How Russia’s Bilateral Agreements Boosting or Boasting Relations with Africa

Russia-African diplomacy, after the collapse of the Soviet, is characterized with several bilateral agreements which are yet to be implemented. Official documents show that during the symbolic African leaders’ gathering late October 2019, there were 92 agreements signed worth a total of $12.5 billion, and since then Russia has done little towards their implementation. 

In addition, the joint declaration is a comprehensive document that outlines the key objectives and necessary tasks that seek to raise the entire relations to a new qualitative level. Long before the summit, there were sky-lined tonnes of promises and pledges that are simply not delivered. There have been several meetings of various bilateral intergovernmental commissions both in Moscow and in Africa. Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports over 170 Russian companies and organizations submitted a total of 280 proposals to do projects and business in Africa.

As Russia prepares for the next summit scheduled for July 2023 in St. Petersburg, African leader are showing readiness to actively participate, at least listen to sparkling speeches, sign more new agreements and finally have group photos. But many experts and top African diplomats are questioning the substance of discussing further opportunities, effective efforts in building and bolstering Russia-African relations.

The revival of Russia-Africa relations has to deal with existing challenges and adopting result-oriented approach to important questions for Africa. These include, in particular, taking into cognizance views and opinions expressed by African politicians, business people, experts and diplomats about the situation in Africa. In practical terms, while Russia reinforces its dreams of returning to Africa, it has yet to show visibly substantial long-term commitment to partnering with appropriate institutions to advance sustainable development across the continent.

Professor Abdullahi Shehu, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Federal Republic of Nigeria to the Russian Federation with concurrent accreditation to the Republic of Belarus, mid-October delivered a lecture to young diplomats and students of the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation on the topic “Africa-Russia Relations: Past, Present and Future.”

Ambassador Shehu highlighted history of Africa, concentrating on the impacts of the periods before, during and after the contact with European powers as well as  the subsequent neo-colonization of African States. He also discussed Africa’s relations with USSR which to a large extent, commenced after the independence of several African states in the 1960s. He noted the contributions to the Africa’s decolonization struggle, and further underscored numerous areas of cooperation that have been existing between Africa and Russia over the years. 

Profesor Shehu underscored the fact there have been several bilateral agreements with African countries. Between 2015 and 2019, a total of 20 bilateral military cooperation agreements were signed between Russia and African states. Many Russian companies such as Lukoil, Gasprom, Rosatom and Restec are some of Russia’s energy and power industry which are actively engaged in Nigeria, Egypt, Angola, Algeria and Ethiopia. 

Over the years, Russia has performed dismally in Africa’s energy sector and many other important economic spheres. “Unfortunately, these agreements have not materialized due to Rosneft’s lack of interest in doing business in Africa. Additionally, Russian Rosatom has signed nuclear energy agreements with 18 African countries including Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia and Rwanda to address the power needs of those countries,” according to him. 

Despite the tidal surge in the new Africa-Russia relations, there are still challenges, and there are also new economic cum geopolitical realities. The acceptance of these new realities is important in order to properly assist in the management of Africa’s expectations from Russia, at least, in the short term.

On indiscriminate export of arms and military weaponry, Ambassador Shehu put it this way – “This increasing export of arms to the African continent by Russia could, however, in a sense, exacerbate insecurity and instability, as well as escalate the level of crimes and the proclivity to criminality. It is therefore in the strategic interest of Russia to critically be selective in its arms sales to African countries. Of particular worry and strategic concern to Africa is the deployment of private Russian mercenary groups as well as other private military groups in African countries”

Support for Africa’s democratic institutions and agencies will lead to a more stable Africa which is in Russia’s overall long-term interest and positive image than immediate short-term economic and financial gain, he stressed in his lecture, explaining further that arms export from Russia to Africa contributes about 35% of global arms export to the African region.

Given the challenges that most African countries face in providing adequate power and energy, the number of Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) that Rosatom, Russia’s nuclear power company, has signed with at least fourteen African countries is welcoming news. What will be more significant, however, is the extent of the implementation of the MOUs since, by their very nature, the construction and operation of nuclear plants are ventures with prospects for deepening long-term relationships, according to the Nigeria’s top diplomat.

Just before his final departure from Moscow, the Zimbabwean ambassador to the Russian Federation, Brigadier General Nicholas Mike Sango, told me in an interview discussion that several issues could strengthen the relationship. One important direction is economic cooperation. African diplomats have consistently been persuading Russia’s businesses to take advantage of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as an opportunity for Russian businesses to establish footprints on the continent. This view has not found favour with them, and it is hoped over time, it will.

Although the government has not pronounced incentives for businesses to set sights and venture into Africa, Russian businesses generally view Africa as too risky for their investment. He said that Russia needs to set footprints on the continent by exporting its competitive advantages in engineering and technological advancement to bridge the gap that is retarding Africa’s industrialization and development.

“Worse is that there are too many initiatives by too many quasi-state institutions promoting economic cooperation with Africa saying the same things in different ways, but doing nothing tangible,” he told me during the lengthy pre-departure interview. He served the Republic of Zimbabwe in the Russian Federation from July 2015 to August 2022. He previously held various high-level posts, such as military adviser in Zimbabwe’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations and as an international instructor in the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

There are several similar criticisms from former ambassadors. According to Mandisi Mpahlwa, former South African Ambassador, Sub-Saharan Africa has understandably been low on post-Soviet Russia’s list of priorities, given that Russia is not as dependent on Africa’s natural resources as other major economies. The reason: Soviet and African relations, anchored as they were on the fight to push back the frontiers of colonialism, did not necessarily translate into trade, investment and economic ties, which would have continued seamlessly with post-Soviet Russia.

