The Global Struggle for Africa: Are There Any Chances for Russia?

In the global "struggle for Africa" Russia is sadly far from outpacing its competitors. In terms of stringency of strategic outlook and activeness, the country is seriously lagging behind China, US, EU, India, Brazil. Each of the players has its interests in Africa and means to realize them.

China, for instance, has predominantly economic interests in Africa. Its government is focused on seeking resources in Africa for intensive industrial development. China is interested in minerals, including ones needed to run high-tech industries, and the land resources of Africa. The continent boasts investment potential and offers a market outlet for China's commodities and services. China is also partly grappling with the problem of overpopulation and the shortage of "mainland" jobs by "exporting" Chinese workers to Africa and offering national companies contracts on realization of high-scale infrastructure projects on the continent, which is occasionally frowned upon by Africans.

The People's Republic of China tries to influence the minds and hearts of the new generation of African youth in the spirit of amiability towards their country. When helping African states, the Chinese government follows the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of the countries, it doesn’t bind its assistance with demands for "proper governance" and respect for human rights, unlike the Western partners. The reasoning can be interpreted as follows: "If a man has nothing to eat, what use does democracy have?"

No doubt, China is not a purely altruistic actor in Africa. On the contrary, the country's government stresses that any bilateral relations ought to be mutually beneficial. The People's Republic of China invests into resource-poor countries of Africa too, but it is important to understand that such countries can offer China other benefits: approval of the One-China policy, positions of the country on international forums, its image as a responsible international player.

China has already dwarfed the US in Africa's economic sector: the trade turnover between the People's Republic of China and countries of the "dark continent" exceeded $200 billion in 2013 for the first time, compared to the turnover of $85 billion (commodities) and $11 billion (services) between the US and Africa.

The US paid less attention to Africa in the early 1990s. Following the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical interests lost a lot of their value, the continent itself seemed "problem-encumbered". In the 2000s, when a number of African economies started demonstrating a dramatic rise and China's activeness on the continent became alarming, the US interests in Africa shot up. In May 2001, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) – one of America's key instruments in the region to this day – was signed. The Act stipulates commercial preferences for African states south of Sahara, on condition that they comply with the political and economic criteria set by the United States. Africa drew the spotlight as a foothold of the US battle against global terrorism after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In December 2006, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) was established. The United States has a lot of military bases on the continent, the country's activeness in Africa more than doubled throughout the period of 2005-2012. The US strategy in Africa is less based on development of economic ties, and more on build-up of military presence. However, Africa is also essential for the US as a new market and an investment target. America is trying to influence the new generation of African elites too. The bilateral cooperation was highlighted by a grand US-Africa summit held in August 2014, where the "dark continent" was promised billions of investments, assistance in realizing reforms and unraveling security problems. In late July 2015, US President Barack Obama visited several African states. His five-day visit was rather successful. In his speech, the US leader propped up development of African entrepreneurship, strengthening of commercial ties between the US and Africa, noted advancements in security cooperation.

What about Russia?

In the 1990s, due to Russian domestic political reasons, Africa practically dropped off its radar; and that was a major geopolitical blunder for Russian Federation. In the 2000s, it was revised that Russia still needed Africa. Russia has been generally well-treated here. Most representatives of African elites graduated from the universities and institutes of the USSR and Russia and up to now show readiness for cooperation. Our country is not making maximum use of the capital of trust. It is important to understand that active collaboration with Africa is necessary today, otherwise people positively aligned towards Russia may soon – on a historical scale – be succeeded by new elites with different orientations in foreign politics.

Russia is also interested in African mining. Russia risks exhausting some of its lucrative resources (chrome, manganese, uranium, copper, oil, nickel). Exporting some resources from Africa is often cheaper than mining them in Russia.

The African continent is a substantial market for Russian arms exports. 14% of export-orientated Russian military products were sold to Africa, sales of weapons and equipment generate about a billion dollars a year.

Investments and new technologies are the primary goal in Africa's development of foreign political partnerships. Russia embarked on quite promising cooperation in transfer of technologies and manufacturing with African states, including projects to set up advanced infrastructure, develop telecommunications, Internet services, banking, shipping of industrial products, delivery of advisory services.

In light of Russia's "anti-sanctions" – the ban on imports of many types of European agricultural products – diversification of sources of such raw materials became especially crucial, while import substitution in the country is only fledging. Africa has already started filling the niche. Russian market shelves are enjoying a surge in African vegetables and fruits, most of which used to be re-exported through the EU. Back in 2014, African farmers expressed readiness to boost direct exports to Russia, bypassing European mediators. Countries of the continent can make a fortune by selling agricultural products to Russia.

In 2015, Russia held a set of prominent joint events with African partners to strengthen commercial and economic ties. The "Russia in Morocco" Economic Forum held in Kazan this spring is one of the examples. The Moroccan delegation consisted of 30 heads of national blue chip companies under the leadership of the minister of foreign trade and director general of Maroc Export. Their goal was to incentivize cooperation with Russia and try to find a gateway to its regional markets. Moroccans are interested in developing cooperation with the Tatarstan-based KAMAZ truck manufacturer and prospects of advancing joint agro-industrial projects. In spring 2015, Moscow hosted a Russia-Senegal business forum. Senegal business seeks Russian investments. Its businessmen are interested in Russian agricultural, industrial and fishing equipment and machinery. They pinpointed that Russian equipment is one of the world's most reliable, as well as very competitive over its analogues made in the West and even in Asia in terms of cost-effectiveness.

So, what are Russia's chances in the current "struggle for Africa"?

First of all, an integral foreign political and foreign economic strategy should be elaborated for Africa. Russian business in Africa is in need of state support.

Secondly, Russia needs to intensify contacts with African partners at all levels, not solely in the political and economic fields. More contacts are required in the spheres of education, science, culture, parliamentary dialogue, on the level of ordinary personal communication. Contacts with graduates of Soviet universities and with Russian communities in African states should be maintained.

Thirdly, Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and quality analytical articles about the continent, on-the-spot TV reports in order to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about modern Russia should be broadcasted in African states. Indisputably, it would take a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off. The 21st century is the century of new technologies bringing international communication to a qualitatively different level, it is a time for new methods of "struggle for the hearts and minds" of African partners. Russia ought to take that into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa. All the leading countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time.

Fourthly, it would be crucial to use the experience of China, India, EU and US in hosting summits with leaders of African states. Apparently, Russia is paving the way for such a format of cooperation. In 2014, Russian Special Presidential Envoy for Cooperation with Africa Mikhail Margelov declared that "the form of the summit with African leaders, as the Soviet, and now the Chinese, experience suggests, is quite effective. We are more or less successfully returning to Africa, and our relations with countries of the continent have matured for such an event in Moscow. In Africa, we, unlike the US, are not trying to interfere in home affairs, we do not teach anyone democracy, and that is why we will receive all African leaders without exception."

African states are searching for equal partners ready to share the much needed new technologies and knowledge. One Senegalese businessman said at a recent meeting in Moscow: "Senegal is not closed for Russia, your country should simply avoid retiring into its shell." That can become a substantial guiding idea: in any political setup, Russia should not only prevent any attempts to isolate it from full-fledged interaction with the world and engagement in international politics and economy, we need to be more outer-directed for new partnerships, to be more active in establishing new contacts, including ones in Africa. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.