted about 900,000 people with food assistance and in 2020, the Humanitarian Response Plan seeks $365.6 million to assist nearly three million in urgent need.

Needs, grievance must be addressed

Mali has been the scene of perpetual conflict and displacement for nearly eight years, when in January 2012, tensions in the marginalized north came to a head as rebels took over almost one-third of the country. A peace agreement signed in 2015 between the complex web of warring parties, has failed to take hold.

While the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) has restored some semblance of peace and government control there, the country’s northern and central regions remain trapped in cycles of violence.

The report maintains that there is no purely military solution to the country’s crisis.

Although international humanitarian aid must be strengthened, Mali’s citizens also require a government willing and able to meet the needs of its people and address grievances at the root of the conflict while implementing the terms of the peace agreement in a timely and transparent fashion.

“The real war will be won by whoever wins over the population. And for now, the state is perceived to not even be trying”, one UN representative said in the report.

At least 71 dead in Niger

Against a backdrop of rising extremist violence, lawlessness and extreme weather linked to climate change across the whole Sahel region, neighbouring Niger suffered a major blow after at least 71 Government troops died during an attack on a military base, claimed by the ISIL terrorist group.

Mohamed Ibn Chambas, Head of the UN Office for West Africa and the Sahel (UNOWAS) condemned Tuesday’s attack on the camp located in Inates, Niger, close to the border with Mali. A further 12 soldiers were also injured during the assault involving “several hundred” militants, according to news reports.

The Special Representative extended his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and to the Government and people of Niger, wishing a prompt recovery to the wounded.

He also called for the perpetrators of this crime to be swiftly brought to justice.

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U.S. Policy on Zimbabwe Leaves Door Open for China

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The clearest image yet of the failure of United States’ policy towards Zimbabwe was on display last week when President Emmerson Mnangagwa toured the site of his country’s new parliament building, funded by the Chinese government and being built by a Chinese contractor.

Scheduled for completion by March 2021, this $140 million building at Mount Hampdennear Harare will stand six stories tall as the largest building in Africa funded by China. It will soon be the seat of Zimbabwe’s democracy as the country ends its decades of isolation. But rather than western democracies coming forward to support Zimbabwe in this transition, it is China which has filled the gap.

“We cannot tire in repeating our sincere and deep gratitude to China for the magnificent gesture…we are grateful,” President Mnangagwa said as he toured the site.

According to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, China extended loans worth $2.2 billion to Zimbabwe during 2000-2017.Recent loans have been awarded for the upgrade of Harare’s airport as well as construction of the Hwange 7 and 8 power plant project.

The West, on the other hand, has stuck to sanctions as its foreign policy tool. These were first imposed on Zimbabwe in the early 2000s by the U.S. and European Union in response to the alleged crackdown on political opponents by former president Robert Mugabe. This included financial and travel restrictions against specific individuals and companies.

Many of these measures are still in place today despite Mugabe’s resignation in 2017 and Mnangagwa’s election last year. The EU, however, has begun to normalise its relations with Zimbabwe, with only a few sanctions remaining.  The start of political talks in June was perceived as a positive sign towards abandoning all EU sanctions in the near future.

An EU memo ahead of talks in Harare last week, noted that Zimbabwe has made progress by not enforcing its empowerment law, which would have required all foreign investors to cede at least 51% of their shares in local operations to Zimbabweans.

The memo also said the government’s interim compensation of white farmers whose land was seized under Mugabe was a positive gesture towards re-opening export markets in the EU. In a budget statement last week, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube set aside $24 million to compensate white farmers, 768 of whom had consented to the interim compensation scheme.

The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained wide-ranging sanctions, at least until March 2020. Officials in Washington claim this is due to Zimbabwe’s failure to change laws curbing protests and media freedoms – a strange assessment since Mnangagwa’s government is currently modernising 30 Mugabe-era laws to meet Western standards. A controversial emergency law has already been replaced, and media laws are being replaced with new legislations currently in Parliament.

Following decades of open hostility with Zimbabwe, the West is now jeopardising the opportunity to work constructively with the Mnangagwa government. Under Mugabe, Zimbabwe had actively pursued Chinese investment under his ‘Look East’ policy. But after Mugabe resigned, Mnangagwa said restoring ties with the West and western financial institutions was one of his major priorities.

That was the moment when the U.S could have helped turn Zimbabwe around, bringing in international investment and technical knowhow. But the U.S. instead chose to extend its sanctions, leaving Zimbabwe’s economy reeling from high inflation and power shortages, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Despite signals of keeping the door open, the Mnangagwa government is slowly but surely being forced to turn back to the arms of a willing China.

Guo Shaochun, the Chinese Ambassador to Zimbabwe, summed up the West’s short-sighted approach.“No country is perfect. No country knows Zimbabwe better than Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe doesn’t need other countries to teach it to do this or not to do that. Zimbabwe needs real partners and real help without any political conditions. Zimbabwe has the wisdom & ability to address its own issues,” Guo tweeted on November 16.

At the site of Zimbabwe’s new parliament, President Mnangagw aexpressed his frustration last week, saying Western countries had done “nothing except criticise” Zimbabwe.