“Russia’s objective of taking the bilateral relationship with Africa to the next level cannot be realized without a close partnership with the private sector. Africa and Russia are close politically but geographically distant, and the people-to-people ties are still underdeveloped. This translates into a low level of knowledge on both sides of what the other has to offer. There is perhaps also a fear of the unknown in both countries,” Mpahlawa said in an interview after completing his ambassadorial duty in the Russian Federation.

Russia has a lot of policy weaknesses in Africa. Reports indicated that more than 90 agreements were signed at the end of the first Russia-Africa summit. Thousands of bilateral agreements are still on the drawing board, and century-old promises and pledges for supporting sustainable development are authoritatively renewed with African countries. Like a polar deer waking up from its deep slumber, Russia is flashing its geopolitical headlights in all directions on Africa.

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs website indicates that there have been several top-level bilateral meetings, signing of MoUs and bilateral agreements during the past years. In November 2021, a policy document titled the ‘Situation Analytical Report’ presented at the premises of TASS News Agency was very critical of Russia’s current policy towards Africa.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues and definitive results on the agenda remains small. It explicitly points out the inconsistent approach in dealing with many important development questions in Africa. On the other hand, Russia lacks public outreach policies for Africa. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is a lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

Associate Professor Ksenia Tabarintseva-Romanova, Ural Federal University, Department of International Relations, acknowledges huge existing challenges and perhaps difficult conditions in the current economic cooperation between Africa and Russia. Creating African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is the most important modern tool for Africa’s economic development. This is unique for exploring and getting acquainted with the opportunities it offers for business cooperation.

She, however, maintains that successful implementation requires a sufficiently high level of economic development in the participating countries, logistical accessibility, and developed industry with the prospect of introducing new technologies. This means that in order for African Continental Free Trade Area to effectively fulfil its tasks, it is necessary to enlist the provision of sustainable investment flows from outside. These investments should be directed toward constructing industrial plants and transport corridors.

Speaking earlier in an interview discussion, Tabarintseva-Romanova pointed out that Russia already has vast experience with the African continent, which now makes it possible to make investments as efficiently as possible, both for the Russian Federation and African countries. In addition, potential African investors and exporters could also explore business collaboration and partnerships in Russia.

But Russia has to find effective exit ways, make a complete departure away from loud rhetoric of diplomacy and take preliminary step towards strengthening economic engagement with Africa. It needs to go beyond its traditional rhetoric of Soviet assistance rendered to Africa. Russia has to consider the following as suggested by Professor Shehu in his mid-October lecture at the Russian Diplomacy Academy. 

He sugested that, as a viable alternative and sustainable option, Russia could directly engage in the extractive and manufacturing sectors in Africa. As demonstrated in the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and Europe, Africa holds a good prospect for the viability and profitability of Russian manufacturing companies desirous of relocating to Africa in order to capitalize on the advantage of cheap African labour.

The establishment of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is the largest of its kind in the world, provides Africa with a unique opportunity for intra-African trade and hence, empowers Africa’s own capacities and investments. Russia needs to open its eyes widely to investment opportunities offer by this single continental market by 55 African countries, approximately 13 billion population.

In order to support his argument, he also quoted from Joseph Siegle, the Director of Research for the African Centre for Strategic Studies, “building more mutually beneficial Africa relations depends on changes in both substance and process. Such a shift would require Russia to establish more conventional bilateral engagements with African institutions and not individuals. These initiatives would focus on strengthening trade, investment, technology transfer and educational exchanges. If transparently negotiated and equitably implemented, such Russian initiatives would be welcomed by many Africans.” 

Notwithstanding the setbacks down these years, the search for effective financing of projects and businesses is still ongoing, according to official reports. “There is a lot of demanding work ahead, and perhaps, there is a need to pay attention to the experience of China, which provides its enterprises with state guarantees and subsidies, thus ensuring the ability of companies to work on a systematic and long-term basis,” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a meeting of the Ministry’s Collegium.

That previous meetings were marketplace of tremendous ideas. Business leaders repeatedly discussed the lack of credit lines and guarantees as barriers, and poor knowledge of the business environment as it poses a pretty challenge. Lavrov indicated in mid-June message that “in these difficult and crucial times the strategic partnership with Africa has become a priority of Russia’s foreign policy. Russia highly appreciates the readiness of Africans to further step up economic cooperation.”

That is why Lavrov’s earlier suggestion, as far back in 2019, taking a chapter on the approach and methods adopted by China in Africa becomes arguably important especially discussing this question of relationship-building within the context of the current global changes of the 21st century. Russia could consider the Chinese model of financing various infrastructure and construction projects in Africa. Russia has to think, within the context of the emerging multipolar world and growing resistance to Western hegemony and neo-colonialism, broad-based approach of strengthening and sustaining impactful multifaceted relations with Africa.

According to our basic research findings, in stark contrast to key global players, such as the United States, China, the European Union and many others, Russia’s policies have little impact on African development paradigms. Russia’s policies have often ignored Africa’s sustainable development questions. Russia has to adopt an Action Plan – a practical document that outlines concrete cooperation with substance between summits. In conclusion, Russians must strongly remember that Africa’s roadmap is the African Union Agenda 2063.

Kester Kenn Klomegah
Kester Kenn Klomegah
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.