The challenges of Russia's game in Africa

Many Western political circles have spoken of the significant reduction in the participation of African leaders in the ۲۰۲۳ joint summit between Russia and Africa compared to ۲۰۱۹ as a failure for the Russians. But realistically, the type of relations between the Russians and Africa suffers from a faulty structure, which made this summit show its weaknesses even more.
30 August 2023
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Mohammad Nik-Khah

Many Western political circles have spoken of the significant reduction in the participation of African leaders in the 2023 joint summit between Russia and Africa compared to 2019 as a failure for the Russians. But realistically, the type of relations between the Russians and Africa suffers from a faulty structure, which made this summit show its weaknesses even more.

At the recent St. Petersburg summit, Putin emphasized tangible results, including sending free grain, canceling debt, and supporting an African seat in addition to South Africa's existing seat in the G20, such as the EU seat. However, the results of this summit show that Putin's suggestions have not been taken seriously in African countries. Regardless of the effect of Western pressure and the creation of an anti-Russian atmosphere, Africa's lack of positive reception to Russia's suggestions shows that Moscow has not been able to respond to Africa's basic needs in its suggestions.

Russia did not even understand the footsteps of a new and different Africa from the past in holding this summit. This is while Russia has only a small part of the power of trade and investment in the African continent compared to other major African partners such as China, the European Union, and the United States.

A review of Africa-Russia summits in recent years shows that the Kremlin's suggestions simply follow an outdated Cold War mentality that relies solely on influence, sending weapons, providing food and military aid, or promising African Union membership in the G20, or Africa's permanent membership in the Security Council. This wrong mentality, along with other Russian restrictions on the scene of Africa, has shaped relations that have fundamental weaknesses not only politically but also in terms of economic logic and trade and competition. The following is a part of these weaknesses and structural problems, especially in Russian economic relations with Africa. 

1) Structural and institutional weakness

In Africa, the United States takes advantage of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, known as AGOA, for duty-free imports from Africa. The European Union uses comprehensive economic and arms cooperation agreements with Africa to facilitate economic and trade cooperation with the continent. However, Russia's trade with Africa is still based on the import of raw materials and primary goods from Africa, such as jewelry, rare metals, nuts, and cocoa. In contrast, Russia only exports significant amounts of machinery, chemical fertilizers, refined hydrocarbons, and other chemicals to Africa. 

2) Trade imbalances and limited African partners

In 2020, Russia exported 12.4 billion dollars worth of goods to Africa and only imported 1.6 billion dollars from Africa, which indicates a clear imbalance. This distance is now much greater in 2023. In addition, 70% of Russia's trade with Africa is directed to 4 countries, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and South Africa, and this greatly reduces Moscow's economic diplomacy and bargaining capacity in other African countries.

 3) Weakness and delay in investment and technology transfer

Today, more than ever, Africa needs technology transfer, private investment, joint investment, and institutional linkages in creative transactions. In this regard, the most important Russian financial institutions are not recognized as creative institutions. Russia's direct investment activities in Africa are less than 1% of the country's direct investment. In the last two decades, 70% of this small amount has been spent only on constructing nuclear power plants in Egypt, and other African countries have not benefited from it.

Also, Russian diplomacy has been ineffective in forgiving African debts because most of these debts are related to the era of the Soviet Union, and their cancellation and forgiveness, as seen in Algeria and Angola, are often tied to new arms deals with Russia. This has only made Russia the largest arms supplier in Africa.

 4) Insufficient follow-up

Russia has shown that it usually cannot turn large diplomatic initiatives of the gathering type into real plans. In this summit, there was no mention of the implementation follow-up of 92 projects and contracts proposed in the 2019 summit, including the Nigerian Great Railway and the oil refinery in Morocco. There was also no evidence that Russia's Promobot artificial intelligence system has been implemented despite the promise made at the 2019 summit.

While United States, European, and Chinese projects have been declining due to local capacity shortages in the past two years, and extensive efforts have been made to facilitate the implementation of projects by Africa itself or with new partners. Still, Russia refused to invest in these areas. Russia prefers to focus on sales and marketing even when business development is the key to unlocking opportunities in Africa.

 5) Choosing the wrong priorities

Most African countries are looking for financial resources, entrepreneurship, and solving the crises of climate change, environment, poverty, and underdevelopment. But, the Russians failed to plan any serious topics on the redistributive effects of economic growth, social justice, and climate and environmental crises at the recent summit talks.

One of the obvious signs of this lack of correct understanding on the part of the Russians was the imbalance of those invited to the summit in terms of gender and youth. While Africa is facing super-events such as the explosive growth of the young population, on the contrary, this summit was a place to show old men, especially men, and young people and women that the great and fateful reality of Africa did not have a significant presence in it.

 6) Low participation of innovative and creative companies

Also, the participation of innovative African companies in this summit was greatly underestimated and even faced a decline in partnerships compared to about 80% in 2019. Although Africa's economic growth is currently driven mostly by start-ups, innovation brokers, and green technology enthusiasts on the continent, this new class of African entrepreneurs was neither discussed nor a representative of them at the summit. This is even though currently, Africa has only 700 million mobile users, and many businesses are conducted in this continent on the Internet.

It should be noted that despite some economic issues, other factors also contribute to reducing Russia's influence on the African continent. Failure to properly use soft power, ignoring African civil society, and lack of cultural discourse have caused Russia's presence in Africa to face many other challenges besides economic.

Mohammad Nikkhah, Senior Expert of African Studies

(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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