“Those countries who speak against our relations with our good friends have done nothing except to impose sanctions on us,” the president pointed out.

The situation is not yet completely lost, however. If the U.S. were to reach out to Zimbabwe and acknowledge the painful reforms undertaken by Mnangagwa, it could still turn this southern African country towards the West.

The U.S. should also immediately allow Zimbabwe access to international lending agencies and provide technical expertise that is urgently needed, and, above all, eliminate sanctions when these come up for renewal in March.

Winning the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans – the most educated population in Africa – will take more than the ‘stick’ approach that has been tried so far; a ‘carrot’ will do the work much better. If the West doesn’t grab this opportunity, then it should not be surprised when China steps in to reap the benefits.

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A New Currency Offers New Hope for Zimbabwe

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For many Zimbabweans queuing up outside banks last week, it must have felt like the beginning of a new era. A decade after the Zimbabwean dollar was abandoned after falling victim to years of hyper-inflation, crisp new “Zimdollars” have once again entered circulation. However, this time around the denominations come – at least for now – in two and five dollar bills, instead of the 100 million dollar notes that were printed towards the end of the last Zimbabwean dollar.

This new generation Zimdollar is the latest salvo by the government to combat the physical cash crunch and a crucial step ahead in its currency reforms. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe plans to incrementally inject $1 billion into the economy over the next six months, stimulating demand and production in a measured manner while keeping money supply in check.

“We will make sure that we drip-feed the physical cash into the market in order to ensure that there is sufficient cash in the economy,” said central bank chief John Mangudya. “We believe this will also help in eliminating queues at the bank where people spend countless hours of productive time queuing for cash.”

Mangudya added that the new Zimdollar would take the place of existing electronic money, alleviating the fear that the cash injection in the middle of an economic crisis would stoke inflation. Keeping price increases and speculative behaviour in check is also one of the reasons why the Reserve Bank is initially issuing lower denomination notes and coins.

For Zimbabweans, the new cash is a welcome relief. Over the past 10 years, they had to juggle a multitude of currencies and proxies. Following the collapse of the old Zimbabwean dollar in 2009, a basket of currencies became legal tender in the country, from the US dollar to the Chinese yuan. By 2015, the foreign currency notes dried up at the banks, which started the chronic cash shortage in Zimbabwe. The central bank introduced bond notes as a surrogate currency, but black market speculation quickly eroded their value, which then triggered the creation of electronic notes.

Given Zimbabwe’s disastrous state of affairs, a popular uprising ensued against the country’s long-time strongman Robert Mugabe, leading to his resignation two years ago. He was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who then won the presidential election in July 2018. He inherited a struggling economy marked by hyperinflation, cash shortages, a budget deficit, endemic corruption and a lack of monetary sovereignty.

Promising wide-ranging reforms, Mnangagwa appointed MthuliNcube as Finance Minister, a respected economist who was a professor of Public Policy at Oxford with a PhD in Mathematical Finance from Cambridge University. Mnangagwa tasked him to stabilise and transform the Zimbabwean economy so that it could achieve upper middle-income status by 2030, in line with countries such as Russia, China, Thailand, Costa Rica, Turkey and Malaysia (in fact, Zimbabwe was upgraded by the World Bank from a low income to lower middle income country in July).

Facing large fiscal deficits due to the expansion of underground economic activity and the sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule – which restricted access to U.S. dollars – Ncube launched the Transitional Stabilisation Programme (TSP) a year ago with far-reaching currency and structural reforms. The move was endorsed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with whom Zimbabwe signed a two-year monitoring programme that could earn it debt forgiveness and future financing.

In February this year, the government introduced the so-called Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) dollar and abandoned its multi-currency system four months later. By now, most Zimbabweans had resorted to mobile money, which became an integral part of the country’s payment system. But it too had its challenges, as wallet holders had to pay premiums of up to 50% to price-gouging mobile money agents to access their funds in cash. This contributed to the rapid depreciation of the currency and compounded the cash shortage. This month’s issuance of the physical Zimdollar bills aims to alleviate that problem, as the availability of cash will eliminate the extortionate premiums incurred when transacting through mobile money.

The new currency likely faces an uphill battle. But the government is confident, urging Zimbabweans to embrace the freshly minted bills and coins to ensure they find traction in the market. Leaders from politics, business and civil society need to play their part as well, shedding their differences and quarrels and rally collectively behind the Zimdollar.

Its roll-out comes at a critical time for the government’s reform agenda, coinciding with the presentation of Zimbabwe’s 2020 budget, which revolved around enhancing productivity, growth, competitiveness and job creation, and the passing of the Maintenance of Peace and Order (MOPA) bill, which replaced a controversial emergency law that dated back to the Mugabe era, a key demand by the U.S. government to remove sanctions.

Implementing reforms – especially after decades of mismanagement – is a painful process and Zimbabweans are tired. But with political will tangible results are gradually being achieved. The country may be on the cusp of a better future, finally putting the years of isolation behind it. Perseverance and collaboration will help to ease the way.

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